LEVEL 2: Everything is Precious, Nothing is Replaceable
Haruhiro was not a natural leader. He lacked both character and ability, and that was very difficult to remedy. But after talking to Mary last night, Haruhiro had renewed his determination to do his best as one. He doubted that he would ever become a great leader, but he decided to make that his goal nonetheless.
Now here they were, on the fourth stratum of the Siren Mines, just as Haruhiro had promised yesterday.
“Hey everyone, look here! Look! Look!” Yume bubbled, leaning over a fence while pointing to some kind of animal beyond it. “Ain’t those just darlin’?”
“What the—hell no!” came Ranta’s prompt refutation, and for once, Haruhiro had to agree.
The creatures tottering about beyond the fence looked sort of like pigs at first glance, but then again also resembled rats. They were something like shaved rats the size of pigs. No one knew what the kobolds called them, but reserve force soldiers referred to them as “pigrats”. And an appropriate name it is, Haruhiro agreed.
The area contained a number of these fenced pens to raise pigrats in them. But that wasn’t all.
“Yume thinks they’re absolutely darlin’. Those things over there are adorable too!” Yume said, running over to another pen. “Or… maybe not. Never mind. These aren’t cute at all…”
“What are those?” Rather than approach the barrier, Shihoru leaned forward for a look, but drew back terrified. “Eww, gross. Disgusting…”
Mogzo nodded and grunted his agreement.
“They’re…” Haruhiro glanced briefly at the creatures in the non-pigrat pen and wished that he hadn’t. “Absolutely horrendous. I get the feeling things that ugly were never meant to be seen.”
The corner of Mary’s mouth twitched slightly. “I think…I know exactly what you mean.”
The creatures had no arms, legs, or tail. Their bodies weren’t thin; they were plump, and they were long. It was like someone took a pig, tore off all its appendages and tail, then stretched it out lengthwise. Apparently, they were called “pigworms”, a name given to them by reserve force soldiers, and they were unexpectedly terrifying in appearance.
“Hmm…” Ranta reached out with his sword, attempting to poke one.
“Hey,” Haruhiro grabbed him. “Ranta, don’t.”
“What? Shut up, Haruhiro. Just trying it to see what happens. It’s not like I was being serious or anything.”
“How’s it possible to try and not be serious?” Haruhiro demanded and regretted the words the moment he did. All he had to do to was let it go, let the moment pass, but here he was again, treating Ranta way too earnestly.
“It’s perfectly possible for me,” Ranta retorted.
“More-than-way-beyond perfectly possible. Got it?!”
“Yes, yes, got it,” Haruhiro said.
“Then repeat it for me!” Ranta demanded.
“It’s more-than-way-beyond perfectly possible for you,” Haruhiro repeated.
“Don’t do it using my exact words!”
Haruhiro ignored the raging Ranta and instead looked back at the herd of pigworms. The way they scrunched up their bodies and slithered along the ground was like something out of a nightmare.
“Don’t tell me that’s what kobolds eat…” Haruhiro murmured.
It was said that the fourth stratum of the Siren Mines was the agricultural sector. Their immediate surroundings was more for animal ranching than crops, but darkshrooms and ogreferns—even glow blossoms that produced their own light—all manner of plants that did not require sunlight were cultivated here.
Kobolds were living beings. If they didn’t eat, they would die. With the exception of lesser kobolds, they rarely ventured outside the mountain, so they had to sustain themselves down here somehow. The result was that, after all mineral ore here had been exhausted, the spacious fourth stratum was converted to farmland.
“Get down!” Mary suddenly said, pointing to the ground.
Haruhiro, Shihoru, Mogzo, and Ranta dropped immediately, but Yume remained standing.
“Hm? What’s goin—”
“Just do it!” Haruhiro grabbed her arm, intending to force her down to a crouch, but ended up making her fall backwards instead.
“Ow!” Yume yelped.
“S-sorry! But—wait, shh!” Haruhiro hushed, index finger at his mouth.
He said no more, but Yume nodded, apparently getting the message. Haruhiro and the others stayed crouched by the fence, motionless for a good three minutes before Ranta peeked over.
“Gone… I think,” he reported.
“You think?” Haruhiro slowly poked half his head above the fence and took a thorough look around. There was one elder kobold in the distance, but it had its back to them and was moving away. “It’s still there. Let’s wait a little longer.”
When Haruhiro looked again a minute later, a different elder had appeared and was coming their way. “Trouble!” he hissed.
“Oy oy oy,” Ranta sighed. “How long are we gonna hide? Let’s just take it out!”
Haruhiro’s expression turned thoughtful for a moment, but then he looked over at Mary and met her gaze. She shook her head.
“Don’t,” she advised. “This isn’t like the upper strata. If we fail to kill it in an instant, the noise from the fight will be like the spark that ignites an inferno.”
Ranta scoffed. “Fine. Then we take it out in one blow.”
“Easier said than done,” Haruhiro snapped, thoroughly annoyed.
“Maybe… it’s possible,” Shihoru suddenly said. “With my magic.”
“Ah,” Haruhiro’s eyes went wide. “That’s right. [PHANTOM SLEEP].”
“Yes,” Shihoru said. “But… we’ll be in real trouble if I miss. Maybe it’s better not to risk it…”
“You guys,” Ranta had his I-am-about-to-say-something-that’s-going-to-piss-everyone-off expression on again. “Always thinking about stuff negatively is like being afraid to drink water because it might be poisoned or something. You get what I mean? Yeah?”
Haruhiro wished that if Ranta was going to try to make up analogies, he could have at least put more effort into thinking up one that was more appropriate to the situation. And with that silent rebuttal, Haruhiro let the moment of confrontation pass. As the party leader, it was vital that he acquired this let it go skill.
“Shihoru,” Haruhiro said instead. “If you’re not confident, we don’t have to do it. But since you came up with the idea, I think we should try, if you believe you can pull it off.”
It was rare for timid Shihoru to speak up on her own and Haruhiro wanted to encourage that, and give her his support. Shihoru’s gaze remained on the ground for several moments before she finally lifted her head and said, “…I want to try it.”
No one was against it. They approached to within sixty-five feet, the maximum cast range of [PHANTOM SLEEP], before Shihoru popped her head and staff up over the fence, chanting, “Oom rel eckt krom dash!”
The shadow elemental that shot from the tip of her staff wasn’t as fast as [SHADOW ECHO]’s elemental, but it was stealthy. It flew without a sound and hit the elder right in the face. The elemental seeped into the elder’s body through its nose, ears, and mouth. The elder began to sway, and it fell over in short order.
“Nice!” Haruhiro gave the signal and everyone attacked the sleeping elder as one unit. No time to think about the dishonorable tactic—they had to finish it quickly. The one to do so was Ranta. Why was it that Ranta was always fastest to act in these types of situations?
“PIece of cake Vice!,” laughed Ranta fiendishly. Everyone, hurry up and strip it of its valuables!”
“Since when did you become the one giving the orders?” Haruhiro retorted without thinking. This was no good. Let it go. Gotta let it go.
Unlike the elders occupying the third stratum, fourth stratum elders were equipped with iron scale mail and iron-tipped whips that hung looped at their waists. The elder’s talisman was a blue-tinged silver earring and looked like it would fetch quite a good price.
“Easy win for us, but Yume feels kinda sorry for the eldie. Nicely done, Shihoru,” Yume complimented. “You sure pew-pew’d it with your magic.”
“A-agreed,” Mogzo added. “Shihoru deserves all the credit for that one.”
“I-I… err…” Embarrassed by the compliments, Shihoru shrank back.
“They’re right,” Haruhiro said, turning to Shihoru and giving her a thumbs up. “You were perfect. Really. Now we know that we can use this method to take out one enemy if we can manage to sneak up on it.”
“Don’t forget that I’m the one who actually killed it,” Ranta interjected.
Right, Haruhiro thought. Let it go.
“The body,” Mary said as she made the Priest’s hexagon gesture. “We shouldn’t leave it out in the open like this.”
“Yeah,” Haruhiro said, looking at the pens surrounding them. “Let’s move it into one of the pens for now.”
After stripping the elder’s body of its valuables, Haruhiro and Mogzo carried it into a pigrat pen. Haruhiro wanted Ranta to help out too, but didn’t think it was worth the trouble of asking.
It was then that something truly horrifying happened.
“What the—” Haruhiro started.
The pigrats surrounded the body, making boo-hee boo-hee squealing noises and then… No way… They’re not going to eat it… right?
Wrong. They devoured it in a frenzy, each greedily fighting another over the carcass..
“I guess that’s what we call the ‘food chain’,” Yume whispered.
But was that really the issue here? Haruhiro had a feeling that she wasn’t quite grasping the crux of the matter.
Shihoru crouched down, holding onto her staff for support, looking faint. Mary put one hand over her mouth, as if suppressing the urge to vomit; Mogzo’s expression was dumbfounded.
“Well, well. How convenient,” Ranta said, strange smirk on his face and looking the picture of uninvolved bystander. Even though he wasn’t. “We can kill, kill, kill all we want and then dump the bodies for the pigrats to clean up. It’s kinda gross, since the kobolds are gonna eat the pigrats at some point, but it’s not like we’re the cannibals, so whatever. I pretty much knew this was gonna happen though.” Ranta finished with a weak laugh.
“Then, why are your legs shaking?” Haruhiro asked, to which Ranta replied with, “W-w-what?!”, and a threatening gesture. But Ranta’s face was so pale, Haruhiro wasn’t in the least bit intimidated.
Ranta continued, “M-my legs aren’t shaking! I-I’m not shaking anywhere! I-it’s cause you’re shaking that makes it look like I’m shaking, ‘kay!”
“What’s ‘kay’?” Haruhiro asked mildly.
“Shut it! ‘Kay’ is… ‘Kay’ means… Uhh… ‘K’ stands for Killer!”
“No need to force yourself if you’re feeling queasy, Ranta,” Haruhiro offered.
“E-eeediot! I’m fine! This is nothing! In fact, it’s my favorite! Because Dread Knights love the grotesque and erotic!”
“Grotesque, fine. Erotic doesn’t seem to be relevant to anything here.”
“But I want it to! ‘Cause I’m a manly man!”
Before they had any more time to think deeper about this particular method of disposing bodies, the sudden noise caused by the pigrats getting an unexpected treat brought four elders running to the scene. Haruhiro and the others were forced to hide again, but this time, remaining where they were would be dangerous. They had to get away from here.
The pigrat and pigworm pen fences were tall, making it relatively easy to keep themselves out of sight; however, the number of kobold elders at the pens had suddenly increased again. The darkshroom, ogrefern, and glow blossom plots were wide open without any fences. They would be plainly visible to low ranked and regular kobold workers there.
Haruhiro and the others were forced to make a covert rush from one end of the fourth stratum, and then back to the center where they hid in the corner of an empty pen.
“Do you think this stratum might be too much for us?” Haruhiro, leaning against the fence wall, asked Mary.
Mary looked thoughtful before saying, “The conditions here aren’t very good. My team also—” She cut herself off, expression troubled.
Afraid of making things awkward for Haruhiro and the others, she hadn’t intended to say “my team” or make any mention of her former companions while with them. Haruhiro was about to tell her not worry about it, but he was beaten to it.
“Whatever. No need to worry about stuff like that all the time.” And by Ranta, of all people. Ranta continued, “Does it look like we’re that petty? Not me. I’m big-hearted. Big, wide, and wild too. Feel free to fall in love with me any moment now.”
“Um, no thanks,” came Mary’s prompt reply.
Ranta purposely fell himself over at the instant rejection, his silliness actually making Mary smile ever so slightly. Haruhiro suddenly felt his chest tighten with annoyance. What? Could it possibly be jealousy he was feeling now? Jealous of Ranta? No way…
Haruhiro cleared his throat, getting a grip on himself. “What about conditions on the fifth stratum then?”
“Compared to here? Better, probably…” Mary replied carefully.
“Ah…” Yume nodded.
“If that’s the case, then…” Shihoru offered nervously. “Should we descend?”
Mogzo gave a firm nod.
Ranta grinned broadly. “It’s decided then.”