18 – The Flame Hero Goes First
「Welcome to the Demon King Castle. The Flame Hero Fenix and party, yes?」
In a hall just as you enter, at the Demon King Castle reception.
I nod once and hand over my Registration Card. The receptionist is a female cat demi-human, the upper part of her face was hidden by a mask.
The other four do the same and hand over their Registration Card.
She proceeds with verifying our identities.
「Hero Fenix, Warrior Alba, Paladin Lark, Hunter Lily, and…oh, this one is different from the previous times. Hero Bella. No less than five names confirmed.」
For a moment, I thought I saw the receptionists mouth curl into an unnatural smile. It must be my imagination.
After returning all of our Registration Cards, she asked.
「Whatever happened to the Black Sorcerer Lem?」
「Hah! Probably left to die on a field somewhere. Or maybe hes begging in an alley or better yet, maybe hes out there committing crimes. A Black Sorcerers gotta eat, right?」
The receptionist was asking me, but Alba was the one who answered.
「…What a boorish man you are, Alba.」
Whispered Lily while staring scornfully at Alba.
「Look here missy, you dont get to keep treating me like the bad guy here. If you really felt sorry for Lem, then why the hell didnt you stick up for him? When I asked ya to hide those damn ears of yours, he had your back, didnt he? I dont owe that bastard anything so I can say whatever I want, but you? Youre the one whos way more cold-hearted by just letting it all happen! So dont you look down on me.」
The Hunter Elf Lily furrowed her beautiful brows.
Certainly, on the occasion where we were discussing whether or not to modify her Avatar in order to hide her elf ears, Lem and I both said that it would be best not to hide it.
「Did you expect me to support him simply out of thanks? If he were a teammate I could rely on, I would certainly do all within my power to aid him. But the main point of our discussion in the tavern – by the way, did you really have to put on such a vulgar show? – was about whether or not Lems abilities were suitable for this party. For arguments sake, even if I owed my life to him, I would not have lied when it relates to my job.」
「Tch, stop acting like such a goody-two-shoes.」
「What was that?!」
「Please dont shout, youre hurting my ears.」
「Uh, uhm, I dont, think we should fight…were about to do a Dungeon Clear together…so…」
The Frost Hero Bella humbly intervenes.
A small-framed young lady with hair and eyes the same color as ice. Its rare for a hero to have such low self-esteem and stand with a hunch. Its even rarer for a hero to not form her own party and instead choose to join one.
「…I showed you an embarrassing sight, Bella. I apologize, It is difficult to talk to a monkey such as him. I realized a long time ago that it was impossible to have conversations with him, and yet…」
「Youre so full of it, you damn elf」
「…man, how tiresome…Getting kinda irritated here.」
Even the Paladin Lark has joined the conversation.
「Hey, no one was talkin to you, moody. But since I am now, look alive during Dungeon Clears. Youve been making more and more mistakes because you just stand there!」
「…How about you? Your precision with that magic sword you keep boasting about has been shaky. Arent you losing your edge by spending all your time womanizing?」
「Virgins should shut up.」
「Sorry but I think I might have more experience than you. Have you looked in a mirror, lately?」
If theres a camera in this room, its probably not for taking souvenir photos to sell later.
Once you control your Avatars and enter the dungeon, you put on a performance.
Be that as it may, to already start fighting during preparation time…
Until now, the target of the partys complaints was Lem.
Well, I say party, but its just those three.
With Lem as the common problem, those three were united.
Knowing full well of this, Lem said that as long as we functioned well as a party, its fine. I chuckled.
Its thanks to Lem that they can go from first-class adventurers to super first-class adventurers in terms of their performance, and those three are naturally none the wiser.
Missing that crucial point, all three of them are noticing each others weaknesses now that hes gone. That weakness being the lack of Lems unlimited and invisible support.
Theyre probably asking themselves why their performance seems to have gotten worse lately.
They didnt get worse.
They simply went back from super first-class adventurers to first-class adventurers.
The fact that they can feel the difference is a testament to Lems abilities but I bet that possibility has never crossed their minds.
「Uhm, I, I said please stop fighting.」
Surprisingly, it was Bella who stopped them.
The soles of their feet were fixed to the floor.
They were frozen.
「Its just as Bella said. What does it say about you when the most decent person here is the newcomer.」
I say while hiding my amazement as well as being careful not to get too cold.
Realizing that they were being punished for their mistakes, they make uncharacteristically hurt faces.
「…Fenix, why didnt you stop them.」
Essentially, 「Youre the leader and you should have taken the initiative and intervened.」is what she is implying with that.
She normally seems quite hesitant but she seems to say what she thinks must be said.
「I just thought it was a good opportunity to reflect.」
「Reflect…? On what?」
「On what weve done.」
「Uhm…I dont, really understand.」
「No, its fine. I expect great things from you.」
Without answering her question, I end the conversation.
After canceling the freeze effect on those three, we headed towards the room that allows us to connect our minds to our Avatars.
「Man…this is seriously annoying. What is happening? Its so weird… We just made the party stronger yet were not getting enough bang for our buck…」
「Youve done a lot for us, Bella. At first, you were confused but you soon became a splendid Hero. 」
「Youre just happy that we have another girl in the party. Well, she does boost our combat strength and crowd control capabilities. And yet, how should I say this…I feel as good as ever, yet the results say otherwise, or something…」
At that moment, Alba realizes something and laughs out loud.
「Aha! Could it be that? An unemployed Lem cursed us with his salty Black Magic! Hah, that jerk would definitely do something like tha-grk?!」
My patience was at an end.
I grip Alba by the collar and hold him up.
His body hangs there while his legs squirm and struggle to reach the ground.
Everyone was taken aback.
「Alba, Alba. How many times do I have to say it, Alba? Do not talk bad about him. Not him or any of our teammates. Why cant you do that? I bet its to do with your personality, definitely.」
「Ghk, ah, cant, brea-」
「The reason I havent punished you at all up till now was that you were Lems ally and Lem pardoned your behavior. But now I want you to think about it. Lem was kicked out of the party by you. Everyone else was thinking the same thing, so I didnt blame myself. I believed that you were only thinking about the party. Then why, I ask you, do you think Im angry?」
Albas face turns blue.
Lily tries to get me to lower my arm, while Lark stands there with a panicked look on his face.
Bella is speechless.
「I know all of you werent comfortable with Lem in the party. With him gone, you all should feel relieved. So then why couldnt it end there? Is there a reason that you have to look down on an ex-ally who was already kicked out of the party? Lets make one thing clear. It is fine to point out your allies weak points. You dont have to hold back. But you should not speak ill of them. And Alba, I dont think you and Lem are allies anymore, right?」
Alba tries to pry my fingers open, but even using both arms cant rival my strength.
「He isnt an ally anymore, hes just my best friend. Do you think that I, Fenix, am the kind of person who would ridicule and laugh at my friend? You dont understand that, Alba. You dont understand. Someone who cant respect who or what their allies treasure most, is impossible to get along with. Thats why, Alba, right here, right now, I want you to promise me something. I want to think of you as an ally. Dont talk bad about Lem or your allies. Can you promise me that?」
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Albas eyes were beginning to fade, but he barely managed to give a nod.
I let go of him.
He fell and coughed vehemently.
「…Fenix. Were the fourth-ranked party in the world and our relationships are already this strained. As I thought, the higher we climb in the ranks, the more difficult its going to get…aah, what am I doing becoming an adventurer…」
Bella is somewhat in despair.
Lily was rubbing Albas back. Usually, those two are at each others throats like dogs and cats but they had a firm sense of camaraderie.
With Lem gone, the partys unity loosened a little so something else has to be fortified.
From the start, I had to lead with a sufficient amount of resolve.
Originally, I wasnt the kind of person that could put a team together. I was just a regular bullied kid.
Thats why, even while feeling sorry for Lem playing the role of the bad guy for me, I didnt change my attitude as a leader.
「The same goes for you three. Im not saying that you have to pretend to be best friends with each other. I dont even care if you speak freely with each other and have trivial fights. But, I wont forgive anyone who mocks an ally from the depths of their heart.」
I look around at the four of them.
「I shall do as you ask. First and foremost, if someone looks down on you, then they are not an ally.」
Bella quickly answers with no objection.
「Yeah sure. Its just as you say, Fenix. But the「You dont understand」parts a lie. Me, Alba, and Lily? We dont like each other, but we do like you. We wanted to join your party, be useful to you and become your number one. Lem was clearly a Sorcerer that didnt suit this party.」
From the start, the problem was never about his lack of ability.
「Alba is an idiot…and he went too far. I pity Lem too. But yknow, seeing our beloved leader obstinately stick up for his best friend who is lacking in ability gave me a bad feeling. I totally understand the feeling of not wanting to talk bad about friends. But, I guess, if you unconditionally put your old buddy above all else, then what chance do any of us have of getting in your good books even if we tried our hardest.」
In the end, that was it.
My attitude is the problem.
If Lem were here, hed probably say it was his fault.
Maybe, the fault lies with both of us. Me and Lem, we both hid Lems power. Theres a reason for it, but the other three dont know about it.
But at the same time, Alba saying those words merely out of dissatisfaction does not justify them.
「From the very beginning, I was watching all of our allies and thought that Lem was a necessity. I was not thinking about winning everyones sympathy. So let us not talk about the past, but about the future.」
I hold out my hand to Alba and he takes it, with a strained expression on his face, and stands up.
「I thought I was gonna die.」
「I should apologize.」
「…Hmph, no need. It was my punishment, right? I get it. I really do hate that Lem guy, though. Whoa, hey, Im not talking bad about him, were just not compatible. You cant help that, right?」
Somehow, Alba was able to laugh somewhat happily.
「Wha…being strangled and then laughing about it…this party seems to be very dark…」
「You wont get it, newbie. Its because this man has kept himself at a distance from his allies for many years now. Other than his bestest best buddy, Lem, its like he drew a line between him and us.」
…Is that how he sees it?
Its simply because Im still not good at talking to other people.
If it really was to do with my attitude, then maybe the reason he was made to hate Lem rests partly on my shoulders.
…From when we were kids till now, I still cause nothing but trouble huh…
I was supposed to return the favor by forming a party with him, but now…
「Well, ahem, now weve had all of our feelings laid bare. Argh damn, that hurts… but its nothing.」
「It is obviously not.」
「Shut up! Dont worry about me, you hard-ass elf. Youre giving me goosebumps.」[1. TL Note: Alba actually says “kuso majime” which means “Overly serious” or “Serious to a fault” but I changed it to “hard-ass” to give it more of a bite like the original Japanese word does.]
「What an oafish fellow. Or perhaps, are you being uncharacteristically shy?」
「What was that?」
「…You guys never learn, huh?」
Alba, Lily, and Lark were all back to their normal selves.
Only Bella was left going「Huh…? Was everything settled just like that?」in bewilderment.
「Alba, Lark, Lily, and Bella. Together, we five will completely Clear the Demon King Castle. If we can take down the impregnable Demon King Castle, we will be on the way to becoming the number 1 ranked party in the world!」
Everyone exchanges looks.
「Everyones strengths, I have acknowledged them. So, lets not have such trivial thoughts again.」
Alba snorted, Lark shrugged, Lily nodded and Bella stared in silence.
「Defeat does not lie before us. Because-」
I remember the words of my best friend.
「The hero will definitely win in the end!」
Those words are deeply engraved in my heart.
Admiring heroes since childhood, no matter how many times I saw them fight, they always won.
Thats why I have no doubts. Rather, I will never let it become a lie.
A hero is someone that always wins. Thats why I must never lose.
「If you want me to become the greatest Hero, then I will make you all the best adventurers in the world.」
We walk forth.
「Alright, lets Clear this dungeon!」
「Welcome back, master~」
For a moment, I suspected that it was an illusion.
A clearly odd sight was stretching before our eyes.
We connected to our Avatars, used the Recording Stone, and teleported to the Safe Room that is just after the fourth stratum that we Cleared last time.
There is little to no information about the Demon King Castles strata.
Humanity has penetrated as deep as the seventh stratum, but the information about the strata that we learned is that the Floor Bosses change and the strata reset.
Now, stratum one to four has been revealed. People other than us can reach the third stratum.
The world learned about the present fourth stratum for the first time after we Cleared it.
Im not sure what happened in the past, but nowadays the Demon Kings subordinates have become full of young people.
Their abilities suited that of a Demon King Army, but it didnt feel like that of a battle-hardened warrior.
Thus, the fifth stratum. This is another stratum that humanity knows nothing about.
The Safe Room door opens, at the moment that we took a step forward.
We somehow found ourselves in a cafe filled with beautiful women.
Whats more, they were all wearing maid uniforms.
「Well then, sirs, madams, are you tired? Please let us heal your body and soul.」
「I wonder if this is gonna be tough.」
Lem was in the Video Room.
There is a large screen that is split into countless sections, each projecting a different part of the dungeon via cameras.
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Now, the video feed of the fifth stratum entrance was enlarged on the screen.
A cafe filled with girls dressed in maid outfits.
Incidentally, I have nothing to do with the defense of the fifth stratum.
「Now then, show me the strength of the rebirthed Fenix party.」
Even while rooting for his colleagues, the Demon King Armys Chief of Staff already seems to have an idea of who will win.
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