The plan was this: When the downpour of arrows lightens up, the Horned Bear Kou, who has the best defense out of everyone in the attack force, is to make his way up the hillside path that leads to the ruins of the shrine. He is to then scout any suspicious-looking places for any traps and ambushes that might be set up.
「Can you do it?」
「Vroar!」『Leave it to me!』
Equipped with a wide shield and a battleaxe that a human would normally need two hands to wield, Kou the Horned Bear made his way up the hillside path. Arrows continued to rain from the top of the ruins, but the Horned Bear took no damage even to the parts of its body that the armor did not cover, so Kou held the shield up above his head and continued up the path without a problem.
The stars in the sky and a little moonlight were the only sources of light in the area. No matter how big a target Kou was, the Horned Bear was not carrying a torch and difficult to make out in the darkness, so the aim of the archers was off. After a while, as if the enemy sensed that their arrows were useless, the downpour ceased.
As Kou climbed the pitch-black hillside road, he searched for the “suspicious places” that Gawiik had assigned him to find.
『Ah, there’s a trap here. Let’s break it – Hyah!』
A trap designed to restrain the target was hidden ingeniously beneath the grass; Kou destroyed it with his battleaxe. He continued up the path, using his weapon to destroy the traps in places where the dirt bulged unnaturally or where the grass was strangely woven.
He occasionally stepped on and triggered a trap, but they were traps designed for human targets; they had little to no effect on the Horned Bear.
From afar, only a gray silhouette moving around the hillside path was visible, occasionally stopping to do something. The bandit group had no idea that their traps were being disarmed.
With the attack force waiting behind him at the bottom of the hill, Kou continued to climb the hill. Suddenly, he ran into an invisible wall.
『Huh? What’s this...?』
He turned around and observed his surroundings, but he didn’t see anything particularly out of the ordinary. Other than the countless traps that were on the path behind him, this place seemed like a normal, open grassy area. About twenty metres ahead, the ruins were visible, buried in the cliffs. There was no light and not a single person to be seen. But for some reason, he could not go any further.
『Ah, could this be a Barrier?』
He emerged his head from the Horned Bear’s body and extended it through the Barrier. Just a moment ago there was not a single light or person to be seen, but through the Barrier he now saw a wooden barricade in front of the ruins, lined with torches and countless silhouettes of bandits were lying in wait behind it.
A bandit ambush that was invisible from outside the Barrier. Feeling it would be dangerous to go any further, he decided to fall back and report the situation to everyone else.
The large shadow that had been climbing side to side up the hillside path suddenly turned back and retreated. Seeing this, the bandits hidden behind the Barrier whispered among themselves, wondering if their ambush had been seen through.
「Wasn’t that a Horned Bear?」
「There’s no way a Horned Bear would be equipped with weapons and armor.」
「No, it could a new kind of summoned beast.」
The Magician leading the bandits warned them that there might be a Sorcerer among the enemy using magic tools to deal with the bandits. A Sorcerer that freely uses Golems and summoned beasts would be supporting the enemy while they make their move in the open area. It was likely that they were a very capable opponent.
「It seems the attack force they sent this time isn’t just the town militia...」
「This might be a good opportunity for us to start making some money in this area.」
While the bandits were having this conversation...
Having received Kou’s scouting information that there is a magical Barrier with an ambush set up behind it, the attack force immediately opened a strategy meeting. Both the town militia’s commanding officer and Gawiik’s group decided against a reckless frontal attack.
「Seeing as the Barrier conceals the whole area around the ruins, they undoubtedly have quite a skilled Spiritualist with them.」
「I’m sure their plan is a surprise attack while we’re defenseless in front of the Barrier.」
「And the purpose of the traps on the path was to break our formation and cause confusion when we retreat from their attack.」
「It’s pretty scary to think what would have happened if we’d tried to attack into that.」
In any case, the first thing that needed to be done was removing that Barrier. It would have been possible for a Magician or Sorcerer to interfere with the magical power that is being put into the Barrier to destroy it, unless the Barrier was ridiculously powerful. However, it went without saying that breaking the Barrier this way would require more power than the amount needed to maintain it.
A Spiritualist would be able to destroy the Barrier by directly countering it, rather than interfering with its magical power. Using this method, only an equal amount of magical power would be needed.
「The problem is, we don’t have a Spiritualist in our attack force...」
「If we match our Sorcerers against their Magician, we should be able to destroy the Barrier, but it’s too dangerous.」
If they moved to destroy the Barrier, it was certain that the enemy would move to attack them. However, they would not know when, where from or how the enemy would attack, so sending the Sorcerers in alone was out of the question. But that did not mean it would be any safer to send them in with an escort.
There was the option of going forward in a defensive formation with the entire group and then protecting him while he destroys the Barrier, but their movements were being watched as well, so the enemy might see this and take the chance to wipe out the whole group in one move.
The enemy was invisible behind the barrier so if they attacked from there, avoiding the attacks would be mostly impossible. Even if the enemy were to do something like roll a huge boulder down the hill as they marched up, they would take heavy casualties.
「Well, even if they don’t do a large-scale attack like that, it’d be simple for them to pick us off while we’re trying to cover our Sorcerers.」
If the attack force had a few more people, it would have been possible for them to accept that there would be some casualties, and spread out to secure the area. However, they had too few Sorcerers capable of dealing with the Barrier and they could not risk losing them.
「Now then, what shall we do?」
Captain Gawiik and Vice-Captain Mandel deliberated on the task at hand. The leader of the group of adventurers suggested that it might be better to fall back for now and come back with more people, and the chiefs of the various mercenary groups voiced their agreement with this suggestion. However, the town militia’s commanding officer insisted on carrying out the mission.
「If we let them go here, they might escape!」
「Even if you say that, if it’s impossible it’s impossible, so we don’t have a choice.」
「And doing something about that impossibility is your job, isn’t it?!」
「It’s too dangerous...」
As the discussion entered a stalemate, the staff officer of Gawiik’s group, Lef, proposed a confirmed method of breaking the Barrier that required only a few reliable men. As the method proposed was not a normal method, each group other than Gawiik’s group left their seats to discuss it among themselves.
「So, this method you were talking about is Kou’s Amulet?」
「... Yes. If we use the power of his Amulet, it is possible for a single person to break the Barrier easily alone.」
The method proposed by Lef was to use her mystic staff, “The Flowing Hand”, to channel magical power tuned for Barrier-breaking into the Spiritualist’s Amulet, then imbuing that energy into a suitable weapon and using that weapon to cut through the Barrier.
「But doesn’t that mean we have to take you right next to the Barrier?」
「Couldn’t we imbue that magical power into a bow and pierce the Barrier from afar with arrows?」
Karen, a fairly skilled magic-user herself, suggested a possible safe way to do it, but Lef shook her head.
「You need to have control over the magical power to tune it for Barrier-breaking. It’s impossible to do with arrows.」
「If only Kou could use magic...」
Kou, who had been watching over the meeting of the group members seated in a circle, suddenly raised his head. There are Monsters known to use magic-like powers, but it is unheard of for a Horned Bear to use such powers.
But judging from the discussion, Kou figured that all the problems would be solved if he could just use Lef’s staff, so he tried asking.
「Controlling magical power, how do you do it?」
「... You have to perceive the waveform of the magical power, channel it to the end of the staff, feel its strengths and weaknesses, and adjust the width of its waveform.」
Lef provided a detailed answer to the question written on Kou’s paper. What an honest man, thought the group members as they smiled wryly. Even if he understood how to use the staff, Kou would have to be somehow incredibly skilled at manipulating the magical power to be able to gather magical power to a specific point, tune it to have special properties and then imbue it into another object.
「... To be able to imbue magical power, you at least need to be able to use Light magic.」
While saying that, Lef demonstrated by producing a small ball of light in her hand. This was a basic skill that any magic-user should be able to do. Imitating her, Kou extended his paw. Karen stood close to his side and advised him,『You gather it with your heart~』
The power of the Gods that fills the air. Breathing this source of creation that exists in all things into your body, and focusing it, passing it through your soul, visualizing spiritual signposts and purifying it – Lef’s explanation of how to manipulate magical power was too complicated, and Kou did not really understand it. However, Kou could purify magical power.
『Ah, if I do that it gathers up. So that means if I do this to that, it becomes this shape...』
A bright light illuminated the surroundings as a powerful ball of light appeared in the palm of the Horned Bear’s large paw. The members of Gawiik’s group were astonished, but quickly looked around cautiously. The nearby mercenary groups and group of adventurers were looking curiously to see what was happening.
「Ugh! Get rid of the light, you’ll give away our position to the enemy!」
They were far enough from the ruins that no arrows came flying at them again, but the light was probably bright enough for the bandits to see.
「You can use magic?」
Kou produced a note saying “I only just remembered”, then explained that he had just imitated her to try and manipulate the magical power. Hearing that Kou can purify magical power, Lef suggested it might be possible for him to tune the magical power for Barrier-breaking and imbue it into a weapon.
「Hmm. Can you do it, Kou?」
「Vroar, vroar.」『I’ll give it a try.』
Borrowing Lef’s mystic staff, “The Flowing Hand”, Kou stored magical power tuned for Barrier-breaking in the Spiritualist’s Amulet, adjusted the waveforms and imbued the power throughout his battleaxe. He had previously seen Karen imbuing magic into her arrows that time at the lake, so he used that as a reference.
「Vroaroar –」『I’m done –』
「Lef, how is it?」
「... It’s perfect.」
Normally, for a Magician to imbue a weapon with magic, he must picture the magical power clearly in his head to control it to wrap around the weapon. Producing an imbuement where the magical power is wrapped completely around the weapon without leaving any gaps is difficult even for skilled Magicians. However, Kou, who can directly see and control magical power, had produced a perfect imbuement.
With a way to break the Barrier, the attack force made its plans with Gawiik’s group at the center. The town militia’s commanding officer even temporarily handed leadership over to Gawiik to make this plan succeed.
And so the Horned Bear Kou stood in front of the Barrier once more, now using the staff’s power to imbue the battleaxe with Barrier-breaking magical power.
「Oi look, it’s the same one from before. 」
「That’s definitely a Horned Bear, ain’t it?」
「It definitely looks like a Horned Bear, but it’s wearing armor and it’s got a staff and battleaxe. The hell’s up with that?」
「So it is a summoned beast after all, and that bright light earlier must have been to resummon it.」
Summoned beasts used by Sorcerers are powerful, but the time they are summoned for is limited. The Magician leading the bandits assumed that when the bear retreated earlier, it was because its summoning time was running out and it needed to report its scouting information before then. He told the bandits that the bear had simply been resummoned so it could continue its scouting.
The bandits were confident in the Barrier protecting them, and idly discussed this “strange summoned beast”. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Barrier, the Horned Bear raised its battleaxe.
「Vrooooooar!」『Here we go –!』
Kou raised the battleaxe imbued with Barrier-breaking magical power and, with a single swing, cut through the Barrier. Like a landscape reflected on water’s surface being cut and torn, the false image of the silent, empty ruins rippled and faded to reveal the truth.
The barricade extended around the entrance, lined with torches. Behind it, there were at least thirty bandits lying in wait.
「What?! The Barrier’s been broken!」
「This is bad – Hurry and go tell the boss!」
「Damn it! Aim for that summoned beast! Kill it before their main force arrives!」
While the bandits were in confusion from the breaking of the Barrier, the Magician gave the order to attack. Even the tough body of the Horned Bear would not have withstood arrows and magical attacks at such short range, so Kou slowly retreated while blocking the attacks with his shield, and used the light magic that he had learned earlier.
This magic is normally used for ordinary things like putting a small light inside a lamp for light, but it is also possible to create a larger source of light by not regulating its intensity.
『Take this –』
Kou threw a blindingly bright ball of light into the sky, then it started drifting slowly back down, lighting up the area and acting as a flare signal for the rest of the attack force. Gawiik’s group began to pick off the bandits, who were now visible even from the bottom of the hill.
At Captain Gawiik’s command, Karen raised her bow and aimed at the bandits’ leader, the Magician. She imbued magical power into her arrow and fired. The arrow imbued using archery-style magic easily penetrated straight through the barricade to find its target, burying itself in the Magician’s body. Leaving wooden splinters from the barricade in its wake, the arrow hit the Magician’s body with such force that his body was bent over and sent flying.
Having lost their leader, the bandits’ attacks became disorganized. Their archers changed targets erratically between the town militia, the mercenary groups coming up the hill and the Horned Bear, and they were flanked by the group of adventurers who were firing arrows from a different direction. Their defenses were falling apart.
『Here’s one more!』
Before the first ball of light illuminating the area fell to the ground, Kou threw another one into the air. With a constant light source revealing their positions, even the bandits’ archers who had hidden on the roof had no choice but to take cover from the arrows being fired from below.
Meanwhile, a group of lone mercenaries came from yet another direction and leapt over the barricade. The three mercenaries, who had been arguing with each other until just before they left, were suddenly well coordinated in their attacks, cutting through and scattering the bandits.
And matching their movements were the town militia and other mercenary groups, who made their way up the hill to join the battle. The bandits began to run for their lives.
「The bandits are escaping into the ruins!」
「Watch out for traps at the entrance! Don’t rush in carelessly!」
The remaining bandits who were too slow to escape tried to surrender, but before they could get the chance, the ground in front of the ruins was stained with their blood. The town militia’s technician dismantled the barricade to open the area up, and the attack force began their preparations to infiltrate the ruins.
「Good job, Kou!」
「Kuma-chan, you were awesome!」
「You’re quite something, aren’t ya?」
Having been in command of the operation, Gawiik’s group arrived at the top of the hill a little later than the others. Kou, happy to be praised and acknowledged by everyone, felt a little embarrassed. He returned the mystic staff to Lef, planning to have her teach him new magic later.
A momentary break was declared. The various groups stopped to talk, though they had to do so while stepping over the corpses over the bandits on this blood-stained battlefield. From here they needed to storm the ruins, suppressing the bandits who had fled, and capture or kill their leader.
Gawiik’s group was planning to storm the ruins with the various mercenary groups and town militia soldiers that were gathered at the entrance, but a short distance away, the group of adventurers were discussing something loudly.
「What’s wrong? Is there a problem?」
「Ah, you guys should come see this too.」
The adventurers that Gawiik had called out to pointed him towards the entrance to the ruins. It was a tunnel with a narrow entrance that could only fit three adults side-by-side, but there was something built there about five meters into the passage.
The wooden gate that was originally there had long since rotten away, replaced by a gate of steel bars arranged in a lattice that covered the whole passage. And behind that gate was the problem.
「... Hostages, huh.」
「Probably, no, definitely.」
「The Adventurers' Association knew these guys had hostages, and still put out a contract like this?」
「These bandits are a group that’s been gathered from all over the place, so they might have taken the hostages from elsewhere.」
The captains of the infiltration squads gathered at the entrance frowned at the sight of the hostages behind the gate. After they had stood at the entrance for too long, an arrow came flying out from the other side, so they retreated quickly after taking a quick peek down the tunnel. They saw four hostages being held there.
The hostages were young women whose clothes had been torn off, and the bandits had chained them to the gate as if they were nothing more than signs hanging from a wall. The figure of a very young little girl could also be seen among them. The bandits were using their bodies as shields, hiding behind them with bows at the ready, so they could not approach carelessly. Rescuing them would be difficult, as they had to think twice before attacking.
In such a situation, even the town militia’s commanding officer, who did not have a single care for the hostages’ lives, could not give the order to just go in and attack. However –
「But if we just trap them in here, there’s no difference.」
It was a choice between suffering a slow death trapped in chains, or get caught up in the attack and killed quickly. If there was no way to save them either way, would it not be better for them if they were put to rest quickly? The town militia’s commanding officer told himself this to justify their sacrifice.
But at that moment, arrows came whistling out from the tunnel and everyone’s attention was drawn to the passage. Kou was standing at the entrance of the tunnel, and the arrows that were flying from inside were aimed at him – some hit, burying themselves in his arms and shoulders, while others missed, clattering at his feet or flying past him.
Kou, who could see clearly even in the dark, saw the figures of the girls imprisoned behind the bars. He saw that patches of their skin were discoloured red-black and purple from bruises. Their limp bodies were covered in cuts and scratches, and their cheeks and lips were swollen. Trails of blood ran from their broken noses onto the backs of their necks and over their chests.
The girls looked about the same age as Alice and Nina, but the symbol of their femininity, their breasts, had been pierced at the tips and bells had been attached to the piercings. The chains attached to the collars they were wearing were being pulled from behind the bars, causing them cry out in pain.
Taunting the Horned Bear standing in front of them, the bandits pulled on the chains and jeered at him. Standing in the rain of countless arrows, Kou felt a hazy feeling in his chest begin to surface.
As if resonating with that feeling, the Horned Bear’s consciousness that had been suppressed by Kou resurfaced.
『That... That has to be a very evil thing.』
This feeling was that of “anger” and “hatred”.
Karen, who had sensed a change in Kou’s presence, called out to him.
Deaf to Karen’s attempts to stop him, Kou charged straight into the tunnel and firmly grasped each side of the steel gate that the hostages were chained to. Seeing a terrifying monster closing in on them with its fangs bared, the hostages quickly lost their minds.
Seeing the Horned Bear Kou charge in, the members of the attack force felt strangely relieved. Nobody wanted to be the first to go in and cause the death of the hostages. But if the Horned Bear were to go in and break both the gate and the hostages, it would be easier for them.
The bandits had provoked the summoned beast, and since the beast would not care about the hostages, they prepared to counterattack with their spears and swords.
「Damn, you monster!」
「Stab him, stab him! Kill him before he breaks the gate!」
「At this range, arrows should work on him too!」
Even the Horned Bear’s body could not withstand the direct attacks at this close distance. Being stabbed repeatedly by spears through the gate targeting the openings in his armor, Kou pulled at the gate with all of his might.
「Uwah, this is over...」
「The gate is broken!」
Expecting the remaining attack force to come down the tunnel now that the gate was broken, the bandits started to retreat deeper into the temple. Deciding that the swords and spears that had pierced him through the gate were in the way, Kou tore them out, then with one final step, he pulled the gate loose. With that, he moved the hostages to safety, together with the whole gate.
「Yes, we can storm in now! Let’s get those bandits!」
With the entrance open, the town militia’s commanding officer led the infiltration team into the ruins. Kou, who had used the last of his strength to carry the steel gate back to the tunnel entrance, gently set it down on the ground.
「Vr... Var...」『Hurry, you need to treat these people!』
As Trissun started to treat the former prisoners, a Priest from one of the mercenary groups came to offer help. Daido and Mandel removed the chains that tied them to the gate, and the adventurers provided sheets for them to cover their bodies.
While the prisoners were being treated, the Horned Bear Kou lay peacefully on the ground, losing strength from having lost too much blood.
The Horned Bear’s wounds were so deep that even Trissun, the most skilled Healer out of anyone there, could not do anything about them. The Priest of the mercenary group had more potent healing power than Trissun, but this power did not work when used on Monsters.
The Horned Bear, a Monster that had fought for Gawiik’s group. But everyone had grown some affection for it. It seemed that the allies that he had fought up to this far with, the mercenary groups, the adventurers and the lone mercenaries, all felt sorrow at the apparent death of Kou the Horned Bear.
Suddenly there was a call for support from the town militia that had stormed the ruins, so Gawiik’s group went to join them, thinking of having a funeral for Kou later. Telling Karen it would be alright for her to be by Kou’s side, the rest of the members left the two of them alone.
Karen gently stroked the Horned Bear’s fur as she sat by his side. And then, a bird flew down. Kou thanked the bird for following him all the way from Curacall. As the Horned Bear drew its last breath, Kou transferred himself to the messenger bird.
As Kou separated himself from the Horned Bear’s spirit, he told it, “I’m sorry I put you through all this.”
The spirit replied, “It was fun while it lasted,” before returning to its resting place.
Soon after that, the bandits’ base was secured.