Starfall had the same busy atmosphere as usual.
"We're finally back!" exclaimed Leguna.
He looked at the tall and thick walls with awe. Their excursion had taken ten days, but he felt he had experienced enough for ten years, with the invasion of the non-humans, the death in the party, and Kurdak's close call. By the time he emerged from the dangerous trials and returned to Starfall, he couldn't help but feel a sense of peace and reliance on the safety offered by Lance's largest human city.
The guards on duty at the gate were the same ones from before. When they saw Kurdak's party returning without Cyranos, doubt flashed across their eyes. After seeing Kurdak and the rest's sorrowful expressions, they guessed what was going on.
"I'm very sorry for your loss, friend," said one guard with a slightly pained expression.
Kurdak forced a wordless smile. The guard understood he wasn't in a good mood, so he didn't press his consolation. He just tapped wordlessly on Kurdak's shoulders.
The rooms of Shining Star were fully booked as usual. With Cyranos's passing, Leguna finally had his own room. However, if he were given a choice between Cyranos's death and smelling Kurdak's stinky feet every morning, he would put up with the stench.
As the owner of Shining Star was rather familiar with the group, he was rather saddened by the news. That night, he treated them to a generous welcome-back feast free of charge and drank with them until he was dead drunk.
As a result, the next day was destined to be one of unproductivity. By the time the three woke, it was already afternoon. The horrible hangover stopped them from doing anything. The three just returned to their rooms after a simple breakfast. Before that, they agreed to go to the Association the next day to complete the mission and submit a notice of Cyranos's death.
The Mercenary Association was clean and orderly as always. Kurdak's party finally concluded their ten-day mission by handing in the crimsonblood bear's head.
As news from York Town about the bear's disappearance had spread, the folks at the Association were quick to verify the head before handing over the prize money. The huge man headed to the member registration counter where Eve was.
Out of Leguna's expectations, Eve didn't express too much grief when she heard about Cyranos's death. She reacted with a disheartened expression, unlike Vera who bawled as loudly as she could.
It didn't surprise Kurdak, though. Actually, Eve wasn't that close to him. She only took interest in how reliable he appeared. He was but a passing man who happened to garner her interest. While she was a little saddened at his death, if she really cried and grieved heavily, it be weird and unnatural.
"The matter is recorded. If Cyranos doesn't reappear in a month's time, we will formally confirm his death," said Eve as she accepted the form Kurdak filled out while feeling a pang of sorrow for the loss of a good man.
"I'm really sorry for your loss. I recommended the mission... If there's anything I can--" apologized she after some time.
"Eve, you're overthinking it," Kurdak interrupted, shaking his head, "We're reasonable people. We know you recommended the mission to help us out. Cyranos's death has nothing to do with you. It's fine if you want to grieve for him, but there's no need to feel guilty. We don't blame you."
"Well, I just wanted to say... I'm sorry," whispered Eve with a lowered head.
Leguna could see tears in the corners of her eyes.
I didn't manage to tell him anything in the end. If I could muster enough courage, perhaps I wouldn't be feeling this much regret, thought she.
"Oh, let me guess... You were helping this prepubescent kid register as a mercenary, but this time... Oh? What happened to that silent bore of your party? Are you here to deal with his matters? Aha..."
A hate-inducing voice entered the group's ears. Hearing that accursed person mock a dear friend's death had the three fuming.
"Orwen, don't you have better things to do than loiter at the Association all day long?" snapped Kurdak coldly.
"It's just a coincidence, alright? I just came to finish a mission myself... and... here I am, witnessing such an interesting scene. Well, can you tell me where the silent bore is? I think I miss him already," insisted Orwen in a raspy, eerie voice.
"His matters are none of your business! Cyranos isn't a silent bore either!" yelled Vera angrily.
"Ah, right, Cyranos... Haha, my apologies, I just keep forgetting his name. Then again, I don't think there's a need to remember it now, is there? What use does a dead man have for a name anyway? Sigh, I said it from the start: a ragtag party like yours won't survive for long. Ending up as some beast's droppings is the best people like you can hope for," said Orwen, intentionally digging into the three's wounds.
"You have a death wish!"
Killing intent beamed out of Kurdak's eyes. After experiencing the fight with the crimsonblood bear, the orcs' attacks, Cyranos's death, Vera's capture, and his own change into a lycanthropic monstrosity, the anger and frustration that had built up filled his mind to the brim. It didn't help that Orwen was there insulting his friend's death. Like a barrel of gunpowder, his anger was ignited by Orwen's words. With his mind flooded with fury, Kurdak no longer cared whether he could defeat the man or not, nor did he care about the consequences of starting a fight in the Association. All he wanted was to pummel the scum, perhaps even kill him.
Vera was just as infuriated as Kurdak. During the orcs' assault, she had received a knock on the back of her head. She had to witness her dear friend's nightmarish last stand, the sight of which lingered in her mind like an annoying pest grinding away at her sanity. She had been blaming herself intensely all this time. If she had been more alert, she wouldn't have been subdued that easily, she might've been able to escape with him. That way, Cyranos wouldn't have had to suffer such a horrible death, neither would Kurdak have had to consume Moonsink Cycle and turn into an inhuman monster. So, when Orwen insulted Cyranos, she felt her anger spiral out of control.
But before either could act, another person took the initiative. Leguna was already rushing at Orwen, Flameblade drawn. Its blade glowed with magic faintly.
When they were at the elven settlement, Kurdak gave Cyranos's most valuable weapon to Leguna, who promised to treasure it as a memento. Now that someone was openly insulting him, Leguna felt he didn't deserve the dagger if he didn't do anything. So, he rushed forward without hesitation when Kurdak and Vera struggled between anger and rationality. As a newbie, Leguna didn't know about the consequences of fighting in the Association's territory, neither did he bother with caring.
Darting forward speedily, he appeared right in front of Orwen and swung his right hand horizontally. If the strike connected, Orwen would lose his left arm. Thanks to the warning Kurdak had given him at Nightsong Forest, Leguna made sure to control his impulses and didn't attempt to land a killing blow. He just wanted to lob off one of Orwen's hands.
Orwen couldn't help but let out a scheming smile when he saw Leguna make the first move. Fighting or causing trouble in the Association would incur heavy penalties, but those were only applied to the one who instigated the conflict. The Association understood that the attacked party would have to defend themselves. It would be unfair to punish both parties for the aggression of one. Originally, the Association would first investigate the reason for the fight and give a fair judgment. But given that most mercenaries were rough folk with short tempers that didn't have high regard for human lives, serious fights would break out uncontrollably. Giving the parties involved a fair trial was hard under such circumstances.
So the Association stopped bothering to make detailed investigations about every conflict that broke out under their purview. The only rule they enforced was punishing the one who lashed out and caused trouble for the Association first. This time, it was obvious that Leguna was the aggressor.
Even though Orwen was surprised by the youth's speed, it wasn't much for an experienced assassin like him who had served Moonshadow for many years. With but a light swerve of his body, Orwen evaded the kid's attack and drew his own dagger.
Kurdak had also reacted and quickly approached the assassin's flank. His huge body allowed him to put a lot of pressure on him. Orwen's dagger-holding right hand was gripped tightly, his other hand clutched onto his collar. Kurdak used his great strength to fling him away.
He adjusted his posture swiftly mid-air and landed stably on the ground.
"You were far too rash," chastised Kurdak as he stood in front of Leguna protectively.
"Are you telling me to do nothing while that bastard insults Cyranos?" asked Leguna as he moved to Kurdak's side.
"Of course not. Since you've already attacked, let's make the best of this opportunity," acquiesced Kurdak, no longer feeling like bothering about the consequences.
The only problem was he didn't have his weapon with him.
Even though the Association didn't forbid members from entering while bearing arms, people usually didn't since there wasn't any need; not many would dare cause trouble there. Taking a huge weapon around was tiring and pointless, so Vera's bow and arrows as well as Kurdak's two-handed sword were left at the inn. Leguna was the only one who'd brought the handy Flameblade.
While Orwen himself wasn't fully armed, he had brought a dagger or two. It was more than enough to deal with the current situation.
"Let's see what you're made of," taunted he as he took out his second dagger, wearing an insidious smile.
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