LEVEL 2: Everything is Precious, Nothing is Replaceable
“Whoa! Whoa-whoa-whoa! What the hell?!” Ranta grumbled through his bucket helm, his back pressed tight against a crumbling wall.
Ranta wasn’t alone. Haruhiro and the rest were all keeping themselves flat against the wall with him, trying to keep their presences hidden.
“Any idea what’s going on here?” Haruhiro turned to his side, looking at Mary.
Mary gave a tiny shake of her head. “Even I have no idea.”
“There’s an awful lot of gobbies,” Yume whispered.
Mogzo grunted his agreement. He was trembling all over as he did his best to make himself as small as possible.
Shihoru had her eyes closed and appeared to be praying, her staff held close to her chest. “…We can’t, we can’t… there’s no way we can…”
Shihoru was right. If there was one phrase that could sum this situation up, it was “we can’t.”
They were in the same Old Town area of Damroww as usual, but today it wasn’t just scattered, sporadically distributed groups of goblins. Something had felt different the moment they got here—no, even before they came, something had felt off.
The place was chock-full of goblins. It was a massive gathering, and they even seemed to have organized themselves into units. Maybe they were even sending out regular patrols.
“Patrols…” Haruhiro murmured, gritting his teeth.
Could it be possible? Could his hunch be right? The goblins gathered here now looked different from the usual ones Haruhiro and the others hunted every day. They had better equipment, for starters. And while the usual goblins always looked lazy and bored, these ones seemed alert and active.
Haruhiro guessed that they must have been from Damroww’s Upper City. Goblins exiled from the Upper City often came to Old Town, but those goblins always looked… sullen. Morose, even. Even the hobgoblin and its plate-armored master had had an air of gloominess about them.
But the goblins gathered here now were lively and high-spirited. They seemed like they were here with a purpose. Haruhiro wouldn’t be surprised if they were here under some kind of orders.
“Hmph,” snorted Ranta. There he went again, trying to act cool or something. He wasn’t cool in the least. “Looks like we overdid it. We drew a bit too much attention to ourselves around here…”
No one bothered to give him the satisfaction of a response, Haruhiro included. He didn’t have the energy to waste on silly things like that. But it was too dangerous to continue working here. Even though they had come all this way, they were now faced with the depressing prospect of returning to Altana with nothing.
There wasn’t really any other option. With things the way they were, there seemed to be no choice but to go back. Unless… when he thought about it, Haruhiro realized that he should see this turn of events as an opportunity for a change of pace. Maybe Haruhiro was being forced into this decision, or being swept along with the tide, but it could still be a good chance anyway.
“Hey guys,” Haruhiro began. “What do you think of going to check out the Siren Mines? It’s a bit out of the way, but it’s in the same direction. We can just take a detour around the rest of Damroww and keep heading northwest.”
Ranta was thrilled. Yume, Shihoru, Mogzo, and Mary weren’t against it, so they headed off. The Siren Mines… They were around two and a half miles northwest of Damroww, but since Haruhiro and the others had never been there before, it took them almost two hours to arrive even after taking the most direct route.
It looked the same as any other mountain. Long ago, when the human Aravakia Kingdom was still in control of the frontier, they put a good amount of resources into building the mine. Afterwards, when the Deathless King and his confederation forced the humans from the area, the Boshuu kobold faction took over and moved in. Currently, the Siren Mines were completely occupied by kobolds.
Haruhiro’s party could see the way into the mines from the foot of the mountain. The entrance itself was square and tunnel-like, and had sides reinforced by wooden beams. Haruhiro and the others were following a small river running parallel to the mountain path when they spotted a bear ambling about.
Haruhiro doubted that it would attack; wild animals were supposed to be cautious to the point of cowardice. However, no one wanted to test their luck, so they gave it a wide berth.
They continued up the mountain, following an animal trail into a forested area. A little ways in, they caught sight of two furry, humanoid creatures with dog-like heads. Each was outfitted patchily, in worn chainmail armor, and armed with rusted swords.
No one had been expecting to run into any trouble. Certainly not the two creatures, who had appeared from the shadowed tree line very relaxed. Clearly they hadn’t been expecting to meet anyone here either. The creatures and Haruhiro’s party stared at each other, both sides frozen for a good two or three seconds.
“Kobolds!” shouted Mary.
Haruhiro unconsciously let out a surprised yelp and instinctively scrambled backwards.
“Mogzo, let’s go!” Ranta said, swinging his sword at the kobold on the right.
“R-right!” Mogzo, whose reaction lagged a bit behind Ranta’s, closed in on the kobold on his left.
Haruhiro thumped his own chest—Column! No. Wait. Not column, calm! Calm down! Damn it. He wasn’t calm at all.
“Shihoru, Mary, stay back for now!” Haruhiro ordered. “Yume, let’s go backup Ranta and Mogzo!”
Yume answered with something that Haruhiro couldn’t really make out, but was right in step with him as they got into position at the front. In the meantime, Ranta was furiously hacking at a kobold, accentuating each swing of his sword with a shout.
Mogzo grunted in effort as he lifted and whirled his bastard sword overhead, but he wasn’t even close to landing a hit on his target kobold.
“Yume, to Mogzo!” said Haruhiro.
Haruhiro focused on the back of the kobold Ranta had engaged. His plan was to finish off one of the kobolds quickly, and then all jump on the second and kill it deader than dead.
“What the—?” Haruhiro muttered.
What was going on? Were kobolds supposed to be tough enemies? Strong and fast? For some reason, Haruhiro couldn’t get into position at its back. His eyes weren’t able to keep track of it, making it difficult for him to anticipate its movements.
“Fuck!” Ranta cried. “Haruhiro, what’re you doing?!”
Ranta was fully occupied by the kobold, but he wasn’t on the offensive. If anything, he was steadily being pushed back. The kobold was doing most of the attacking while Ranta defended, unable to counter.
What about Mogzo and Yume? Damn, he couldn’t check. Haruhiro didn’t have the luxury of looking away. He needed to focus on the kobold in front of him and figure out what to do.
“Ranta! Quit moving around so much!” Haruhiro shouted.
“Shut up! I’ve got my own problems to deal with!”
“But if it keeps moving around like that, I can’t…!”
“Like I care! Whoa!”
The kobold suddenly took a big step forward and locked blades with Ranta. Both of them had stopped moving. It was now or never.
Haruhiro’s dagger seemed as if it was about to slide neatly into to kobold’s back, but it didn’t. It had been swatted aside. How? What happened? It was the kobold, it had sprung sideways and used its tail to slap the dagger away. That was just downright sneaky.
“You’re frickin’ useless, Haruhiro!” Ranta shouted.
Ranta chased after the kobold. It moved using short, hopping motions, zipping left, then right, and then darting in nimbly to attack Ranta. The way the kobold moved was maddening to deal with. And Haruhiro, positioned directly behind it, found its tail to be the most troublesome. The thing’s tail never stopped moving and forced Haruhiro to keep a wary eye on it.
“Why is it this hard…” he wondered.
It probably had nothing to do with how strong or weak they were. The problem was that Haruhiro and the others knew nothing about kobolds. How did kobolds prefer to attack? How did they defend? How should he react if the kobold did this or that? How would the kobold react if he pressed the attack? No one had the slightest idea.
“If it were goblins, we’d—!” someone cried.
That’s right… Haruhiro realized something for the first time. He was targeting the kobold’s back as if it was a goblin. In fights, all he ever thought about were goblins. When looking at the kobold’s back, his mind’s eye saw a goblin’s back. A goblin’s body. A goblin’s manners, movements, and mentality. Goblins colored his perception of everything and he found himself unable to detach himself from that mindset.
We’ve gotten too used to goblins, and nothing else… he admitted.
“[SMASH]!” Mary had unexpectedly jumped into the fray.
She landed a crippling blow with her staff on the shoulder of the kobold that Mogzo and Yume were facing. The kobold shrieked and jumped far away in a single, powerful leap. It half-barked, half-howled at them.
“These are lesser kobolds! They’re not supposed to be tough opponents!” Mary said, thrusting the butt of her staff into the ground with a heavy thud. “If you keep calm, there’s no reason we shouldn’t win!”
Whoa. Mary. So cool… But now wasn’t the time to stand around admiring her!
Haruhiro exchanged glances with Ranta. It disturbed him to think that he and Ranta could understand each other without actual words, but they were teammates after all. When fighting side by side, it seemed as if they knew exactly what the other was thinking.
Watch it closely… he told himself. Focus!
The opponent was a kobold, not a goblin. An as-of-yet unknown, but just because they lacked the information, it didn’t mean that Haruhiro and the others couldn’t handle them. It was just as Mary said: they were not strong opponents.
“Oom rel eckt vel dash!” Shihoru cast the [SHADOW ECHO] spell, and voash! A frizzy, black shadow elemental flew towards the kobold that was closing in on Yume and Mogzo.
The kobold went to its knees, its entire body shaking uncontrollably.
“Mogzo, now!” Yume cried.
Mogzo rushed towards the disabled kobold. Haruhiro judged that he could leave the rest up to them and focus on his. Ranta was on the offensive, shouting with every strike. Unlike before, he wasn’t randomly swinging his longsword around anymore, but rather watching his opponent intently.
When the kobold jumped to the right, Ranta followed. When it went left, so did Ranta. He couldn’t quite get a step ahead of the thing’s movements, but he wasn’t allowing the kobold to dominate him anymore. Nor was he stuck on the defensive; he was getting in some attacks now and then.
Because of that, the kobold’s full attention was now solely on Ranta. Now Haruhiro would be able to get into position perfectly at its back. Don’t get distracted by its tail! he told himself. It’s just a tail, come on!
Goblins were similar in build to humans, but kobolds were more like wild animals. They had muscular legs, and they could jump, just like those legs were coiled springs. Haruhiro felt they were faster than goblins by a notch or two as well. But the time it took them to go from still to moving—in other words, their reaction speed and reflexes—were comparable to that of goblins.
A kobold’s body was also not as limber as a goblin’s. When he looked closely, Haruhiro noticed that when a kobold bent over, its upper body was actually kept quite straight and stiff. Kobolds also handled their swords differently. Goblins made use of their entire body when swinging a sword, but kobolds used only their arms. They depended on the flexibility of those arms, making it seem like their shoulder joints lacked a full range of motion.
They were around five feet tall, so they were a little larger than goblins, but in terms of the force they put behind their blows, goblins might’ve been stronger. However, while goblins put the full weight of their bodies behind their blows, a kobold’s attacks were fast and compact. If they fought kobolds the way they fought goblins, they would forever be on the defensive.
But just because they were so different, that didn’t mean that kobolds were the superior opponent. Haruhiro’s party could take on five goblins at a time now. Two kobolds were nothing.
We can definitely do this. There’s no reason we can’t win.
And that wasn’t overconfidence talking either. It was a conclusion achieved through current observations and past experiences.
Earlier, just watching Ranta and the kobold he was fighting took up all his attention. Now, he could see everyone and had a general idea of how they were moving and what they were doing. It was like his field of vision had expanded.
It’s amazing… Haruhiro thought. It’s amazing what can happen when you calm down and trust that you can win.
“THANK… YOU!” Mogzo put the entirety of his strength behind [RAGE CLEAVE]’s diagonal swing and instantly cut down the kobold.
There’s no way the surviving kobold won’t hesitate after seeing its buddy getting brought down like that… Haruhiro predicted.
He was right. For the briefest of moments, the remaining kobold stopped paying attention to its rear. Haruhiro took in a breath, held it, and rammed himself into the kobold’s back. But he didn’t merely tackle the kobold. [BACKSTAB]. He drove his dagger through an opening in the chain link armor, deep into the kobold’s body.
The kobold let out a half cry, half yelping noise. Haruhiro leapt away from it immediately.
“All right!” Ranta stepped in, longsword already in motion. “[ANGER THRUST]!”
Ranta drove his longsword into the base of the kobold’s throat. He had done it. It collapsed right there and then, falling completely silent.
Haruhiro let out the breath he had been holding. “…We won.”
“AND IT’S ALL THANKS TO ME!” And Ranta lifted his sword and spun it, showboating.
“No it ain’t,” Yume said, disgusted. “It’s all thanks to Mary. Back when she was sayin’ how we should keep calm, how there’s no reason we shouldn’t win… It was amazin’! My spine went all tingly and it was like a fire lit up inside me.”
“S-stop,” Mary said with her head turned towards the ground, her face red with embarrassment. “I’m sorry, I said too much. It’s not really my place…”
“Don’t say that!” Shihoru said with unusual force. “That’s not… I don’t think you have any reason to apologize.”
“A-agreed,” Mogzo nodded slowly. “I felt a lot braver hearing that.”
“You guys are pathetic!” Ranta spat.
How was Ranta able to act so high and mighty all the time? Haruhiro really didn’t have the slightest idea… Maybe it was just because he was an idiot.
Ranta didn’t let up. “You guys are telling me that unless someone says the magic word, Mogzo turns into a chicken and Yume can’t get her ass moving? Fuck that!”
Haruhiro ignored him, making his way over to the kobold corpse instead. He crouched down on one knee. “The armor and weapons look worthless, but it’s got some kind of nose stud… Looks like it’s made from an animal fang or something.”
Mary crouched down beside Haruhiro after making the signature Priest’s hexagon gesture that showed her respect for the dead.
“That’s a talisman,” she explained. “All kobolds carry at least one.”
“Really?” replied Haruhiro. “Doesn’t look like it’ll fetch much of a price though.”
“Kobolds that live on the first stratum of the mines are in the lowest echelon of kobold society. They dress in rags and barely receive enough to eat. We Crimson Moon members call them ‘lesser kobolds’.”
“What about the non-lesser kobolds? Their talismans are more valuable?”
“Yes. They are made from precious stones and metals. But sometimes lesser kobolds take human money, like coppers and silvers, and use them for talismans too.”
“I see. So it’s like a raffle. Sometimes we might find a lesser kobold with a silver or something…”
Mary had said quite a bit. It wasn’t just the information either… the very fact that she was talking to him made Haruhiro quite happy.
“Whatever. Let’s just grab it and go,” Ranta snorted. He tore the talisman roughly off the nose of the kobold’s corpse, earning him a look of displeasure from Haruhiro. “What? You got a problem?”
Even if they were retrieving a well-deserved victory prize from the body of an enemy they had defeated, Haruhiro wished that Ranta would be more… It was then Haruhiro realized something: to the kobolds, they were the invaders. What they were doing now was akin to murder. No amount of goodwill after the fact would make up for that.
Whether they took the loot off the corpses with care or ripped it off with abandon, the end result was the same. It didn’t change what they were doing. But watching Ranta now made Haruhiro realize just how morally indifferent to it he had become as well. The understanding was hard to bear.
Ranta might not have had any qualms about thinking like this, but Haruhiro was determined not to be the same, even at the risk of being a hypocrite. So Haruhiro removed the talisman—an earring made out of polished animal horn or something—gently, doing his best not to further damage the kobold’s body.
He had no intention of changing the way he did things. It didn’t matter if it was an enemy or even an animal. The dead were owed at least a minimal level of respect.
Haruhiro drew himself up once more. “Let’s go. To the Siren Mines.”