LEVEL 2: Everything is Precious, Nothing is Replaceable
“Looks like there’s some sort of commotion going on over there,” Haruhiro said, pointing into the distance . The others turned their heads .
“Hmm…” Yume placed both hands, shaped into binoculars, in front of her eyes . “I can’t see too well ’cause of the fences, but it looks somebody’s head is bobbin’ up and down over there…”
“You can also hear them howling,” Mary added, straining her ears . “They sound numerous . ”
“Maybe…” Shihoru said, her grip tightening on her staff, “it’s because of…”
Mogzo nodded . “R-Ranta…?”
Haruhiro and the others were now on the agricultural fourth stratum, having descended from the third . They had been approaching a sink well to the fifth when Haruhiro noticed the unusual amount of activity .
“You mean he managed to somehow get back up here from the fifth stratum all alone?” Haruhiro wondered .
Too rare to die, Haruhiro thought, and though he didn’t really consider it the greatest achievement in the world, it was still pretty impressive . At the very least, Ranta’s ability to survive surpassed that of any normal person . It was perseverance of an intensity that Haruhiro and the others just didn’t possess .
They exchanged glances with one another . Haruhiro said, “Let’s go!”
Everyone headed towards the uproar of kobolds . They took care to advance cautiously, never rushing; there was no point in doing any of this if they got caught and chased around too . However, entering an area with so many kobolds in frenzy seemed nigh impossible .
Haruhiro made everyone fall back while he approached the end of a creature pen and poked his head slightly out for a look .
The kobolds were rampaging like a swarm of ants on fire, running around crazily; here, then there, then back again . Sometimes they would even hop the fences into one of the pens then jump back out, all while barking like rabid dogs . Haruhiro observed the kobolds for some time since luckily, none of them were looking in his direction .
He finally withdrew and said to the others, “…there’s no way we can even get close . ”
No other conclusion was possible . If they went any further the kobolds would find them for sure . Of course, one option was to let themselves be discovered, and then try to lure the kobolds away from the area to give Ranta a chance to run or hide . But there was no guarantee that they would be able to draw all of the kobolds to them . Besides, it also occurred to Haruhiro that, compared to any of the five of them, Ranta might have an unexpectedly easier time running, hiding, and adapting to the circumstances in general .
And even if the five of them allowed themselves to be chased, there was no guarantee they would all be able to get away safely . In fact, maybe it was better to just assume the worst and rid himself of unwarranted optimism . No, it was better to remain undetected, but on the other hand, Haruhiro couldn’t think of any other way to help Ranta .
Priorities . What was the order of priorities here? What’s the most important thing I have to do now? What comes after? The first was… the well-being of the five of them . Rescuing Ranta came second . Getting the order of these two priorities reversed was not an option . It was simply unacceptable .
If it was Yume or Shihoru or Mogzo or even Mary in Ranta’s place, the order of priorities wouldn’t change . Haruhiro couldn’t allow himself that, even if it hadn’t been Ranta . That’s what being a leader meant .
“Let’s get out of here,” Haruhiro said with a firm nod . “No doubt Ranta’s nearby, but if the kobolds find us here too, they’re going to go even more insane and the situation’s just going to get worse . Kobolds don’t seem all that persistent to me; if we let things be, maybe they’ll give up and go away . They’ve got their own work to do too . I think eventually things will quiet down . We’ll keep searching for Ranta then . ”
“But… what if Ranta…” Shihoru started hesitantly . “What if, before we come back… they find him and—I’m sorry… I—”
“If that happens…” Yume bit her lip hard, frowning . “If that happens, we’ll be searchin’ for his body… or what’s left of it…”
“Yume’s right,” Mary said, her face stark white .
Mogzo exhaled long and deep .
“I have to make these sorts of decisions . ” Haruhiro clenched his fists tightly . “Whatever happens, the responsibility is on me alone . ”
“Nuh uh!” Yume protested, shaking her head vigorously . “It’s not just yours, Haru… it’s everyone’s, and…”
“No,” Haruhiro said firmly, glad his voice did not emerge trembling .
He didn’t want to allow anyone to see his pathetic, weakling side, especially at a moment like this . Any other time was fine, but not at a time like this . Not now .
Haruhiro continued, “If everyone agrees to do what I say, then I’ll take all the responsibility . I don’t know if I’m saying this right, but… we can’t just keep depending on each other to keep ourselves propped up . I think every party needs something; someone like a backbone, like a central pillar to support it . ” He shook his head . “No . I know it for sure . The problem is whether or not I have what it takes to be one… I don’t know, but I want to try . I’ll do my best . Please let me try . ”
Yume suddenly slapped him on the back . “Now that’s bein’ a boy, Haru . ”
“Err… but I’ve always been one . A boy . ”
“Heck, Yume didn’t mean it that way,” Yume said . “Uhh… Yume meant… Yume meant… Yume doesn’t know what Yume meant, but it did feel like you were one . ”
Haruhiro felt his chest tighten all of a sudden . “Err… Thanks? I think…”
His emotional well-being was threatened, being told that by a girl… what she said could definitely have other connotations . For now though, Haruhiro took it as Yume’s approval of his leadership .
“Haruhiro,” Shihoru had her head bowed for some reason . “Thanks… and thanks for everything later, too . ”
“Thanks, Shihoru,” Haruhiro replied . “Wait, why are you thanking me?”
“It just felt right,” Shihoru said .
“I see . ”
Mogzo too, flashed him a thumbs up and for a moment, Haruhiro was lost on how to respond . He finally returned it with a thumbs up of his own . Mary said nothing, but offered an open hand to him instead . Flustered, Haruhiro got his hand caught on his own cloak and it took him a moment before he could free it to shake Mary’s hand… which he found to be silky soft .
Wow . I’m riding this like a real idiot, Haruhiro thought .
Haruhiro looked again towards where Ranta probably was . There was no change in the kobold’s level of activity so charging in now would be like committing suicide .
“Let’s retreat as far as we can while still being able to keep an eye on this place,” Haruhiro said . He turned back towards the others and added, “Ranta’s fine . If this was all it took to kill him, then he would have been dead long before now . ”
Of course it was all empty, obligatory reassurances . Everyone already knew that, but his companions all answered him with nods anyway, for which Haruhiro was very grateful .
It would be indeed shitty if you came back to haunt us as a ghost, Haruhiro thought .
As they left the area Haruhiro whispered in the back of his mind, So don’t die, Ranta .