Hour Empty Child
Since the allotted time passed, they used the Dungeon Call to teleport them back to the surface, where the entrance to the dungeon was.
“Congratulations, E-Plus!” The lady wearing the DMC uniform confronted them the moment they appeared, a genuine smile on her face. “For your valiant efforts to reach to the 50th floor and even conquering it on the first try—we present to you a gift for congratulations!”
The lady then had someone give her something—a black kettle with blue insignias plastered over it. The lady handed the kettle over to Kudo, who took it with a tilted head.
“What is this?” He asked.
“It is a legendary household item—an enchanted item known as the Infinite Kettle. It is enchanted to continuously pour fresh and clean water with its magic. There is no end, making it the perfect item for any cooking techniques and even survival!”
The lady pressed both her hands together with a smile, offering it as a great gift. Kudo raised his brows as he looked at the kettle in his hands along with his party members.
“That will certainly be good for us,” Hinota said, holding the kettle that Kudo gave to her.
“This will be really good for my cooking!” Raika said as Hinota handed the kettle to her as well.
“Then, you can keep it,” Kudo said, surprising Raika with a jump.
“Yeah, if it’ll make your cooking better by using fresh water all the time, then I’m all for it!”
The two boys behind Kudo simultaneously shouted, becoming excited for Raika’s cooking. Raika chuckled as she responded. “Then, I’ll make the best meals with it!”
Once they got their gift and did the process of handling their loot to the DMC as the fee, the party headed back to the city and went straight to the Ame that was currently waiting by the street for their arrival.
“Welcome back, my masters,” Chui responded with a bow. “I take it that you had your fun?”
“It was a blast!” Kudo responded. “And we’re ready to go home.”
“Understood,” Chui bowed again, smiling after noticing the gentle atmosphere between everybody.
Chui got the party into the Ame which she then started up and drove away, starting their journey back to their city, Triun.
On the way, the party conversed about the dungeon and the loot in general, but this time, somebody else joined the fray of the topics.
“It is as you say,” Saka said, her eyes closed but her tone high and energetic. “The monsters were nothing but rust on my blade. However, the… Cranium monster, as you say, was something that I find appalling…”
Saka said, her face stiffening at the memory of facing a monster that was nothing but a floating skeleton ghost that attacked them with screams and shrieks. It brought her body to shiver at the mention of it.
“Wow, didn’t think you would get scared of that,” Tsuchi chuckled.
“I-I was not frightened!” Saka retorted. “It was just unsettling, tis’ all!”
“I agree with her,” Raika said, pushing her fingers together. “It was really scary and, I hated that it kept screaming at us even when we attack it.”
“But it did drop some nice loot like Ghost Bones,” Mizuri pointed it out. “It’s hard to get ghost skeleton bones, you know.”
“I-I know it’s good for crafting,” Raika responded. “But I don’t wanna face it again!”
“Well…” Kuki said, scratching the side of his cheek. “I wouldn't wanna face it either… I mean, it’s not like I was scared of it or anything! Really!”
The party continued to talk about the monsters in general, getting riled up over which monsters were the best to kill or the worst. Meanwhile, Kudo watched on the scene with a smile on his face. It wasn’t easy for Saka to join in on the conversation, but now she was revealing her thoughts whenever she can, making Kudo’s smile wider.
“Hey, I always thought the Laughing Coffin was kinda funny,” Kudo stepped in the conversation, getting everyone to turn at him with a shocked expression.
“Only you would like it, Kudo,” Hinota said, chuckling as well. “It kept laughing and somehow it made you laugh too.”
“Hey, it’s contagious,” Kudo laughed out loud. “It still makes me laugh whenever I think about it!”
“Kudo, that’s just creepy…” Raika said, hunching her head close to her shoulders as the sight of the Laughing Coffin also unsettled her.
The party continued to converse like this throughout all the way, back to their home in Triun.
Even when they returned home, the E-Plus party did not stop rolling for new adventures to be had. With their new powerful member by their side, they took on multiple of quests as if to eradicate their old failure at their Extreme Quest before.
On each quest, the members grew more fond of Saka as time passed. Eventually, her cold and solitary style melded with the party’s cheerful atmosphere, becoming a part of them.
Saka grew more used to talking to everyone else equally, not just Kudo and Hinota. They talked, laughed, cheered, and even groaned in dissatisfaction knowing that they couldn’t get their loot.
But overall, their fun never decreased. Not even one bit.
Two weeks passed before anyone could realize it. Two weeks since Saka joined in the party and the Alpha Heart. Before they knew it, the uncomfortable atmosphere they once had seemed like a dream, a fantasy that was just in the back of their minds.
During one of the quests, the party had to find the ruins in the far north side of Triun for a client to find a rare flower guarded by monsters. On their trip there, as everyone else divulged themselves into their conversations as usual, Saka and Kudo themselves were embroiled in their own conversation.
“Saka, it looks like your Nightingale needs some more tuning later. You want me to fix it for you when we come back from this quest?”
Kudo asked as they walked side by side, being a rare case since Saka has been talking with the party members a bit more than before. However, when Kudo spoke to her, her eyes lit up slightly, her expression brightening.
“Mmh, understood. My Nightingale needs its fix before it can reap the souls of the unfortunate monsters in my path.”
“Right,” Kudo flashed a smile. “And how have you been doing lately?”
Saka tilted her head. “Whatever you mean by that?”
“I’ve been seeing how well you’re with everyone lately,” Kudo said, reflecting on his thoughts throughout these two weeks. “You’re doing great, so I wanted to know how you were feeling.”
“Ah…” Saka took a moment before answering. “E-Everything is clear as crystal. There have been no troubles in my heart.”
“Haha, okay,” Kudo chuckled. “But if there’s anything you want to ask, or if there’s anything you’re unsure about, you can always rely on us, y’know.”
“Mmh… I’ll take you up on that.”
Saka lowered her head as his offer reached her. Kudo continued to smile as he looked ahead, listening to the other members’ conversations.
Saka spoke up with a low voice, but it caught his ears. Kudo turned to face her as she still had her head lowered, her gaze solely stuck on the ground.
“Why is it… that you took me in?”
Her question seemed simple, but it gathered a lot of courage to ask. Her hands shook slightly, something that Kudo noticed.
“Mmh, I just wanted to help you out.”
“I see…” Somehow, Saka didn’t seem pleased with that answer. “I hath heard from your mother that there was another reason…”
“Another reason…?” Kudo tilted his head.
“Yes… about how… a Dark Player affected your life.”
Her words hung in the air for a moment, catching Kudo off guard. He frowned for a moment, but then his lips raised into a complicated curl.
“Yeah. Just like you, I had a bad run-in with a Dark Player. It’s… because of that that I lost my parents.”
Kudo showed a complicated expression on his face. Saka’s shoulders jumped. They started to shiver as she gripped onto her bandaged arm even tighter than before.
“Do you… hate Dark Players then?”
Kudo became silent for a moment. During that silence, Saka bit her lip, waiting for his response. She turned her eyes to him, but somehow, his eyes were darkened by his bangs, leaving her unable to see them.
“…I guess that’s true.”
His words hit her right to her heart. Her hand gripped onto her bandaged arm tighter as if ready to torment it.
“There’s no reason to kill other people for your own gain… that’s what I believe.”
Kudo turned to smile at her, though it was a complicated smile for him. Then he noticed how uncomfortable she looked by the way she huddled to herself. Kudo figured now that it was getting depressing, this topic, and opted to change it.
“Well, there’s no point in talking like this. How about we get to the party already and have some fun?”
Kudo said, his smile bringing the brightness from before as he took Saka’s arm and pulled her over, pulling her body in response. Saka became surprised but then she followed Kudo as he led her to the party who was getting further ahead. The party noticed them coming and smiled, asking what they were talking about that made them lag behind.
Kudo and Saka smiled in response, but Saka’s smile was beneath the usual brightness. Like darkness that hung behind that smile, Saka looked forward with a distant gaze.
“Mmh… looks like this quest’s pretty simple.”
The E-Plus returned back to the Alpha Heart’s headquarters’ lobby after finishing their quest, and before they could even take a break, both Hinota and Kudo are taking up another job from the quest board. They returned back with one, but their faces showed nothing of the earlier excitement.
“This quest is just a delivery,” Hinota said, holding the paper that foretold of their quest in her hand as she read from it. “We need to deliver a parcel to someone within the city.”
“That is pretty simple,” Mizuri said. “I don’t think that’s something that we need all of us to do, right?”
Mizuri looked over to the rest of the party members sitting at their table who also nodded to her idea. It wasn’t so difficult that they needed all of their party members present.
“So, who wants to do it? I gotta do some fixing on our equipment so I can’t go.”
Kudo asked which got everyone to look at each other. Raika, Kuki, Mizuri, and Tsuchi all looked at each other, but each one didn’t feel so inclined to do such a boring task.
However, the last member raised her hand.
“I will partake in this quest,” Saka said, showing a resolute expression.
“You sure?” Kudo asked. “Do you know your way around the city?”
“Of course. Do not take me lightly. I knew of the city’s layabouts throughout my ventures, and with my teleportation skill, it is easy for me to get around.”
“Ah, of course!” Kudo realized it as he punched his hand with his fist. “That’s a handy skill to have!”
“Mmph, but of course,” Saka scoffed, Kudo forgetting that got her slightly miffed.
“Then, we’ll leave it to you, Saka. Call us on our phones if you need anything.”
Saka stood up and walked forward to Hinota as she took her paper from her hand. She turned around with furrowed eyes, “Do not worry so much. I am able to handle any sort of trouble that comes my way.”
“Well, I’m more worried that you might get picked up by guys,” Kuki said, scratching the side of his cheek with a playful smile.
“Wha… do not speak of such things!” Saka responded, her face blushing with furrowed brows.
The party laughed from seeing that reaction. Saka pouted as she turned her head with a huff of air escaping from her before she left the lobby through the main door.
“Well, hopefully, things won’t turn out so bad,” Kudo said as he rubbed his chin, thinking about the sorts of problems that could happen to her.
Out into the city, dozens of Ame noises and the bustling voices overlapped with one another. Saka traveled through the city by taking the scenic route and walked alongside the sidewalk. She would occasionally turn her head around, gazing and enjoying the different views.
At one point, she noticed the children playing about in the arcade. At another, she noticed some few old ladies reminiscing about the past in front of a shop. At a few other times, she would notice the environment around herself, becoming more and more crazed as time passed by.
Despite all this, a small smile rose on her face. She walked forward with a happy gait as she held the parcel in her hand.
(It’s kind of lonely just being by myself…) Saka thought to herself. (But maybe everyone will praise me again if I do it right…!)
Saka chuckled to herself. This was the first time she had fun despite being alone. The idea of returning back to the party, expecting showers of praises from her party members, brought her joy beyond measure. She couldn’t wait to just finish the quest already by preparing to start her teleportation skill.
But then, a hand landed on her shoulder.
Saka flinched. Her body shivered as if that hand was as cold as ice. She turned back around, her shoulders hunched and her body tensed, but her mind paused the moment she saw the person behind her.
A rather tall and sharp-looking man, wearing a black suit that was worn well on him. His striking features was his bald head that seemed to reflect the sunlight from the sheen and the square glasses he sported on his face.
But above all, what made her freeze in place was his cold stare that seemed to be devoid of any warmth from the heart.
Saka whispered, the very name that caused her so much stress. Arnold appeared before her with a gentle looking smile, but his eyes behind the glasses looked so bleak and dark that it made her shiver even as the hand let go of her.
“Hello there, Saka,” Arnold greeted cheerfully. “How have you been doing so far? Is everything going well for you these past two weeks?”
Saka remained silent. She had no word to respond even if it was a casual greeting. It was because beneath that casual greeting was a cold air that seemed to freeze the atmosphere around them.
“You know,” Arnold continued. “You really caused me a lot of trouble these past few weeks. Quite a lot, actually. Because of you, work just piled up on my lap without me noticing.”
His words continued to deliver strike after strike at her heart, getting her to shake more profusely. Her shoulders hunched together, trying to bring warmth to herself.
“However, now that I found you, it’s all good now.”
Arnold’s smile deepened. It wasn’t the kind smile that Saka was used to seeing now. It was the sort of smile that would make even men crumple to their knees and beg for their lives.
Saka turned to her hip. In her pocket was her phone. If she were to call them now, it was possible that they could go to help her. After all, Kudo said specifically that he’s ready to help her whenever possible.
“Are you going to call your friends?”
Saka froze again. This time, her entire body was caught in non-existent wires that surrounded herself. Her very being told her not to move from his words alone.
“Really now? You should know that such a thing is impossible for you. After all, who would want a fake friend that would lie to them all the time?”
Arnold pushed his glasses against his face as he made the claim, once again leaving Saka prone.
“You know, they’ll eventually going to know about you. Once they study you and find out your background, they’re going to think differently of you. It’s gonna be pretty bad, you know.”
Arnold closed up to her, his face near to the side of her own so that his voice can reach to her ear.
“Though, I would love to see that face of yours squeal into despair for causing me all that trouble. However, orders are orders.”
Arnold turned and walked away, but not before giving one final warning and a wave from his hand from the backside.
“I’m sure you know what to do. You’re a smart girl, at the least. You’ll make the right decision.”
Even as the coldest man in the world left her side, Saka dropped to her knees, the parcel that was crushed in her hand fell to the ground. Her body shook so much that it seemed like the entire earth was shaking along with her.
Her fear took over, her teeth grinding each other in frustration. Tears began to well from her eyes.
“I am…” Saka whispered.
She knew exactly what Arnold wanted her to do.