Chapter 12 – Critical Time
LEVEL 2: Everything is Precious, Nothing is Replaceable
Chapter 12: Critical Time
They had reached the third stratum and were just about to sigh in relief when an elder and two of its underlings appeared, taking them by surprise. The fight quickly turned chaotic.
Haruhiro grunted as he rapidly [SWAT], [SWAT], [SWAT]-ed and deflected Kobold A’s successive attacks. There wasn’t anything else he could do. This was just what happened when he fought an enemy face-to-face. And because he had to devote all this attention to the kobold’s weapon and arm movements, he had no idea what was going on with everyone else.
Was everyone okay? How were they doing? He was worried but couldn’t spare any further thought on it. Time. He had to buy time, even if just a little, by keeping the attention of one enemy on himself. Mogzo’s current skill level should allow him to take on the elder alone. Yume wasn’t afraid of a fight so she should be holding her own against Kobold B.
He also had Shihoru and Mary to back him up. If Haruhiro could keep Kobold A fully occupied, there was a good chance everything would be okay. He probably couldn’t kill it on his own, but at the very least he could keep it busy.
Kobold A growled and suddenly turned its back towards him. Shit! By seeing the way its tail moved, Haruhiro knew he was in trouble. Kobold A spun around, swinging its sword, arm fully extended. Haruhiro realized that there was no way he could deflect a blow like that, but his body moved to execute [SWAT] out of reflex.
Whenever he was being attacked, [SWAT] just came out. He had overused the technique until it had formed a bad habit. Things turned out exactly as he’d feared.
“Argh!” Haruhiro grunted as the kobold’s sword crushed through his dagger and knocked him off balance. Kobold A pressed the attack, barking furiously.
Haruhiro had no time to block, so he dodged instead. Avoiding wasted motion never even crossed his mind; instead, he put everything he had into twisting his body away. He knew that his movements were entirely inefficient and wished that he could calm down enough to fight properly. But he couldn’t. He was panicked.
Haruhiro felt himself gasp as the kobold’s sword bit into his left arm, just above the elbow. It’s fine… it’s just a graze… he told himself. But the amount of blood that was flowing from the wound was staggering. And it hurt. What the hell?! Kobold, give me a break, would you? I’m asking nicely, here! Why was he asking in the first place? Haruhiro hadn’t the slightest.
Even if Haruhiro asked nicely, the kobold probably wouldn’t listen. Kobold A would probably reply with, Don’t take me for an idiot. It barked at him again and turned its back once more. It was readying the exact same attack.
Go ahead and try! Haruhiro thought now. He saw right through it this time. After seeing the technique performed once already, there was nothing to be afraid of anymore. Haruhiro leapt back, putting between enough distance that the kobold’s attack couldn’t reach him. Or so he thought. But the kobold suddenly performed a back flip, coming right towards him.
“What the—!” Haruhiro stared wide eyed in surprise.
Rather than attack with its weapon, Kobold A kicked him square in the chest, sending him flying. He landed on his behind, hard, with the kobold still coming straight at him. Shit! He was done for.
“[LIGHT OF JUDGEMENT]!”
A beam of blinding light shot towards Kobold A. Mary’s spell. The kobold hurriedly leaned backwards hard to dodge it. As Haruhiro got back up to his feet, Mary slipped in, graceful and smooth. She brought her staff up and around in a wide arc.
Mary’s weapon connected crushingly with the kobold’s side. It was a brilliant, gorgeous combination of the [LIGHT OF JUDGEMENT] and [SMASH] skills. Can’t just stand around and admire it though! Haruhiro thought. Kobold A swayed on its feet. Haruhiro deftly went behind it, closed the distance between them, and, using [WIDOW MAKER], he rammed his dagger under its chin.
As he quickly jumped away, his eyes met Mary’s for the briefest of seconds. “Thanks!” he said, before turning his attention to the scene around him.
Mogzo was dominating his fight with the elder foreman, but Yume was struggling against the remaining worker kobold and appeared to be hurt, too. She needed help immediately. Shihoru cast [SHADOW BIND] on the elder, stopping its movements and allowing Mogzo an all-out offensive to finish it off. After that, everyone fell in on Kobold B and killed it easily.
Things quieted down afterward and they were finally able to catch a break. They hurriedly collected the talismans from the kobolds’ bodies and had Mary heal them.
“Seems like we managed, even without Ranta,” Yume said with a slight smile, though exhaustion was evident in her expression.
Like Haruhiro, she had also been injured in the previous fight. To him, it seemed “managed” was less accurate to say than “they made it out by the skin of their teeth”.
“But… it was a close call, I think,” Shihoru said, gaze on the ground. “Maybe… Yume, Haruhiro, you two just aren’t good at fighting in the front lines. Ah… but it’s not like I’m trying to criticize you or anything…”
“I know,” Haruhiro smiling at Shihoru, though his grin came across more bitterly than he intended. “I agree. Me and Yume just aren’t suited to take on enemies directly in fights, no matter how much we try. For me, at least, when things go badly I get manipulated by my opponents. And if things are going well, it’s because I’m barely managing to avoid that. Or that’s the way it feels to me. And because of that, there’s too much motion, the fights turn messy, and it makes things tougher for you and Mary. I think it makes it hard to keep track of everything that’s going on.”
“But it’s not as if Ranta stays in one place all the time either,” Mary pointed out.
Though Mary probably intended to support Haruhiro’s argument with that statement, something made Haruhiro tilt his head to one side in uncertainty.
“Yeah, that’s true. But I think Ranta intentionally tries to keep one enemy’s attention completely on himself during a fight. When we offered to help him before, he would always get pissed at us. Sure, that’s stupid sometimes, but if we just let him do it, he does keep one enemy off our backs. I just realized how much of a difference that makes. And he’s also…”
Haruhiro didn’t want to admit it, but it would be unfair of him not to. And it was the truth, so he felt obligated.
He took a deep breath and said, “The reality is he’s also gotten much stronger. He’s way better in fights than before. I don’t know, maybe it’s because he uses his skills so much, but he’s become pretty good at combining his techniques with ours. Without a doubt, he’s become a real asset.”
Maybe even more of an asset than me, Haruhiro thought and was about to say it too, but stopped himself short. There wasn’t any point in belittling himself now.
“M-maybe we should go—” Mogzo started, then fell silent.
“Everyone knows Yume hates Ranta,” Yume said, one side of her cheek puffed out and gaze glued to the ceiling. “Whenever Ranta calls Yume flat-chested, it hurts Yume’s feelin’s ‘n no matter how much Yume hollers at him to knock it off, he doesn’t. So even if people tell Yume there’s reasons to like a person like that, Yume can’t do it.”
“Yeah,” Haruhiro nodded, encouraging her to continue.
“But even so,” Yume’s gaze fell to the floor and puffed both her cheeks out. “But even though Yume hates Ranta’s guts, the team is havin’ a hard time without him. Even though he’s just one person. When Yume thinks about what it must be like for Ranta… he’s lost Haruhiro, Mogzo, Shihoru, Mary, Yume… all five of us. Imagine how tough it must be on him to lose all of us at once.”
“Yume…” Shihoru whispered, hugging her around the shoulders.
“When Yume thinks about it…” Yume seemed close to tears. “If it were Yume in that situation, all alone in this dang place, Yume would be so lonely and disheartened that she wouldn’t be able to do anything at all. What’s it like for Ranta, Yume wonders…”
“First of all, he…” Haruhiro began to say, then clamped his mouth shut, and took a deep breath through his nose.
It completely and utterly sucked to have to think seriously now. It felt as if he was hanging off a ledge on Mt. Crazy, but he had to somehow make a cool-headed, logical decision. Could he do it? Could he rise to the occasion?
To be honest, he wouldn’t know until he tried. And even if he tried, maybe he still wouldn’t know. Was he cool and calm right now? How would he even know if he was? By asking someone else, maybe? Turn to the others and ask: Hey guys, do I look calm and collected to you? What the hell, no way.
Everyone was looking at him, waiting to hear what he had to say next. Everyone was looking to him for a decision. He had no choice but to make the judgment call.
“We can’t be sure whether or not Ranta’s still alive,” Haruhiro said. “But I want to believe that he is. And I want to move on the assumption that he is. If we don’t believe, then there’s no point in doing anything. Yes, Ranta’s still alive. And if he’s still alive, I want to go after him.”
He couldn’t force anyone else to make the decision nor could he just toss everything aside and run away from the responsibility either. That was the reality of it.
“We’ll head down to the fourth stratum first, then see if we can make it back to the fifth. But I don’t want to take any risks. Ranta stayed to give us the chance to get away. We’d be ignoring everything he was trying to do for us if we got ourselves killed trying to save him.”
I’m such a horrible person, Haruhiro couldn’t help but think. He didn’t say anything out loud, but if it was any one of his companions other than Ranta, he probably would have made this same decision, but with reversed priorities and less caution. Ranta… maybe it’s because it’s you, I was able to avoid making that sort of rash decision.
“Our own safety will be our top priority. We’re not going to force ourselves and if things look too dangerous, we’ll turn back and head towards the surface. If that’s what happens, we can figure out our next move afterwards. Anyone against my proposal?”
He didn’t believe in the slightest that anyone would raise their hand. And no one did.
But Haruhiro was the one who made the decision; everyone else merely agreed. He would have thought that the weight of the responsibility, the heaviness of the all the fear and doubt suddenly laid onto his shoulders, would have crippled him; yet that wasn’t the case at all. For some reason, he felt oddly relieved.
The decision to go had been made. Now all they had to do was do it. And they might even have a chance of pulling it off.
“Alright,” Haruhiro said. “Let’s go. Ranta’s waiting for us.”