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A Delayed Grief

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            The night had fallen by the time the party had ceased their frantic retreat. In any other circumstance, they would have run much further, but the wet coughing of their wounded party member prompted them to stop in a clearing they stumbled across. The group of adventurers rushed to set up camp for the sake of their comrade’s health. Through the combined efforts of the party, a roaring fire was crackling in the middle of the clearing, and a tent had been put up a few meters away.

            At the moment, a dwarf was loading wood into the campfire. Like the rest of his kind, he had a short and stout body that hid a strong physique. He had long white hair tied back into a ponytail and a long beard tied into five sections with beads. He was so close to the fire that the light glinted off his leather cuirass, and when a stray spark flew, he backed away with a cry so that his white shamanistic robes wouldn’t catch aflame.

            "Damn it, Dwarf!” a high-pitched voice cried out. “Be careful!”

            The shout had come from an elf, who was searching through her satchel at a frantic pace. She was slender and tall, with leafy green hair that was long in the back and short in front, with two braids at the side. Her pointed ears were much longer than average, reflecting her status as a High Elf. She wore a green sleeveless archer corset, an additional black sleeve over her left arm, shorts, a pair of uneven black gloves, knee-high boots, and a hood. She carried a curved bow slung across her back and a quiver of wooden arrows attached to her waist.

            The dwarf growled at her. “Doing my best, Long-Ears! I don’t see you helping with the fire!”

            “Stop squabbling," a deep, grumbling voice cut in. Its owner was a young human man wearing cheap and grimy leather armor with chainmail underneath paired with a worn and dented iron helmet. He carried a short and cheap sword on his left hip in a makeshift scabbard and a small round shield affixed to his left arm. He was hammering in the last stake for the tarp of their tent into the ground. "It's not helping."

            “Oh, piss off, Orcbolg!” High Elf Archer shouted shrilly, glaring at the human in filthy armor. "You're the reason we're in this mess!"

             Dwarf Shaman scowled at the man in the armor as well. “I hate to agree with an Elf, but she’s right, Beard-Cutter! You’re the last person to talk about not helping!”

            “Enough," a voice even lower than the human man’s interrupted as someone crawled out of the tent. It was a lizardman, a towering reptilian humanoid covered in head to toe with green scales. He had a pair of horns at the top of his head, clawed hands and feet, and sharp fangs protruding from his lizard-like maw. The lizardman was wearing the traditional robes of priests topped with a leather chest guard,  with a white feathered headdress that extended to just above his hips and long, pale rectangular stripes on each side of his face over the base of his muzzle. At the moment, he was looking at all of his companions with a grim expression, tenting his palms together. A sacred gesture among his people.

            Lizard Priest turned his eyes to the man in leather armor, and his gaze softened. “I’ve done all that I could, Milord Goblin Slayer.”

            The armored man, Goblin Slayer, ceased the pounding on the stake. “How is she?” he asked, his harsh voice suddenly quiet.

            "Lady Priestess is stable for now," Lizard Priest replied. "But she's not out of danger yet. The wound on her stomach has been sealed, but she's lost an awful lot of blood. And her body and spirit are exhausted from overcasting. If we keep moving, she might not survive the trip." 

            Goblin Slayer was silent for a moment, his helmeted head tilting ever so slightly towards the ground. “I see….”

            “That’s all you have to say, Orcbolg?” High Elf Archer yelled, standing up from her seat in the ground. “The only reason why she put herself in that position was to save your sorry ass!”

            Goblin Slayer didn’t respond, but his helmet shifted in Lizard Priest’s direction. “Can I see her?”

             The lizardman nodded. "Yes. She's been asking for you. Don't talk too much, though. She needs to rest."

             "Got it," Goblin Slayer nodded before entering the tent.

            Their shelter was small, having been picked out for the two women of their party. As such, Goblin Slayer struggled to fit inside. The young man ignored his discomfort and turned his attention to the young woman in the middle of the tent. Her long golden hair was damp and matted from sweat and gore, and her fair skin was now sickly pale. Her usually pristine white robes were stained with blood, and the blue garbs that she wore under them were torn at the stomach, arms, and chest. Through these tears, Goblin Slayer could see makeshift bandages cut from strips of cloth that were soaked from covering the lacerations from crude daggers.

            When Goblin Slayer laid his eyes on the girl, his heart practically stopped. She wasn’t breathing. Was she…?

            Suddenly, the girl gave a labored breath, her chest slowly rising and falling. Then, her eyes opened, revealing watery blue eyes. Usually, they would have been shining like the maiden's innocence, but now they looked glassy and faraway as she set them on Goblin Slayer.

            The girl coughed wetly, before speaking. “Goblin… Slayer…?”

            “Priestess….” Goblin Slayer replied, crouching down to look at his ward in the eye.

            “Are... you alright?” Priestess asked, her voice starting to waver.

            Goblin Slayer nodded. "Thanks to you." 

            Priestess gave a weak smile from her mat. “Oh… good…”

            “But…” Goblin Slayer said. “You got hurt. Protecting me.”

            “It’s nothing…” Priestess began before letting out a series of sickening hacks from her throat. It went on for several long seconds before she wheezed. “I’m sorry I worried you, Sir Goblin Slayer. But I’m alright, I swear. I just… cast more spells than I was able. I’ll be fine… after I… sleep…”         

            With that, Priestess closed her eyes and set her head back, falling back into her fatigue induced slumber. Goblin Slayer stared at her for a moment, noting her chest swelling and deflating with every breath she took. Then, with a sigh, he exited the tent.

            When Goblin Slayer walked outside, he found his other three companions sitting around the campfire. High Elf Archer was poking at the fire with a stick with a glare. Dwarf Shaman was taking a deep swig from his flask. Lizard Priest had his eyes closed, tenting his palms in prayer. Goblin Slayer took a seat in between Lizard Priest and High Elf Archer, prompting both to turn their gaze at him.

            "Well?" High Elf Archer questioned, giving Goblin Slayer a sharp look.

            "She's okay," Goblin Slayer responded. "She's still breathing."

            “Barely!” High Elf Archer shouted, rising to her feet with a stomp. She stormed over to Goblin’s Slayer, grabbing him by the fur collar of his armor and pulling him up to her. “She practically dropped dead to cast that Protection for you! If she hadn’t, that Champion would have turned you into paste!”

            “What in the world were you thinking Beard-Cutter?” Dwarf Shaman cried behind her, snapping the cap of his flask shout. "You saw how many goblins were between you and that Ring! What could have possibly made you think it was a good idea to just charge at the altar sword first?”

            Goblin Slayer didn’t answer, but his visor shifted down ever so slightly.

            “Well?” High Elf Archer shouted, giving Goblin Slayer a firm shake.

            “….I thought that I needed to get the Ring of Resurrection before the goblins did," the man in the armor bluntly replied.

            The green-haired elf growled, threw Goblin Slayer back, and then kicked him the chest, knocking him right out of his seat. Goblin Slayer hit the ground with a grunt, the armor making the landing quite painful on his back. Goblin Slayer looked up to see High Elf Archer looking at him with a contempt that could match any goblin he ever met.

            “Goblins, goblins, goblins!” High Elf Archer screamed. “It’s always about goblins with you! What about us, Orcbolg? What about the people that the goblins hurt? What about the Priestess you keep dragging around on these horrible missions? Did you ever think about any of that?”

            “I’m sorry….”   Goblin Slayer replied, his deep voice echoing in his helmet.

            “Sorry?” High Elf Archer shouted, stomping the ground furiously again. “That’s all you have to say? You almost got us all killed with that stunt of yours!”

             "' Sorry' won't fix Priestess's condition, Breadcutter!” Dwarf Shaman said, his voice still calm, but edged with fury and disappointment. “It’s time you took some responsibility for once!”

            “You don’t even care, do you?” High Elf Archer cried accusingly. “I don’t even think you would have cared if we had actually died! So long as you stop the goblin from winning, right?”

            At that, Goblin Slayer rose to his feet. “That’s not….”

            “I can’t take this anymore, Orcbolg!" High Elf Archer continued, her voice starting to waver. Tears began to fall down her face as she glared the human in front of her. "Every time we go on an adventure with you, it's nothing but death, death, and death! We keep getting almost killed, and we have nothing to show for it! We haven't even made a dent in the goblin problem in a year!"

            “I….”

            “And you don’t even care!” the elf sobbed. “You don’t care how much this is hurting us or the people you say you’re trying to help! You don’t care how many are dragged down with you as long as the goblins die! Is there anything left inside you? Anything else besides hatred and revenge?”

            Goblin Slayer didn’t answer as High Elf Archer started to weep into her hands, curling into a ball on the ground as she cried uncontrollably. At this, Dwarf Shaman got up from his seat and wrapped his arms around the girl, holding her close.

            Goblin Slayer wanted to say something, but he didn’t know what he could say that would make his friend feel better. So instead, he decided to leave her alone for a while.

            "I'll… I'll go on the first watch…" he said, turning his back on his party. "Get some rest…" At that, he walked away from the clearing and into the darkness.  

            The elf and the dwarf didn’t even notice him leaving.

            Lizard Priest's eyes, on the other hand, never left the armored warrior.

….

            Goblin Slayer made a wider patrol path than usual. He almost couldn’t see the fire from where he decided to circle the camp. This made navigation in the dark more complicated, and Goblin Slayer nearly tripped over rocks several times. Still, it was better than being within the sights of his party. The last thing they needed was to see him and be reminded of his failure.

            After Goblin Slayer walked around the camp once and confirmed that there were no threats, he stopped at a barren tree growing low to the ground. He took a seat under the withered branches, leaning his weary body against the trunk with a sigh as he turned his gaze to the sky.

            The night was clear, and the camp was far from any cities or villages. As a result, Goblin Slayer could see the starry heavens in their full splendor. Every constellation and celestial object that Goblin Slayer was familiar with was shining down on the earth through the milky mist in the sky. The armored boy had no doubt that if Priestess was with him at that moment, she would have been in awe at the supposed beauty of it.

            As Goblin Slayer turned his gaze back to the earth, the sound of movement came from his left. He tensed, hand flying to his sword as he turned to face the heavy footsteps coming towards him.

            In the shadows, something huge with shining gold eyes stopped its movement. "Sir Goblin Slayer" a familiar deep voice called.  "It's me," it said.

            Upon hearing the voice, Goblin Slayer relaxed, taking his hand off his sword. “Lizard Priest…”

            The lizardman stepped forward from the darkness, his scaled face illuminated by the pale starlight. He smiled, his fangs shining slightly as he asked, “May I join you?”

            Goblin Slayer hesitated. Lizard Priest… wanted to see him? Surely, he was as angry with him as the elf and the dwarf. Why did he come all this way after what he’s done?

             "Yeah, sure," Goblin Slayer replied with a curt nod, sitting back down against the trunk and looking back at the stars. The boy didn’t even react when he heard the lizardman set himself down next to him.

             "The sky is beautiful tonight," Lizard Priest declared as he looked up at the sky with his friend. 

            “I suppose so…” Goblin Slayer grunted, scooting away somewhat when Lizard Priest’s tail brushed his thigh.

            The lizardman tented his palms once again as he continued. “I’ve heard it once said that humans believe that every star in the sky is the soul of someone who has left this world. That the people we held dear in life are up in the heavens, watching over us." Lizard Priest gave a deep, thoughtful chuckle. "My faith doesn't preach such a thing. I was taught that our lives move through the cycle of souls. That when we perish, our bodies provide nourishment for the animals and plants, and our souls move to another vessel. Still… the thought that my ancestors, that my beloved grandfather is up there, watching me…. I can't say I don't find it comforting."

             "Hmm," Goblin Slayer grunted impassively.

            “Is there someone that you believe is up there?” Lizard Priest asked.

            Goblin Slayer turned to see that Lizard Priest’s golden eyes were no longer fixed on the stars, but on him. “What… do you mean?”

            “Is there someone you know that you believe is up there?” Lizard Priest pressed. “Someone important to you? Watching over you in your battles?”

            A pit formed at the base of Goblin Slayer’s stomach at the question. "Yes," he reluctantly answered. “My…sister”

           "Ah," Lizard Priest affirmed, giving the roll of his eyes that Goblin Slayer had grown familiar with. Most people would assume that Lizard Priest was dismissive from that, but Goblin Slayer had figured out by now that the lizardman just did that when he was thinking. “You mentioned her before. She raised you, right?”

            Goblin Slayer nodded in response. The pit in his stomach wasn’t going away, and it grew worse with each of Lizard Priest’s questions.

            “Might I ask something else, Sir Goblin Slayer?”

            “Sure…”

            "You say that you wished to obtain the Ring of Resurrection to keep it out of the goblin's hands, but for some reason, I doubt that is the whole truth."

            “Oh?” Goblin Slayer questioned, his echoing voice starting to edge.

            "I saw the desperation in the way you moved," Lizard Priest clarified. "Smelled it in your scent. You weren’t just thinking of stopping the goblins. You were chasing that Ring as if your life depended on it."

            "How would you know?" Goblin Slayer rebuked, his voice harsh. 

            "Because you're normally far more thoughtful than to put Priestess in danger the way you did," Lizard Priest answered. 

             "Tch," Goblin Slayer growled, frustration starting to boil inside him.

             "So… I'm wondering if you wanted the Ring for… personal reasons," Lizard Priest stated, eyeing the armored man in an accusing fashion. 

            “Stop….” Goblin Slayer warned, his hand clenching around the hilt of his sword.

            “Your sister….” Lizard Priest continued. “Could it be…?”       

             “Be quiet!”

            Lizard Priest was cut off by a snarl from Goblin Slayer that, while not loud, carried enough fury to make the lizardman’s blood turn to ice. Goblin Slayer stood up, and for a moment, Lizard Priest could see crimson eyes boring into him from behind the helmet.

            “You don’t know anything!” Goblin Slayer growled, his words as sharp as knives. “You don’t know anything about her! About me! Don’t talk about me like you know what I’ve been through!”

            Goblin Slayer turned to leave, but a clawed hand grabbed him by the wrist. Lizard Priest pulled Goblin Slayer back to him.  

            “Let me go!” Goblin Slayer screamed, trying to elbow Lizard Priest in the kidneys with no avail. In response, Lizard Priest wrapped his arms around the human’s torso, trapping him against his muscular chest. Goblin Slayer writhed, growling like a rapid dog in as he fought Lizard Priest’s grip. But try as he might, the armored adventurer was simply no match for the lizardman in a contest of strength.

            “LET GO!” Goblin Slayer screamed again.

            "Please calm down," Lizard Priest retorted, his voice firm but calm. "I just want to talk."

            “I don’t…” Goblin Slayer began.

            Lizard Priest squeezed harder, cutting off Goblin Slayer's words. "You're right…." The lizardman said. "I don't truly know what's going on in your mind, nor do I know anything about your sister. But I can't understand any of that if you don't speak to me. I can't help you if I don't know what's wrong. So please…." Lizard Priest lowered his maw right next to Goblin's Slayer's helmeted head before whispering, "Speak to me."

            Goblin Slayer stopped struggling, not saying a word for several minutes. Then, Lizard Priest heard an echoing sigh from Goblin Slayer’s helm. “I want to see her…”

            Lizard Priest released his grip on Goblin Slayer, moving around the human so he could look at his masked face. He didn’t speak as Goblin Slayer continued.

            “I made a promise to her…” the boy continued. “It wasn’t like the one that you made to your family when you joined your clergy. It was something I promised myself when I saw her defiled corpse in what was left of our house…”

            Lizard Priest heard the shaky breath from Goblin Slayer. "I promised that I would slaughter all of those little monsters. That I'd make sure no one would ever have to suffer what she went through again. No matter what it cost. That's why I dedicated everything I had to kill them, no matter how much pain I had to endure, no matter how much I had to suffer. Even if it meant I would never find happiness again, I would do it. Cowards who let their sisters be raped to death in front of them don't deserve such a thing."

            A harsh sound like a cough escaped Goblin Slayer's helmet, but the echo made it hard for Lizard Priest to tell what exactly the noise was. "But it's hopeless. No matter how long I keep at it, nothing ever changes. The goblins just keep coming back. I can stab, cut, burn, drown, or poison them until I can't move anymore, and I won't have made any difference. All these years, all of these measures I’ve taken, and I haven’t gotten any further than when I started…”

            Goblin Slayer released that strange sound again as he pressed the palm of his hand to his helmet. “I was a fool to think that I could ever avenge her like this! To think that anything I could do would ever make up for what I did to her! If she were here, she’d probably laugh at my foolishness! But even so…”

            This time, Lizard Priest recognized the sound coming from Goblin Slayer. It was something that the lizardman would never expect to have heard from the stoic warrior. A sob. “I want to see her!” Goblin Slayer cried, pounding his fist into the ground in anger and grief. “I don’t care about anything else anymore! I just want to see her again!”

            Lizard Priest was taken aback by the sudden display of emotion, staring wide-eyed at the adventurer who wheezing behind his helmet. He blinked, unsure of what to do for a moment. Then, the lizardman leaned forward to place his large hand on Goblin Slayer’s shoulder and look at the human right in his visor.

             "Sir Goblin Slayer…" Lizard Priest said, his rumbling voice gentle and soothing. "I know that what you're doing is your way of coping with the past. But in the end, all you've done is run from it. And when you run from something that frightens you, it just chases you down. I realize that it's painful to face, but if you don’t, your wounds will never heal…”

            Goblin Slayer growled, and Lizard Priest could practically feel the glare from under his helmet. “So, if I keep facing it, everything is going to be okay?” the human shouted, shoving Lizard Priest’s hand off his shoulder. “Eventually, I’ll forget all about her, or stop caring? That’s never going to happen!”

            Lizard Priest sighed. “You’re right. But… can’t we be there for you when everything is at its worst? The way you try to be, in your own way?”

            Goblin Slayer stilled, and if Lizard Priest could see past his helmet, he probably would have looked stunned. “What?”

            Lizard Priest couldn’t resist a small chuckle. “That might not have been what you meant at the time, but even now, I consider our battle under Water Town one of the most cherished moments of my life. You were nearly done in by that Goblin Champion, crushed to a pulp. But even so, you persisted and kept fighting. Despite how broken your body was, you strangled that Champion with a piece of hair to protect Priestess. That moment told me everything I needed to know about you. That, in spite of your eccentricities and single-mindedness, you’re a noble and valiant warrior that’s a match for any of my people. That’s why… when we nearly lost you without being able to thank you, I swore deep down that, if something ever happened to make you suffer, I would put my own feelings aside and stand with you.”

            Lizard Priest moved his hand under Goblin Slayer’s chin and unclasped his helmet. Before Goblin Slayer could protest, the lizardman took his helmet off. As Lizard Priest placed the mask aside, he took in Goblin Slayer's features. He had seen Goblin Slayer’s face once before, but he had forgotten how youthful the human’s pale face looked, especially when it was betraying sorrow and confusion. His short, light grey hair glinted silver in the starlight, and when Lizard Priest pushed his bangs out of the way, he saw the human's scarlet-colored eyes, staring back at him in bewilderment.

            “Goblin Slayer…” Lizard Priest said, his gold eyes meeting the human’s scarlet ones. “To lose someone in such a terrible way is agony. But there’s no need to suffer alone. You have us with you. Isn’t that the point in having a party to begin with?”

            Goblin Slayer’s eyes started to waver. “I….I….”

            “It’s okay to weep, my friend….” Lizard Priest said.

             The armored boy sniffled as tears started to form at the corner of his eyes. "No, it isn't….," he choked out. "Master said tears don't solve anything. That they betray weakness. They’re a waste….”

            "Your master is wrong, Goblin Slayer" Lizard Priest responded gently. "Tears allow you to release the grief that you've been carrying. They allow you to let go of the sorrow that's been weighing you down. They're a natural part of life, and you shouldn't deny them." 

            Lizard Priest wrapped his arms around Goblin Slayer, placing one hand on his back and one at the back of his head, and pressed the human tightly against his chest. “Goblin Slayer…” the lizardman said, giving a smile full of something that Goblin Slayer couldn’t quite understand. “It’s alright to be weak sometimes. That’s why you have us in your life. We won’t think any less of you for being overwhelmed. So let go. For yourself…. And for me….”

            Goblin Slayer went still, wheezing a few more times as he struggled to compose himself. Then, after a moment, he snapped, pressing his face into Lizard Priest’s chest and breaking down into a series of retched sobs.

            “I’m sorry…” he cried, his tears soaking the cloth on Lizard Priest’s robes. “I’m so sorry…”

            Lizard Priest rubbed the back of Goblin Slayer's head reassuringly and then kissed the top of the sobbing human’s head. “It’s alright, my friend. It’s alright….”