LEVEL 2: Everything is Precious, Nothing is Replaceable
After safely—or perhaps not so safely—acquiring the [WIDOW MAKER] technique, Haruhiro and the others resumed their daily routine in the Siren Mines .
Ranta had learned a Dread Knight spell called [DARK TERROR] which instilled the fear of the Black God Skulheill into an opponent and robbed them of rational judgment . Depending on how it was employed, it seemed like a useful technique… if Ranta was competent enough to use it right .
Mogzo returned with the dual techniques [FORWARD THRUST] and [REVERSE THRUST] . [FORWARD THRUST] was a one-handed thrust with fairly long reach while [REVERSE THRUST] was a thrust used while retreating . These were like less fancy versions of Ranta’s bait and confuse skills, [PROPEL LEAP] and [JUKE STAB] .
Shihoru learned the [SHADOW BIND] spell . A shadow elemental was placed on the ground, which would immobilize any enemy who stepped on it . It had drawbacks however; only one elemental could be placed at a time, strong enemies could force their way out of the bind, and it only lasted for up to twenty-five seconds . But like [PHANTOM SLEEP], any battle skill the opponent might have was irrelevant to its effects . It was more of a support spell than an attack skill, but it was a spell that matched Shihoru’s personality .
Yume returned with [STAR PIERCE] . She had practiced her new knife throwing skill so much and with so many different weapons that she’d actually become pretty good with it . She had even bought a small set of throwing knives of her own—well, not exactly, as according to her, “Yume didn’t know what knife to choose so Yume’s master took Yume shoppin’ and told Yume this one, this one, or this one and to pick only one but he bought it for Yume and it made Yume sooooooo happy! Of course, Yume bought some with her own money too…”
It seemed as if Yume’s Hunter’s Guild master had taken quite a liking to her and Haruhiro couldn’t blame him .
Mary returned with the light magic spell [LIGHT OF JUDGEMENT], an offensive spell that utilized the God of Light Luminous’ power to punish the enemy . The range was short and the damage low, but it caused the bodies of its targets to go numb and slowed their movements for a short duration . Mary probably didn’t intend to fight directly with this technique, but rather to support Mogzo and the other front line party members .
With everyone’s new skills, the team’s base fighting ability had improved . The power of Shihoru’s new spell [SHADOW BIND] was an especially crucial addition .
“Shihoru, that’s amazing! You stopped an elder in its tracks!” Haruhiro crowed .
They were on the third stratum of the Siren Mines, engaged with a kobold party led by one of those tough foremen who preferred to stand back and give orders rather than fight at the front . Shihoru’s [SHADOW BIND] had rendered it unable to take so much as a step forward . Only its movement had been disabled, though, so it should have been able to continue giving orders to its followers, but it seemed the elder had fallen into a state of panic .
“Now! Take down the followers!” Haruhiro shouted .
Ranta however, not needing to be told, or disregarding that he hadn’t been told yet, had his left hand extended, already charging at Follower A .
“Here comes the Dread Knight! For Skulheill! Tremble with fear, disbelievers! [DARK TERROR]!”
A purplish mist engulfed Follower A, entering its body though its nose and mouth . The kobold let out a short howl and leapt wildly at Ranta .
“Wha—!” Ranta immediately blocked the kobold’s blade with his longsword, but the kobold didn’t stop there . It launched a series of ferocious attacks void of any semblance of sanity . “What the—! Why—?! What the hell—?!” he shouted, deflecting the attacks . “This isn’t how it’s supposed to be!”
“…It does seem to have lost the ability to make good judgments though,” Haruhiro remarked .
In the end, Ranta was still Ranta . Haruhiro was dumb for expecting more out of him . There were two other followers; Mogzo made for Follower B while Yume headed to Follower C, but Mary was ahead of them both .
“O light, under the divine grace of Lord Luminous… [LIGHT OF JUDGEMENT]!”
Follower B, who was waiting for Mogzo, was bathed in light . Its entire body began to spasm violently .
Mogzo followed up immediately with his killer [RAGE CLEAVE], shouting, “THANK YOU!!”
Follower B went down and Mogzo immediately shifted over to help Yume . It was very like the dependable Mogzo to not use a new skill when the situation didn’t call for it .
“I guess there’s no other choice,” Haruhiro murmured and started over to help Ranta .
He was getting into position at Follower A’s back when something suddenly occurred to him . Ranta’s [DARK TERROR] wasn’t a skill that was meant to frighten away its targets, but instead force them into making a do-or-die counterattack . Ranta failed epically with it earlier, but Haruhiro actually benefited . Follower A was so intently focused on killing Ranta that it didn’t notice Haruhiro at all . He effortlessly took up his position at its back and… [BACKSTAB]?
No, might as well try, “[WIDOW MAKER]!”
Haruhiro latched onto Follower A and locked both of its arms in place for the moment . He had become proficient at that much, but he still hadn’t mastered locking an opponent’s legs in place as well . But just getting the opponent’s arms pinned down increased the success rate of the technique massively . He rammed his dagger into the base of the kobold’s neck, slit its throat, and jumped away .
Follower A wasn’t stone dead just yet and, though it was unlikely, staying that close invited the possibility of getting counterattacked . But that wasn’t the only reason Haruhiro jumped away .
“TAAAAAAAAAKE THIS!” Ranta shouted, jumping forward as he thrust his sword into the dying kobold . Then he subsequently finished it by stabbing it again through its heart with all his strength .
“YESSSS! GOT MY VICE! GOT MY VICE!” Ranta declared with a gleeful shout .
“That was reckless! You could have stabbed me through it!” Haruhiro yelled .
“If you die, it’s one more Vice for me! YES!!!”
Dumbass . But that much Haruhiro already knew . All he had to do was remember that dumbasses will be dumbasses and then he wouldn’t see so much red . But he was pissed . He was beyond goddamn “pissed” . Maybe he should just give up holding it in .
“YAH!” Yume cried, using [SWEEPING SLASH] quickly followed by [CROSS CUT] . The combination attack put Follower C on its back foot .
“THANK YOU!” Mogzo’s [RAGE CLEAVE] came without hesitation, ending the kobold on the spot .
“Everyone! To the foreman!” Haruhiro shouted, the obviousness of the statement making him a little embarrassed . But calling out to his team in moments like this also had the effect of encouraging everyone and boosting teamwork . And this was no time to start feeling shy . The kobold foreman was no longer disabled and the team moved to pound him into oblivion . Of course, the foreman was also desperate and would fight back hard . What was the best way to deal with an opponent like this?
Haruhiro and the others had learned the answer through experience . Four of them would surround it and rather than everyone attacking randomly, they waited for it to attack . Then person it attacked would defend while the other three counterattacked . They would repeat this process until the enemy was down .
As a result, they took down the elder kobold without anyone on the team getting injured . Ranta’s movements were as questionable as always but Haruhiro decided to let it go, since it was a completely one-sided victory .
“Haven’t you had enough of this stratum?” Ranta asked . “These enemies are way too easy . It’s about time we moved on, leveled up . ”
“Here we go again…” Haruhiro sighed .
Haruhiro still wasn’t entirely convinced after they took down another foreman and two followers, but when they came across a sink well that led to the fourth stratum, Haruhiro seriously considered descending as a viable option . Everyone was fighting very well today and he wanted to keep the momentum going . On the other hand, he didn’t want today’s successes to make them overconfident . It was easy to get carried away at times like these .
“Hmm…” With the sink well right before his eyes, Haruhiro fell deep into thought .
His own feelings put him at fifty-fifty, descend or not .
“When are you going to quit being indecisive?!” Ranta demanded .
And Haruhiro had to admit that this time, and this time only, Ranta had a point . This was being a little too indecisive, even for Haruhiro . What were everyone else’s opinions of a leader like this? Shihoru’s and Mogzo’s expressions were anxious . Yume stared at him blankly . Mary was regarding him with a thoughtful expression . Ranta was the only one who was pissed off .
This was no good . When decision time came, he had to make a decision . So he did .
“Let’s do it tomorrow,” Haruhiro announced .
“WHAT!?” Ranta instantly protested .
Haruhiro had anticipated his resistance, but it still annoyed him .
“Nothing wrong with coming back tomorrow, right?” he replied . “We’ll have time to mentally prepare beforehand so its fine . ”
“I’m already mentally prepared!!”
“You’re just one person! What about everyone else?!”
“So it’s my fault that I’m the only one who’s ready and the rest of you are chicken shit!?” Ranta spat .
Wow . Holy shit that pissed him off . He was going to explode with rage . Haruhiro closed his eyes and forced himself to take a deep breath . Getting angry didn’t do anyone any good . He had to control himself . Yes, self-control . But why? Why did he have to go to such lengths to control himself on Ranta’s account?
It was Ranta’s fault . It was all goddamn Ranta .
When Haruhiro opened his eyes, he didn’t look at Ranta . His self-control would evaporate if he so much as glimpsed Ranta’s face right now .
“We’ll call it a day now on the third stratum and descend to the fourth stratum tomorrow . Ranta disagrees with me . Anyone else feel the same?”
Everyone else agreed with Haruhiro . He expected Ranta to continue protesting, but to his surprise, Ranta merely shrugged his shoulders and backed off . Haruhiro didn’t get him at all . What was Ranta thinking?
On their way back, they brought down another foreman and four kobold workers on the third stratum without suffering any injuries and then returned to Altana without further mishaps . Their earnings were comparatively good today . After eating dinner together, they headed to Sherry’s Tavern for drinks .
When Kikkawa dropped by, the conversation grew lively . Kikkawa and Ranta were birds of a feather, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder and creating quite the ruckus together . They’ve got matching personalities, Haruhiro thought . And the more he thought about it, the more Haruhiro realized that he was the one most often at verbal odds with Ranta . Was it because he didn’t have a matching personality?
Haruhiro left with everyone else, but then after they were well on their way back, he turned back to the tavern alone after offering up a few random excuses to the others . Mary was sitting alone at the far end of the first floor bar counter . She noticed Haruhiro approaching and turned her gaze towards him .
For a moment, he wondered anxiously what he would do if she told him to go away… Maybe he was chicken shit, just like Ranta said . He certainly wasn’t courageous by any means . Luckily, his fears were unfounded .
Mary gave him a slight smile and asked, “What’s the matter?”
“Ah, nothing in particular, really . Just… Do you mind if I sit here?”
“Not at all . ”
Haruhiro took the seat next to her . He noticed she was nursing a cup of that honey mead again, so he ordered the same for himself . He’d been eating and drinking pretty much anything he wanted lately . He wasn’t worried about money, and a part of him was considering moving out of that shabby reserve force lodge, too .
“Mary, where do you live? Err—” He panicked, not meaning it to come out like that . “No! No, I mean… I didn’t mean I want to know where you live . I was just thinking it was probably time to think about moving out of that lodge and… and I was err, wondering where would be, you know… just asking… for reference…”
“I rent a room at a run-of-the-mill lodge on Kaen Road,” Mary replied casually . “It’s a place only used by women, and I’ve lived there since the start . ”
“Oh . I see…” Haruhiro felt like an idiot for making a scene . If there was a hole nearby, he would crawl into it . Or not . He felt beads of sweat starting to run down his forehead and, careful to look casual, wiped it away with one hand . “Hm . Must be nice . I can see how it would be awkward to have a guy living next door . ”
“If you decide to move out of the lodge, I can probably introduce Yume and Shihoru to the owner,” Mary offered .
“Yeah, they’ll probably appreciate that a lot . But it’s not like we’ve decided to move or anything yet . We haven’t even talked about it, really . Everyone’s okay with living there even though things get pretty inconvenient sometimes . We’re all used to it now . ”
“The reserve force lodge…” Mary closed her eyes and took a sip of her drink . “Brings back memories . ”
Haruhiro was certain that Mary was still with her old companions at the time she was living in the lodge . The companions no longer with her now .
“But the lodge has gotten pretty crowded recently,” Haruhiro said with a laugh . He hadn’t meant to laugh and didn’t know why he did it . “The new arrivals are there now, though our rooms are pretty far apart, so I haven’t really said more than passing greetings to any of them . ”
“What sort of people are they?” Mary asked .
“No one like Renji,” replied Haruhiro . “But no one as pathetic as us either . ”
“I don’t think there’s any reason to look down on yourself like that . ”
“Oh . Is that how I came across?”
“A little . ”
“Yeah . I guess I did . ” Haruhiro felt like hanging his head in his hands, but settled with mussing his hands through his hair instead . “That’s not good . I wish I could project more confidence in myself, but… I guess I’m just not that type of person . ”
“A cocksure, self-assured Haru?” Mary’s expression softened . “You’re right . That’s not like you at all . ”
“Yeah, I don’t think so either . But there I go again with ‘I think, maybe, probably’ . That’s not good either . ”
“Are you sure you’re not overthinking it? Taking things too seriously?”
“Too seriously? Overthinking? Me? No way,” Haruhiro denied .
“Ranta too, you take him too seriously and that’s why you get into fights with him all the time,” Mary pointed out .
“Ahh… I see . That might be true, yeah . I should figure out a way to just let it go every time he says something . ”
“It’s because you want to find a perfect solution that makes it so difficult . I think it’s better to just be more half-assed with him . Save the seriousness for when you really need it . ”
Haruhiro didn’t think he was the type of person who took everything seriously, but when it came to matters related to leadership of a party, he found himself agonizing over and ambivalent about every little decision . It was true that he did the best he could to seriously consider everything, but that was probably because he wasn’t a natural leader .
If he was suited for the role, if he had what it took to lead within him already, then he wouldn’t have to think about everything so deeply . And the conclusion he reached at the end of these extended periods of thinking was the same every time: If there was someone around who could take his place, he would give it to them .
Even during these chats with Mary, he got the overwhelming feeling that she was better suited to lead the party than he was and was tempted to ask her to do it . But he didn’t . He couldn’t bring himself to do something that pitiful .
“Mary, I’ve been meaning to ask you something…”
“What is it?”
“About the Siren Mines . ”
“You mean…” Mary seemed to have more to say, but shut her lips abruptly .
Starting tomorrow, they would descend to the fourth stratum then eventually down the fifth, just like Mary’s previous party had . If they kept heading in this direction, then surely one day they would reach the place where Mary’s previous companions had died . Mary would have to set foot in that place once again .
Haruhiro knew, from personal experience, how tough that could be . It was bitter and heart-wrenching .
Anger welled up in the pit of his stomach every time he returned to that place to scout the plate-armored goblin and hobgoblin . It was sadness and anger beyond what he could bear . They had never returned to the place Manato died, always gave it a wide berth in fact, after their business there was done . If he could, he would forget its very existence .
“I was just wondering if you were okay with us working in the Mines . You’re not pushing yourself too hard, are you? I mean, it doesn’t seem like it, but…”
“It’s not… easy,” Mary said through gritted teeth . “Being down there doesn’t bring any good feelings . Not now, probably not ever . ”
“I thought as much…”
“But… it’s something I have to do,” she said, shaking her head . “No, it’s something I want to do . If I don’t, I’ll never be able to move on . I’d never be able to do it alone though, and if I have to borrow the strength of others to do it… then I want to borrow yours . You and everyone else . Because you and the others consider me your companion and friend . ”
For some reason, Haruhiro was deeply moved by those words . No, not for some reason, it was because he was very happy . Mary was actually depending on them . She considered Haruhiro and the others to be her friends and believed in them to see her through this . And she had actually said it out loud to Haruhiro . That made him happier than anything .
“I’m sorry to put such a burden on all of you,” Mary added .
It was sweet of Mary to say that and made Haruhiro want to give her a hug—not that he would even consider doing something as crazy as that . He couldn’t do it and he didn’t think Mary was looking for anything like that . But in that moment, she was undeniably cute in a way that made Haruhiro want to protect her… though his ability to actually do so was questionable .
“It’s no burden,” Haruhiro assured her with a smile .
He wished he could have shown her that it was worth placing her trust in him, but that wouldn’t be like him . At the very least though, he wanted her to rest assured .
Haruhiro continued, “It’s no burden at all . We’ll lend you all the strength we have . Well, we’ll do everything we can and if we can’t do it, then we can’t do it, but—I’m not coming off as very cool, am I?”
“I think you’re fine just the way you are, Haru . ”
“Really? You really think so?”
Then in the quietest of whispers, almost embarrassed, it seemed, Mary said, “Thank you . ”
Whoa . And in that moment, he felt as if he was going to fall in love with her . Except not really . He wasn’t her type, after all .