Chapter 4 – Pitch-Black Style
LEVEL 2: Everything is Precious, Nothing is Replaceable
Chapter 4: Pitch-Black Style
It had “mine” in the name, after all. Naturally, there would be a tunnel-like shaft that led into the mountain, and of course the tunnel was going to be pitch black. Or so Haruhiro had assumed, only to be proven flat out wrong.
Flowers bloomed all along the tunnel road; not normal flowers, but ones that radiated emerald light. According to Mary, they were called “glow blossoms” and were exactly what the name implied. Upon closer inspection, they were really more like beds of moss; whatever they were, though, it was because of them that the mine shaft wasn’t completely dark. Not brightly lit, but navigable.
“Do you guys think we can…” Ranta plucked up a few, expression thoughtful as he promptly put them inside his mouth—then spat them out violently. “BLEH! Tastes like crap! Bitter and shit.”
“Quit messing around,” Haruhiro sighed.
“What?” Ranta replied, wiping off his mouth. “I just wanted to try them.”
“Why would doing that even occur to you?”
“No idea. The mood was a little boring, so I decided to make up for it. You’re welcome.”
“You didn’t make up for anything,” said Haruhiro exasperatedly. “There was nothing wrong with the mood, and if there was, it was probably your fault!”
“WHAT. Don’t say stupid shit like that. How is it my fault? Quit trying to blame others for everything!”
“Haru, you’re better off not botherin’,” Yume said, tugging on Haruhiro’s sleeve. “Nothin’ gets through that thick skull of his so don’t waste your breath.”
Haruhiro nodded. “Yeah. You’re right.”
“Hey!” Ranta shouted. “Don’t just—! OY!”
“It’s best to be quiet,” Mary said softly, glaring at Ranta. “We’re in enemy territory now.”
Ranta scrunched his brows together and twisted his lips into a grim expression. “It’s best to be quiet,” he mimicked, sniggering. “Really quiet. Shut the hell up. I don’t want to hear a single word, got it?”
“Little punk,” Shihoru murmured under her breath.
“What did you say?!” Ranta demanded, veins at his temple bulging.
“Quit it, Ranta,” Haruhiro said, tone unintentionally gruff. “We’re not here to screw around. If something happens, one of us might get killed.”
Ranta turned away, perhaps out of embarrassment, and replied, “No need to tell me, I already know.”
“Do you?” Haruhiro challenged. “Do you really?”
Haruhiro was furious. Is it okay? he couldn’t help thinking. Is it really okay to keep Ranta in the party?
For the sake of the team, shouldn’t they kick Ranta out sooner rather than later? It wasn’t that he couldn’t fight or didn’t contribute, but he seemed to go out of his way to piss everyone off every chance he got. He caused friction and stressed the team out. Didn’t his cons outweigh his pros? Wasn’t he doing them more harm than good?
Now might have been a good time to think about it. However, if he started down that line of thought, then a decision would have to be made.
As they made their way down the tunnel, they ran into three lesser kobolds barring the way. The kobolds seemed frightened, but they held their ground. After Mogzo and Ranta each dispatched one, the third fled.
Kobolds usually walked upright on two legs, but when they ran, they loped, using their weaponless arm as a third leg. While it was strange, their weird way of running actually made them very fast, so chasing after the fleeing kobold was difficult and put everyone on edge. They would be in big trouble if other kobolds attacked.
Fortunately, they were able to run it down and finish it off without any mishaps. Haruhiro made a mental note of the kobolds’ running speed for next time; it might take a while, but it would be great if they could become as proficient with kobolds as with goblins. They just needed more experience.
“The Siren Mines extend more than ten strata deep.” Mary’s voice echoed from the walls and seemed to reverberate in his chest. “Here on the first stratum, ore deposits have long since been depleted, and all that’s left are glow blossoms. The lowest of the lesser kobolds live here. Mining shafts used to lead to lower strata, but they’re no longer accessible due to cave-ins. The only way to get to the second stratum now is using the sink wells.”
“Sink wells?” Shihoru asked.
Mary nodded. “That’s what we Crimson Moon members call them. They’re just vertical shafts between strata. From the third stratum down, the shafts are installed with gondola lifts, but for the most part we use the sink wells to move between strata.”
Mogzo exhaled through his nose and said, “Is it because security is tight around the lifts?”
“Yes. Kobolds are divided into three types: lesser kobolds, normal kobolds, and the large elders. Only elders are allowed to use the lifts freely. Normal kobolds can only use the lifts when ordered to or permitted by an elder.”
“Yume gets the feelin’ these eldie guys think they’re all that,” Yume remarked.
Yume being Yume, Haruhiro guessed that she felt a tiny bit sorry for normal kobolds.
Mary’s expression softened slightly as she explained. “Elders are the elite class while kobolds are the worker class. Lesser kobolds are not even considered full members of their society. The lower ranks of worker kobolds make their residence starting on the second strata. That’s where things start to get tough.”
“So it’s from here on out, huh…” Haruhiro licked his suddenly dry lips.
They stopped when they reached a large, roughly circular opening. So this was a sink well. It was a vertical hole about ten feet in diameter with four rope ladders attached at its ledges. Haruhiro gulped, wanting to descend and also not.
But while Haruhiro wavered, Ranta was already going down a ladder.
“Ranta, hold up…” Haruhiro called.
“What?” Ranta glared at him. “Why hesitate? We’ve come this far so there’s no point in stopping now. It’s not even a question, so hurry up! If you don’t stop being a baby, I’ll leave you behind.”
“Or maybe we’ll just leave you behind down there,” Haruhiro retorted.
“I’ll frickin’ kill you if you do. I’m not even kidding.”
And that was that. Haruhiro and the others grabbed rope ladders and began going down. The general appearance of the second stratum was much less plain than the first. One could still see that it used to be a mine, but numerous hollows were cut into the walls. Haruhiro guessed they were probably kobold worker dwellings.
His guess was quickly confirmed when they snuck a peek into one of the hollows and, much to their dismay, discovered kobolds snoring inside.
“Aren’t we pretty screwed if we wake them?” he whispered. “Looks like there’s a lot in just this one hollow…”
Before anyone could reply, the sound of snarling dogs echoed in the distance. Were the kobolds fighting amongst themselves? That’s what it seemed like. The howling soon died down, but it wasn’t long before more howling started from a different direction.
“Yume didn’t think they’d be so noisy,” Yume said, not sounding particularly concerned.
“S-shouldn’t we go back now?” Shihoru clung tightly onto to Yume, entire body trembling.
“It’s all right,” Mary said calmly. “It’s always loud down here, so unless it’s something out of the ordinary, they won’t wake up. Even if we made a little noise, they rarely group to give chase.”
Mogzo sighed in relief.
“Though that only applies to the second stratum,” she amended with a slight smile. “We must be wary of the elders, beginning with the third stratum. And then there’s Deathpatch.”
It wasn’t just Haruhiro. Even Ranta’s expression hardened the moment they heard that name. A kobold with patchy black and white fur, bigger and more brutal than any elder, who wandered the mines with his entourage. The name came from both his fur and the Crimson Moon members he had killed, including Mary’s former companions. And to Mary, the name must have been synonymous with revenge.
Whoever killed such a creature would become the talk of the town. Since no such talk had been heard, he must still be alive.
“It’s said that he’s been spotted as far up as the first stratum,” Mary continued, her tone calm as ever. Haruhiro thought her serenity rather odd, as if she was forcing herself to remain impassive. “But the reports are dubious, so I don’t think we should be overly concerned at the moment. Beyond this stratum, however, we must never forget to keep the presence of Deathpatch in mind. If we don’t start to run at the first sight of him…”
“You mean this?” Ranta, grinning broadly, made a throat slashing motion with his hand.
“Knock it off!” Yume punched Ranta in the shoulder.
“Ow! What was that for?!”
“Why can’t you act a bit more sensible?” she demanded.
“What? How am I not? You won’t find anyone with more sensational sense than me!”
“Try sayin’ that after you stop your stand-up comedy routines,” Yume snapped.
“Yume, if you’re gonna say that, you might as well say you can’t stand him outright,” straight-man Haruhiro cut in, but rather wished he had let them keep bickering.
He cleared his throat and looked over at Mary. She looked like her usual self, but Haruhiro wondered if she was really okay. He had a feeling she was the type who kept her emotions bottled up.
“At any rate,” Haruhiro continued, “Ranta, unless you have something constructive to say, just keep quiet.”
“Then how about I make a suggestion. Let’s go for those guys,” Ranta said, using his chin to indicate the kobold workers asleep in the hollows. “They won’t wake unless we make a lot of noise, right? So let’s just kill them in their sleep. It’ll be easy—stab, stab, stab, then we take the loot and leave.”
Haruhiro was at a momentary loss for words. Finally, he responded, “You have no sense of morality whatsoever.”
“Morality ain’t got nothing to do with it. I’m a Dread Knight—a servant of Skulheill. We believe that all things are equal before Death. The Vices we collect are the opposite, the constrastitation of common sense and morals and everything you consider good. The constrastitation. This is important, so I’ll say it again: CONSTRASTITATION. Though all are equally embraced by Death, to be bound by its absurdity just makes fools of us all. Can’t take it, right? For if there’s anything we can let in, it’s our desires, base instincts, primal urges, and stuff like that. It’s there that impartial Death awaits. Understand?”
“No,” Haruhiro said. “And I don’t even want to try.”
“Haruhiro… You need to train yourself more. Your brain, I mean. There’s no way you can be our leader with your current level of comprehension skills. Just a piece of advice from the bottom of my heart, because I’m a nice person.”
Wow. What? What am I even supposed to do with this? I really really REALLY want to punch the living daylights out of him.
Had Ranta simply been taken in by the Dread Knights’ teachings? No, that couldn’t have explained everything. Ranta was supposed to have joined the Warrior’s guild, but he changed his mind and ran off to the Dread Knights instead. He did it after having volunteered for the Warrior position, fully aware that a party couldn’t be without one and without consulting anyone else beforehand. All because he thought Dread Knights were “cool”.
The only explanation was that Ranta had been selfish from the start. Selfishness was part of his nature; his personality, his natural disposition. There was no fixing or changing it. Ranta would always be that way.
Would they be able to keep going like this? To be honest, Haruhiro didn’t entirely believe they could. If he couldn’t be confident that Ranta could change for the better, then it was over. It was for Ranta’s sake too. This wasn’t the time or place to make such decisions, but…
But even so, Sorry Ranta, you’re out was not something Haruhiro could just say right now. Kicking Ranta out here in the mines would drag Haruhiro down to his level.
“Suggestion rejected,” he said instead. “No need to even put it up for a vote, right?”
The others nodded vigorously. Everyone except Ranta.
“Whatever,” Ranta scoffed. “I figured as much.”
“Then don’t suggest it in the first place,” Haruhiro said.
“I’m doing you guys a favor by thinking of stuff you guys would never think of. You just don’t understand my fatherly concern for everyone.”
“What kind of parent do you think you are?” Haruhiro countered.
It would never end if he kept replying. Really, he should never have replied to start with.
They continued on. There were supposed to be five sink wells to the third stratum scattered here, and they explored hoping to find one. Suddenly, they ran into a group of four low-ranked worker kobolds carrying shovels and picks over their shoulders. They must have been on their way back from work.
“Four?! That’s too many!” Haruhiro engaged one immediately, only to have the kobold block his dagger with a whirl of its shovel.
It counterattacked with the same shovel, once, twice… four times in quick succession. Haruhiro aimed for the tool, countering each of the incoming thrusts with the Thief’s fighting technique, [SWAT]. Defending this way wore his weapon out quickly so he tried to avoid using it too much, but there was no other choice right now.
How was everyone else doing? Mogzo, Ranta, and Yume had each paired off with a kobold, and, for several seconds, neither side had an advantage.
“Oom rel eckt vel dash!” Voash! Shihoru’s [SHADOW ECHO] spell slammed into Mogzo’s opponent. The worker kobold’s body began to tremble and it dropped its defenses for the slightest moment.
Mogzo didn’t miss his chance. “THANK YOU—!” he cried, unleashing [RAGE CLEAVE], also known as the “thank-you-for-letting-me-kill-you attack”.
Haruhiro never really paid attention to anyone else’s personal improvement, but looking at Mogzo now he had to say that [RAGE CLEAVE] was, without a doubt, more accurate and deadly than ever before. Mogzo felled the kobold with that single blow and immediately headed towards Yume.
Just as Haruhiro was thinking, Good. We can do this, something slammed into his back.
“What the—! Haruhiro, you bastard!” Ranta raged at him.
“Ranta! Pay more attention to your surroundings!” Haruhiro shot back.
“Look who’s talking!”
“You better be!”
Everything Ranta said pissed him off. Haruhiro had apologized first. Was it too much to expect an apology in return?
“THANK YOU!” Mogzo finished off another.
With that, both Yume and Mogzo were now free to help, but Ranta shouted, “I’m fine! I’ll take this one down by myself! Go save eeediot Haruhiro’s ass!”
“Eeediot? What the hell was that supposed to mean?!”
Seriously what the hell I can’t stand it anymore I can’t believe him he’s the worst, the absolute worst! Blood in his veins boiled on the brink of explosion, he was that pissed off.
But Mogzo and Yume were coming and he needed to focus on the job at hand. The kobold was turning to face them, giving Haruhiro a chance to slip behind it. Now!
But it was no good. The point of his dagger hit bone. Haruhiro bit his lip in frustration and jumped back. Even if it wasn’t fatal, the kobold couldn’t ignore the wound and hesitated between turning back to Haruhiro or continuing to face Yume and Mogzo; the result was that it faced neither side fully. Mogzo made his move then.
Three kobolds, three explosive [RAGE CLEAVE]s in a row. Haruhiro watched as Mogzo’s sword ripped violently through the kobold’s right shoulder.
“Mogzo, you’re amazin’!” Yume shouted, and Haruhiro agreed. Mogzo really was incredible.
Some might have looked at Mogzo and seen only muscle and no grace. Some might even say he was dimwitted and slow, but Mogzo was earnest and trustworthy. Holding his opponents back with sword and armor, he either searched for openings or got them to lock blades with him before using [SPIRAL SLASH] to force them back, breaking their balance. Then he finished them off with [RAGE CLEAVE].
There wasn’t much variety to his fighting style, but because he didn’t mind using the same techniques over and over, they had become highly refined. Of everyone on the team, Mogzo’s had polished his skills the most.
“[PROPEL LEAP]!” Ranta readied himself before leaping backwards, drawing the remaining kobold forward with him like a vacuum. From there, Ranta thrust out his longsword: “[JUKE STAB]!”
The kobold twisted its body aside, avoiding the attack. Ranta leapt back once again: “[PROPEL LEAP]!”
For a brief moment, it seemed like the kobold would get sucked forward again but it didn’t. Of course it didn’t. There was no way something like that would work twice.
“Fucking bastard! Then eat this!” Ranta took a large, hopping step forward and swung his longsword at a diagonal. “[HATRED’S CUT]!”
The sound of metal on metal rang through the air as the kobold defected Ranta’s sword with its pickaxe. Ranta took two, three steps back. “Not bad for a scraggly mutt,” he scoffed. “Fine then. I accept you as my rival!”
The kobold bared its fangs at him, growling in a low tone.
“Oh?” Shihoru whispered dryly. “Rival, huh…”
“Feeling good about yourself, eh?!” Ranta shouted at the kobold.
How is it feeling good? Haruhiro was tempted to ask, but refrained from opening his mouth. It was dumb to even think about it.
“But—! I’ll finish you in the next move!” Ranta leapt. “[HATRED’S CUT]!”
The kobold evaded and counterattacked. Ranta responded by using [PROPEL LEAP] to avoid it, then [JUKE STAB]. He cut nothing but air.
[HATRED’S CUT], [PROPEL LEAP], [ANGER THRUST], [PROPEL LEAP], [ANGER THRUST], then [PROPEL LEAP] again. After another [ANGER THRUST], [PROPEL LEAP], then [ANGER THRUST] and [PROPEL LEAP].
[HATRED’S CUT], [PROPEL LEAP]. [HATRED’S CUT], [PROPEL LEAP]. [PROPEL LEAP], [PROPEL LEAP], [PROPEL LEAP], [PROPEL LEAP], [PROPEL LEAP], [PROPEL LEAP].
Unsurprisingly, Ranta’s breathing became ragged. Using skills that required so much movement so many times in a row would leave anyone exhausted.
“Perhaps it’s better if we helped him…” Mary remarked, looking at Haruhiro.
Ranta glared at her with bloodshot eyes. “Don’t even think about it! It’s my rival! My prey! MINE! I said I’d kill it, so I’ll kill it! You guys go take a break—sip some tea or something!”
Why was Ranta so unable to take things seriously? Haruhiro had not the slightest notion, and he had a feeling that he still wouldn’t know even after meditating on it for five hundred years.
“Really?” Haruhiro said. “No one brought any tea!”
“It was a figure of speech!” Ranta said. “[HATRED’S CUT]!”
The attack finally grazed the kobold, forcing it back. Ranta dashed after it, shouting ferociously, long sword raised high. He slashed at the kobold wildly, erratically, using his sword more like a hammer than an edged weapon–but the kobold worker was also at the limits of its endurance. It could no longer block all of the incoming attacks. Ranta finished it off with a savage blow to the head.
“DIE!” Ranta cried, thrusting his longsword into the kobold’s chest, then twisted it for good measure before pulling it out.
He wiped the sweat off and let out a long sigh, expression full of satisfaction as if it was the end of the day and a job well done. But Haruhiro was disgusted. Disgusted on so many levels. What to do? What was he going to do? But it wasn’t like there was anything that could be done at the moment.
“Let’s grab the loot and go,” Haruhiro said instead.
“That’s it? What the hell?!” Ranta protested. “What about ‘Good job, Ranta’ or ‘Awesome work, Ranta’ or ‘You’re amazing and fantastic, Ranta’?!”
Haruhiro left Ranta to be as much of an idiot as he wanted while he collected the talismans from the worker kobolds. A worker kobold’s ear and nose rings had precious stones embedded within, unlike those of lesser kobolds. These looked much more likely to fetch a price on the market.
Disregarding Ranta’s completely unnecessary overexertion, he was encouraged that taking on four low-ranked worker kobolds simultaneously hadn’t been very difficult for them. Haruhiro and the others continued onwards, looking for a sink well that would lead to the next stratum.
It took them another half hour to find one and when they did, they immediately ran into three ascending worker kobolds. After the party disposed of them, they were faced with the question of what to do next.
“What’s there to think about? We head down, of course.” The moment Ranta had finished expressing his opinion was the moment that the other five decided on theirs.
“Let’s call it a day and head back,” Haruhiro said, speaking on behalf of everyone else. “This place is new for us and I don’t think it’s a good idea to start thinking we can handle everything that comes our way. Besides, we’ve still got to make our way to the surface. Let’s go back, sort out what we’ve learned about this place, and come again tomorrow.”
Ranta was the only one vehemently against returning to Altana, but Haruhiro didn’t care.
Because the biggest problem now, he thought, is figuring out what we’re going to do with you.