"Snipe. Snipe. Snipe." Kazuma was up in a tree branch coldly and methodically killing goblins. Every time he pulled the bow string back and sent an arrow flying it was a kill shot. Each and every arrowhead hit precisely where he wanted it to, either in an eye or through a neck. A pack of about twenty goblins were slaughtered in under a minute, the sad creatures unable to even fight back. When all the others were dead, the last two tried to run.
With that dealt with Kazuma climbed down to reclaim his arrows. His lips were downturned and his face severe. They were almost to the entrance of Kasmir's Sorrow and he was having a strong sense of déjà vu. He didn't want this second visit to be anything at all like the first.
"Nice job, Kazuma!" Aqua said with an enthusiastic smile.
He gave her a look that melted the smile off her face and made her shiver. He didn't bother with any other reply and finished pulling arrows out of corpses.
Aqua and the other girls hung back while Kazuma was busy. She kept her voice low and spoke to Darkness.
"Uhm, is this what he's usually like now? I don't remember him ever being this serious."
"No," Darkness answered. "He's usually a bit more relaxed. I think where we are is affecting him. You know what happened here with his second party."
"Pffft! What a baby!" Aqua waved a dismissive hand. "I've seen lots of party members get killed. He shouldn't let it bother him."
Darkness frowned at her. "I believe the experience is a bit different when the party members stay dead."
"Whatever. As soon as I bring them back, I'll be in your party and that's the important thing!"
Darkness lifted an eyebrow. "I don't believe those were quite the terms."
Two Weeks Earlier…
"Can you resurrect people who've been dead for more than a year?"
"Huh?" Aqua blinked and there was obvious confusion on her face. But in a flash, it was replaced with a confident grin. "What do you mean? I'm a goddess! Of course, I can! Have you forgotten how I brought everyone back to life after the Destroyer?"
"You mean everyone except Mitsurugi," Darkness pointed out.
"He was an exception," Aqua waved the question away.
"What about being dead for more than a year? Isn't that an exception too?" Kazuma asked sounding suspicious.
"Nope! Not even a little bit! I can absolutely bring them back!" There was a pause. "I mean unless…"
Aqua suddenly looked a bit uncomfortable. "Well… there are three conditions where I can't resurrect someone from this world. One is if the soul has already been reborn. The second is if the soul belongs to an undead. In that case all I can do is free it and return the soul to the cycle of life and rebirth. Third is if they have entered heaven and accepted their eternal reward. Just so long as the soul is waiting to be born again, I can totally resurrect them!"
Kazuma frowned. "It's been more than a year. What if they've all already been reborn?"
"I wouldn't worry about it!" Aqua said with an almost painful amount of good cheer. "The birth rate's actually pretty low in this world! And with all the people getting slaughtered by the Devil King and his troops there's a huge back log! I'm sure it will be no problem at all!"
"Is that really something to be happy about?" Darkness asked.
"The point is the souls are probably still in limbo, just waiting to return to this world! Show me the body parts and I'll have them back here in no time!"
"I see," Kazuma sighed.
"And as soon as I do that, you'll let me in your party, right Kazuma?"
"You bring my friends back," he cut her off. "And I'll let you work with us as a freelancer. For this job I'll pay you one million eris and an equal share of any treasure we find. IF you can bring them all back."
"But I have to be in your party when you defeat the Devil King, or I'll be trapped here forever!"
"Well good news, Aqua! I'm nowhere near strong enough to fight the Devil King yet. I'm probably still years away. So that means you've got years to convince me to let you join. Which really is great for you, given just how much I hate you. So, IF you resurrect my friends, IF you help me out a lot, and IF you somehow manage not to get on my last nerve, there's at least a very, very small chance I'll let you join the party by the time we fight the Devil King."
"That's all I'm offering you walking incarnation of debt. Take it or leave it."
"Oh, I'm sure as soon as I remind him how amazing I am he'll beg me to join your party," Aqua said with a wide smile.
Megumin and Darkness shared a look and said not a word.
Kazuma led them to the dungeon entrance barely speaking a word. When they got there, he stopped and faced them.
"This place is seriously dangerous. All of you do exactly what I say and no goofing around or I swear I will leave you here. That means," he pointed at Megumin. "Don't even think about explosion magic." He pointed to Darkness. "Don't start panting and charge at the first strong monster you see." He planted his hands on his hips and glared at Aqua. "Don't be your usual self."
"W… What does that mean?!"
"Come on," ignoring her he headed into the cave. Darkness and Megumin followed on his heels. Aqua came along looking a bit petulant.
The first floor of the dungeon was a cake walk. Kazuma pointed out the traps and made sure no one accidentally tripped them. The only monsters they ran into were a small pack of skeletons. Aqua promptly turned them to dust with a basic turn undead spell. She waited to listen to Kazuma's praise and was momentarily left behind.
On the second level they ran into a few slimes and walking mushrooms. They were dispatched with no issue. The further they went into the dungeon the more Kazuma remembered what had happened. His heart was pounding, and a cold sweat was running down his back. He could see it clear as day in his head, standing there invisible, pressed up against the cave wall, not making a sound and praying that the ogre wouldn't notice him. All the while watching as the minotaur ripped his friends apart and then noisily ate them. All the while he stood there doing nothing.
The shameful truth he'd never told anyone was that in that time he didn't care about his friends. All that mattered to him was getting out of there alive. That was the sort of man he was. One that when the absolute worst happened would think only about himself. He'd kept that guilt in his heart ever since that day, and he knew that nothing could ever, ever erase it completely. But if he could bring them back… then maybe he could hate himself just a little bit less.
"Uhm," Megumin was looking about. "Anyone else notice there are a LOT of bones and pieces of armor?"
"I'm sure it's nothing to be concerned about," Darkness said.
"Hey, Kazuma, was it like this the first time you were here?"
He halted and slowly turned his head to stare over his shoulder at her. The look in those eyes made Megumin flinch.
"No, it wasn't," he said in a whisper. "I guess a lot more parties have been here since."
He started again and they followed in silence.
They encountered no more monsters and Kazuma eventually came to a stop. "This is the place. This is where it happened."
Aqua wandered up to his side and looked around. There were scraps of clothing and broken pieces of equipment as well as scattered bits of bone.
"You sure? There doesn't seem to be much here."
Kazuma stared at her and Aqua shuddered as if feeling a chill.
"Uh, okay then. Let me just check." She spread her hands through the air and cast a simple enchantment. Three individual bone fragments began to glow. "Got it. Resurrect. Resurrect. Resurrect."
And suddenly in front of them was a naked bunny girl and human guy.
Both of them appeared in mid scream, then stopped and looked around in confusion.
Kazuma ran up to them and gave both a hug. "Katrina! Timothy! I'm so glad you're alive again!"
The bunny girl pushed him away. "You try and cop a feel and I'll kill you!" She began covering herself up as best she could. "Why am I naked? What happened? Who are these girls?"
Timothy also pulled out of Kazuma's embrace and covered his private parts. (He only needed one hand.) "Where's the minotaur?"
Kazuma smiled and pulled out three cloaks from his backpack and handed two of them over. "Uh, listen guys, I have some bad news…"
Kazuma explained what had happened, confirmed they'd been killed and eaten, and told them more than a year had passed since then. They were both rather shocked and had many questions, but one superseded all the others.
"What about Roland?" Katrina asked.
Kazuma and the others all turned to Aqua. The blue haired goddess picked up a bone shard and examined it. She then sighed and tossed it away.
"I'm afraid your friend's soul now resides in heaven. He accepted his eternal reward and can't come back again."
"He's in heaven?" Kazuma asked. "You sure?"
"I'm sure. I am a goddess you know."
"Well… I guess that's all right then. I would have liked to have seen him again, he was a good guy, but if he's in heaven I guess that's fine to. I just-"
And that was when he felt an enemy approaching. His Detect Enemy ability didn't identify what sort of enemy it was or how powerful. But somehow, he knew.
He yanked out his enchanted short sword. "Everybody! The minotaur's coming! Darkness protect everyone. Megumin blast him. Aqua bless everyone. Katrina and Tim stand back. Vanish."
Kazuma disappeared from sight.
It soon appeared, an eight-foot-tall bull with enchanted battle axe clutched in both hands. It was charging straight at them.
"Fireball!" Megumin sent the spell arcing though air. It struck the minotaur and detonated. The monster let out a shout of pain but kept hurtling forward.
"Foul beast! You won't get past me!" Darkness ran forward to meet it, enchanted broadsword in hand.
The minotaur brought its axe down in a swift and brutal arc, aiming to split her neck. A loud clang sounded all through the cave as her blade met his strike and expertly parried it aside. The monster was caught by surprise, it had very obviously not expected its opening attack to be stopped. It reset its hooves, lowered its horns, and charged forward in an effort to trample and crush her. Darkness met its charge with a wide smile and held her ground.
"I am a crusader, and I will not let you go past!"
As this was happening Aqua was granting multiple blessings on Darkness. Megumin couldn't use any of her spells without also hitting her teammate. Katrina was desperately looking about for any sort of weapon she could use. Timothy was bravely pissing himself.
That was when a scream filled the dungeon.
I wasn't a scream of fear or of terror. It was a scream that was filled with an endless rage and hatred. And in the echoes of that murderous, hate filled shout, the minotaur reared and twisted about. They saw the tip of Excalibur punch through its chest, right where its heart was. Kazuma appeared standing right behind the beast, his sword buried in its back all the way to the hilt.
As the minotaur struggled, Kazuma wrenched out his blade and stabbed again. The monster's blood splattered onto his face, but Kazuma didn't notice. He devoted every ounce of his strength to killing this monster. He rammed his sword back in, driving it deep.
The minotaur dropped its axe as blood ran out its mouth. Mortally wounded, it collapsed to it knees and fell over to the stone ground.
Kazuma didn't seem to notice. "DIE! DIE! DIE! DIE! DIE! DIE! DIES! DIE! DIE!"
His screams repeated as he pulled his sword out and stabbed the monster again and again and again.
The others stood there and watched as he kept killing the thing that was already dead.
Finally, Darkness came up to him and grabbed his sword arm, bringing him up short.
"Kazuma! Enough! It's over! It's dead! You can stop now!"
He struggled to break free of her grip and continue attacking. But then her words seemed to reach him. He stopped. His eyes seemed to finally notice the bloody carcass at his feet. The sword slipped from his hand and clanged on the floor.
Then he started crying.
Darkness wrapped her arms around him and held him close. "It's all right, Kazuma. It's all right. Everything will be all right now."
Author's Note: Okay, Amazon's new program called Kindle Vella is now live. It is basically their version of Wattpad, except you pay for content. The first three chapters of each story are free, beyond that there is a charge to continue reading. I've decided to go ahead and give this format a try and have posted two stories. One with 5 chapters so far and one with 7. They're called 'Excelsior Academy (Or How I Saved the Whole World While Failing Algebra)' and 'The God Of Death Is a Jerk.' They are original stories that will only appear there. If any of you are interested please visit Amazon and search those title names. I'd leave links if I could but I can't.