Chapter 148:

Vol. 9 Chapter 4: The Crystal Dungeon Part 5

Hour Empty Child


In amidst of the rowdy exuberance within the Alpha Heart guild, Kudo’s eyes wandered around, scanning the area around him. There was somebody missing, and his chest began to tighten at the thoughts surging through him.

“Where is she?” Kudo asked to himself. “She should be done by now.”

Considering that Saka was so into finishing the quest by herself, Kudo let her off since it wasn’t necessary to get the whole party into it. However, there was a hint of doubt in his heart about letting her off on her own without supervision.

She is, after all, being chased down by Dark Players. It wouldn’t be strange for her to be caught up in trouble. These thoughts continued to invade his mind, filling his heart with worry.

“Hey, Kudo, what’s wrong?”

Kudo turned around to find Raika and the rest of the party members behind her. The party was doing their own thing at the time, but later reconvened when they noticed Kudo was searching around for something.

“Ah, I was checking to see if Saka came back.”

“Come on, man. She can handle herself, y’know,” Kuki said in accordance to Saka’s strength.

“I know that. She shouldn’t even be out there by herself right now.”

“Aren’t you being over-protective?” Mizuri said, crossing her arms. “Even if she does like you, if you take it too far, she’s going to start hating you.”

“Ghh…” To Kudo, it was the sort of damage he did not need to take. “I-I’m giving her space…”

“Well, it has been a while since Saka left for the quest,” Raika raised her hand near her chest, addressing Kudo’s worry. “Maybe she got lost somewhere?”

“But didn’t she teleported practically everywhere? She can just teleport back here if she’s lost.”

Kuki raised the question that got Raika stumped. Eventually, everyone else nodded to that, but Kudo remained wary.

“Even so… I got a bad feeling. I kinda always trust my gut about these kinds of things…”

Kudo held his hand to his chest, presumably where his gut was. He tightened the cloth on his shirt as if to display the nagging feeling within him. The party members looked back at each other, knowing how often Kudo gets right on these sorts of feelings.

“…Then I’ll come with you,” Hinota spoke up as she stepped forward. “Having more eyes will be better than nothing.”

“Thanks,” Kudo smiled. “And sorry for making you do this.”

“Knowing you, you won’t be able to sit down and relax until she’s here.”

Kudo smiled back, making Hinota right on the mark. The other party members looked back at one another and nodded themselves.

“Then we’ll do the same,” Tsuchi said. “Let’s go around town and see if anyone caught wind of her.”

The party agreed and settled on leaving the Alpha Heart lobby and head out into the city. With their Mana Phones at their side, they communicated each other as they walked around the city, turning around the blocks and visiting all the locations that Saka would be in. Unfortunately, they couldn’t find her anywhere.

As usual, the party split up to cover more tracks, so Kudo and Hinota were together walking on the sidewalk of the city. They bypassed the citizens walking about, either talking amongst themselves or on their Mana Phones, as the bustling city remained just as joyous as ever.

“Where is she…” Kudo continued to search without rest, turning his head around multiple times to the point of making it turn the wrong way if he’s not careful.

“Kudo, take it easy. You’re going to hurt yourself just from looking,” Hinota warned, noticing that he isn’t even looking at where he’s going.

“You think maybe we should use the Locator back at the garage?” Kudo asked, getting Hinota to sigh.

“Kudo, you’re taking this way too seriously. Have you called her again?”

“I did, but she isn’t picking up!” Kudo shouted, looking at the Mana Phone in his hand as the screen showed Saka’s name, but the phone icon on the screen did not move at all and continued to make multiple ringing sounds. “She usually picks it up!”

“Calm down.”

Hinota stepped forward, putting both her hands on Kudo’s shoulders. It stopped him from moving, but his face was still riddled with unease and anxiousness.

“I know it looks bad, but did you stop to reconsider that maybe she’s going through some personal time?”

“Ah…” Kudo’s mouth hung open, then he closed it.

“Maybe she just doesn’t want to call anyone right now?” Hinota continued to ask. “You need to take it easy, and just search around. We’ll give it another hour. If she doesn’t turn up, then we’ll call on Master on what to do next.”

“R-Right…” Kudo scratched the back of his head. “S-Sorry… I just—”

Before he could finish, his eyes caught something flowing by. In amidst of the sea of civilians walking about, there was only one person with silver colored hair walking by.

“Ah! Saka!”

He called out to her and ran towards her at a rapid pace. Hinota turned and followed behind the moment Kudo ran off, noticing the girl as well.

Kudo ran until he found her walking by herself on the other side of the street, passing by the cars that stood to wait for the light to change. However, there was something strange about her. The way she walked was sullen, and her head was down as if dejected. He reached to her, noticing the way she walked.

“Saka?” Kudo asked.

Saka turned to him after he called her the second time. Saka flinched for a moment before turning to where her name came from. A look of surprise then took over her face.

“…Kudo. And Hinota…”

She spoke the names, then she looked back down at the sidewalk. Kudo and Hinota looked back at one another, noticing the strange behavior.

“Saka, are you okay?” Kudo asked, lowering himself to face Saka.

“Ah…” Saka muttered, holding onto her bandaged arm. The more she gripped it, the more pain she bore. But then she let it go, revealing a smile.

“…Tis’ nothing. I have finished my assignment. Here is the pay.”

Saka opened her inventory screen and handed the money to Kudo. Kudo took it as a formality, but he couldn’t care less about it now.

“Saka, did something happen?”

He asked, this time his tone of voice turning stern. Saka continued to look down, unable to face him after what happened. Hinota remained as she is as Kudo already asked what she wanted to know.

“Just… I lost my way. It is… shameful to admit.”

Saka turned to the side, unable to face them anymore. The two leaders once again looked at each other, their faces filled with concern.

“Saka, there’s no reason to feel bad about it. You’ve only been here for a little while. It’s fine to get lost.”

Hinota stepped forward and assured Saka of her mishap. She revealed a smile that seemed to forgive anything as long as she was honest about it.

“But… I made everyone worry,” Saka admit it. “Tis’ not the reason why you were searching for me?”

“Well, Kudo was worried to death, but you know how he is.”

“H-Hey!”

Kudo retorted to Hinota’s somewhat insult, but he kept silent since he was just about to use the Locator to find her. Hinota chuckled as she placed her hand on Saka’s shoulder for comfort.

“Don’t worry about it. Let’s head back home and relax for the day.”

“…I understand.”

Saka nodded her head, finally revealing her face to the leaders. She showed her smile, but that smile was slightly bittersweet and distant.

===

“Welcome!”

The rowdy adventurers shouted in unison the moment the E-Plus returned along with Saka in tow. There were already banners and balloons that covered the lobby from top to bottom, along with some streamers party poppers that resounded the moment they entered through the door.

Each of the party members couldn’t hold their surprised looks back as the adventurers once again drowned themselves in their festivities, only this time some of them would approach Saka and congratulate her.

“Welcome to the guild!”

“We’re so glad to have you here!”

“You’re always welcome to ask us whatever you need!”

Each of the guild members responded in a kind tone that left Saka to step back in reflex. Kudo held onto her, but even he was surprised at this turnabout.

“W-What’s all this about?” Kudo asked.

“What else? It’s a surprise welcoming party for Saka!”

Hikari’s voice pierced through the loud commotion as she stepped forward with both Kagero and Kasara by her side. The two were smiling, though tired expressions wore their faces down.

“It took us a bit of time,” Kasara said, shrugging her shoulders. “But it was a necessary expense.”

“Didn’t you think it was strange that we haven’t had a party for Saka yet?” Kagero mentioned as he grinned.

“That’s right. So that’s why we pulled this little get-together for her! It’s only natural—we’re family now!”

Hikari placed both her hands onto Saka’s shoulders, grinning her widest grin possible at her newest member. But Saka responded with a stupefied expression, not able to make a proper reaction at her gesture.

“Oh, this is awesome! Look at all the food!”

Tsuchi shouted, noticing the array of delicious food on the tables spread about everywhere. Each meal was high-grade meals that could only be found in expensive restaurants, showing the power of the Valkyria maids’ cooking.

“Alright! Let’s get started!”

Mizuri rushed forward along with Tsuchi to head straight for the food, not caring about anything else. The other party members followed suit as the party continued despite their surprise. As Hikari lets go of her to head to her drinking competition, Saka remained there near the entrance with a dumb look.

A complicated feeling rose from her gut. She pursed her lips as the members, having no idea what she went through, went on with their day without a care in the world. Yet, despite that, they looked like they were having so much fun that it felt rather… unfair.

“Saka? You wanna come?”

Kudo asked, noticing that Saka hasn’t moved from her spot. He knew that she needed some personal time for whatever reason he cannot conjure, but at the least, he needed to ask what was her hold up.

“Ah… it is nothing. Just thoughts passing through. Let’s begin the festivities.”

Saka moved ahead of Kudo to the party, with every other member congratulating her for coming in. Kudo could only respond with question mark face as he followed her.

The party commenced at once the moment the E-Plus entered the fray. Wild discussions and ravenous eating filled the lobby, the once known establishment of rowdy adventurers now turned into a den of drunks and party goers that would make a mess of things—In the end, nothing much has changed.

However, the guest of the party was sitting by herself on a chair away from the other members. Sitting with her legs tucked together, she held a small cup filled with orange juice and continued to gaze deep into the acidic drink in front of her.

Her eyes were stale, longing at the drink in her hand without once taking a sip.

“Saka.”

She looked up upon hearing her name to see Hinota stepping forward, her usual smile and glare on her. Without asking, she dragged another chair from another table towards Saka and sat down near her. Since they were already close enough, she didn’t need to ask permission to do so.

“Is there anything wrong? You look kinda out of it today.”

Hinota asked, her gentle face pleading for an answer. Though Saka had an issue on whether to give her that answer. She held onto her wooden cup tightly, her nails digging into it. But then she calmed down—she knew Hinota enough that she could tell in a single spot.

“…If…” Saka spoke up. “If someone were to have fabricated a lie to you, what would you do?”

“A lie…? You mean if someone lied to me?”

“Y-Yes…”

Hinota wanted to delve deeper, but Saka gazed away from her inquisitive eyes.

(I wonder if this has something to do with her past…) Hinota thought as she answered. “If someone were to lie to me, for whatever reason, then it would be hard to trust them. Unless they had a good reason for doing so.”

Hinota gave her honest answer, but it left Saka to bite her lip in response. She dug onto her cup harder than before, the juice shaking about. Hinota finally noticed this as she was just about to ask again.

“M-My body doesn’t feel right…” Saka suddenly stood up from her chair, surprising Hinota. “I bid you farewell.”

“W-Wait, if you’re feeling bad, we have some medicine that we can—”

“It’s fine!”

Before Hinota could stand up to stop her from going if it was something simple, Saka immediately shot her down. Saka furrowed her eyes, but it was only for a moment before she realized what she did. She lowered her head.

“I-I’m sorry. I just need to…”

Saka trailed off before she could finish and left Hinota. She made a quick pace towards the doors and headed outside. Hinota stood up, her hand in the air to try to do something, but she already escaped.

“Hinota? What’s wrong?” Kudo came up to Hinota, with a drink in his hand as well. He was just talking to some members before deciding to reach to Saka to talk to her again. “Where did Saka go?”

“Kudo, I think something is going on with Saka…” Hinota surmised, her face growing pale. “I think… I think she got into contact with a Dark Player.”

“What?” Kudo responded with furrowed brows.

“It’s weird that she’s acting this way so suddenly… I thought it was something personal, but from what she said to me… Kudo, we need to go and find her.”

Hinota said with a determined expression. Kudo felt her resolve and nodded in agreement as the two of them headed out for the door to find Saka.

It was already reaching evening as the sun went down from the horizon, bringing down the sky into a dark and starry night. Small snowflakes fell from the sky, snowing onto Triun. The Alpha Heart headquarters was, as usual, bright and noisy, but Kudo and Hinota couldn’t even enjoy the nightly view with comfortable snow falling as they separated from each other to find Saka.

Even as the air turned cold, they wandered around the cityscape in order to find her, but she was nowhere in sight. The streets’ noise died down as night fell, and the lights became brighter in turn from the stores and homes of the citizens.

The snow was starting to pile up. It made walking somewhat difficult from the piles of snow, but he couldn’t care less.

Kudo searched desperately, but he found nothing resembling her at all. It was the same search as before, but his heart grew heavy the more he searched. The idea of a Dark Player being in contact with her was exactly what he feared.

He grew lenient. He should have been with her during the quest, no matter how small it was. But in the end, there was nothing he could do. He started to run. He needed to find her quickly before anyone else catches her.

He reached towards the park in the center of the city. As he approached, the increasing darkness surrounded him, only to be showered by the streetlights. He closed in towards the rails that surrounded the park with blackened spires and peered closer into the darkened park.

There, within the darkness, light shone on a single girl with flowing silver hair. He widened his eyes.

He got over the metal fence with a single jump, landing flawlessly on the grassy ground. He moved forward at a steady pace, hoping that she was not meeting with any other Dark Player.

Once he got further in, he was left staggering.

She stood where the many attractions were placed. The swings slightly squeaked as the wind blew by. The eerily quiet atmosphere brought his heart to a standstill. However, the image of the silver-haired girl being showered by the snow somehow blew his nervousness away. She was alone, which was good enough.

All the while, the moon became the only source of light within the dark park, shining down on the girl as if it was a spotlight.

“Saka!” Kudo shouted, approaching her steadily. “There you are! You just left the guild so suddenly….”

“…”

Saka remained silent. However, even if Kudo was used to it, it was a different kind of silence. Something that made his body shiver from the anticipation.

“…Kudo, I once had a friend.”

Her voice soft and gentle, it was the opposite of her usual stern and strict voice while she was acting tough. Kudo figured that something must have happened for her to talk normally now.

“A friend…? You mean the one you talked about before?” Kudo remembered from the small conversation back from the dungeon.

“A friend that I was very close to…” Saka continued. “We grew up together, and played with each other from morning till night. We were the best of friends.”

Kudo could feel the intense emotion from her words. It wasn’t just reminiscing—there was something more powerful than that.

“But… we were kidnapped. By a strange group of people. They invaded our hometown, and just took us away…They told us that we either become their fodder, or their helpers. So we became adventurers, even though we never planned on becoming one. And… because of that, they were interested in my class.”

Kudo tightened his fist. He didn’t like where this was going. Saka continued, her hand grasping at her shirt.

“So… in order for me to become strong to be of use to them, they sent me to… quests. Quests that involved taking people out…”

“S-Saka…?”

Kudo could piece it together, but he couldn’t believe it. But then Saka turned around.

She frowned, her eyes looking off into the distance despite looking right at Kudo. She then showed her bandaged arm in front of him. She undid her bandages, the sound of the white cloth loosening reached his ears.

Kudo gaped at the sight. Her arm was completely darkened.

If he had to say, it was similar to that of Shinezu after he killed off the people back in Peranim. Her arm showed to be darkened, similar to that of scales that surrounded her whole arm.

It was then that his eyes picked up the dark aura that surrounded her. It was small, but it was not smaller than the slime man that he fought off before. His chest felt the same sickening sensation from all the other killers.

“This bandage… has a special property that messes with a person’s mana. For someone like you, who has Valkyria blood and can be able to sense the Dark Experience, you couldn’t be able to notice it.”

Saka held up her bandage as it fluttered in the wind, then lets it go as it flew through the sky. She held up her darkened arm, her teeth gritting.

“Do you see now, Kudo?” Saka said, her voice cracking. “I am the emissary of Darkness. The same kind that you despise!”

Tears began to well from her eyes. Kudo couldn’t even respond before Saka continued.

“I… I killed innocent people for their experience points! In order for me to live, I had to take out other people! I had no choice!”

Saka gripped onto her darkened arm, the tears streaming down her face.

“I just… I just wanted to make sure that my friend was safe. She didn’t had a good class. But when time passed, I secretly found my friend without them knowing and… and then I found her corpse…”

Her hand tightened on the arm, ready to crush it from the welling rage within her.

“No…” Kudo let out, his body shivering in rage and fear from the story.

“They would just use me… over and over again for someone that’s not even alive anymore… So I ran. I wanted to escape from them. I wanted to get away and never see them again… but after everything I’ve done, there’s no way I can be forgiven by anyone and start a new life.”

Her tears fell onto the ground, her strength weakening and let go of her arm. She then raised her head, and smiled at Kudo.

“Thank you so much, Kudo… for everything that you did for me. Thank you for giving me a fun life even though I didn’t deserve it… I didn’t think being an adventurer would be so much fun…”

“Saka…”

“But now… there’s no way I can be your friend anymore. I know now that you, of all people, would hate someone like me being around you. That’s why…”

“Saka!”

Kudo ran. He wasn’t going to let her finish, because he knew what she was going to do next. He ran, his hand reaching out to her to try to stop her.

“That’s why I’ll leave. But let me say this…” Saka smiled warmly, her tears drenching her face. “Thank you… and goodbye.”

A cloud of purple smoke surrounded her. Kudo ran through it to try to catch her, but he caught nothing but the smoke that was there.

As the smoke cleared, Kudo was all by himself in the park. He looked at his hands and noticed the small bits of smoke that trailed from his hands before they dissipated.

He gripped them into fists.

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