Chapter 118: There’s no Rice in the Rice Paddies
There was a palpable tension in the air.
The plain faced man was silent. He stood rigidly in one spot, while his back was turned towards us as he faced the open road ahead. He did not say anything, but I could tell even without looking that his eyes were glued to the approaching man, probably locked in a vicious glare that could drill through the back of a person’s skull. The wind seemed to stagnate as a hushed silence quietly sank in. The quick inhalation of someone close by rang through my ears.
Unaffected by the current atmosphere, the newcomer continued to walk forward. His steps were calm and leisurely, almost as if he was doing something as mundane as picking up the mail. As he got closer, the look in his eyes changed as he cracked a faint smile.
He gave a cursory glance to our group and slightly nodded, before his gaze shifted and focused in on the plain faced man. Staring at him, his face morphed into a strange expression, something in between a scowl and a gleeful grin.
“Hey, Sergei.” He lightly greeted with a wave of his hand. “Every time I bump into you, you always have that scary look on your face. Would it kill you to crack a smile every now and then?”
In the face of the man’s jeering, Sergei remained still and silent. It was a slight, almost undetectable motion, but I could see his hand curl up into a strange fist. Unlike normal, his thump hovered just over a centimeter in the air.
A skill? Is he a magic user like Hina or Cielle?
After waiting a few seconds, nothing happened. In response to Sergei’s cold reception, the newcomer shrugged his shoulders. “I tell you this every time we meet, and every time, you respond with silence. This is why you’re no fun to talk to. At least the Old Man’s expression changes if you pester him enough.”
He laughed loudly to himself, to the point where his head rolled back and tears gathered in his eyes. After a few seconds of boisterous cackling, he slowly tilted his head before he turned and stared at us. The smile on his face seemed to widen, as he stepped past Sergei and approached us.
Sergei hesitated for a moment, before he turned around and walked out of the rice fields. I’m guessing he figured that what was about to happen had nothing to do with him. It was an overly cold response, but basing it off of what I’ve observed these past few hours, I could imagine him doing exactly that.
Whether he was aware of Sergei’s departure or not, the newcomer continued to walk forward, stopping only when he reached the center platform, where we were currently standing. “I don’t think I’ve properly introduced myself to you guys yet, have I?” He asked lightly. “Although the old man said it yesterday, but my name’s Takuya. I’ve been in this town since a month and a half ago.”
The President, who was in front of the group like an unwilling sacrifice, hesitated for a second, before he responded. “I’m Hokusei. We… we came here from the city, near the residential district, where the school used to be.”
The glint in Takuya’s eyes slightly changed. He tilted his head up and gasped in mock admiration. “The residential district…you guys really came from a place like that?”
The President’s expression morphed uncertainty. He opened and closed his mouth several times, before he tentatively responded, “That’s right. We, um, one of our people had a place there. We hid and holed ourselves up.”
“Oh, so your saying for the past three or so months, you all hid in the residential district?”
“T-that’s right, yesh.” The President bit his tongue. Judging from his expression, he seemed to be getting nervous. While I did tell the President not to mention anything about the school turning into a dungeon for the time being, it seems that topics regarding the residential district were a bit too close for comfort.
Takuya stared at the President with an unblinking expression for an uncountable amount of time. An almost feverish light reflected off his irises, but they were hidden too deeply in a murky layer of mock intrigue and speculative caution to properly make out.
As if waiting for the perfect moment when the string would be the tautest between the two of them, Takuya suddenly broke the silence and spoke. “… If I’m remembering things correctly, that place… that place was a major no go zone.” He momentarily stopped and shot a glance at the President’s face, almost as if to gauge his reaction.
“… Anybody that entered there never left. There were rumors that a gigantic monster killed every living thing there, or that there was a pack of monsters that fervently hunted down all of the humans…. Do you happen to know anything about this? I mean, you did live in that place for three months, right?”
“That’s…” The President’s expression turned ugly. I knew he was hesitant and I knew exactly why. While conversations about the school could easily be avoided, even with the way this conversation was currently heading, without a doubt, it would ultimately lead to the topic of the Manticore. Whether it was about the Manticore’s egg, or about me killing the Manticore, the President was naturally hesitant about talking about either of these things.
Seeing the situation he was currently in, rather than hoping he doesn’t spill the beans, I was feeling a bit happy that I wasn’t in his current situation. It was a bit vain, but I was secretly yelling, “Being the target of attention isn’t so nice now, is it?!” in my mind.
Without consideration for the President’s current plight, Takuya heartlessly pressed on. “Has the situation changed since I got here? Did the residential district magically become such a convenient and safe place while I was gone? Or… did you really come out from such a dangerous place?”
The President’s expression flickered erratically as he tried to stutter out a response. When I thought he was on the verge of snapping, a surprising voice echoed through the air.
“We were hiding near the edge of the residential district, in the basement of a supermarket. I don’t know why you refer to it as a no-go zone.” Luckily, Hina smoothly followed up as she stepped forward and responded in place of the President.
Takuya stared at her, his eyes narrowing into suspicion filled slits that practically hissed out distrust and disbelief. After what felt like an eternity, he directly asked her. “He previously said that you guys holed up in a place that one of your own owned.” A short, but clear snort echoed through the air. “One of you really owns a supermarket?”
I saw Hina’s eyelid twitch for a fraction of a second. Staring at her seemingly perfect impassive mask, I could just imagine her inwardly groaning, and cursing herself for her earlier statement.
“That’s right.” Hina mustered out after a brief second of silence. “Cher’s family owned a supermarket.” As if she had wanted to pass on this burden to somebody else, Hina unhesitatingly pointed to Cher.
Throughout this conversation, Cher had been standing in the sidelines, unassumingly listening to the back and forth exchange with a happy go lucky expression plastered on her face. Suddenly hearing her name being called out, her shoulders abruptly jumped, as her expression morphed into one of confusion and panic.
“Eh, eh? What?” She was stuttering like a broken record player as her head frantically swiveled from side to side.
“You,” Takuya called out with an almost authoritative voice.
“Y-yesh!” Cher bit her tongue in response.
“Your family owns a supermarket?”
Almost instantaneously, the panic in her eyes faded. Although she still had a clueless expression, she smoothly responded. “That’s right. My Dad owns Greenley’s Grocers, which is just a mile away from the school and located a block away from the station. We sell organic products from fresh lettuce to foreign and exotic fruits, like avocados and papayas.”
Her response was fast and automatic, almost as if it had been drilled into her during a young and impressionable age.
Not even mentioning Takuya, everyone else had been caught off guard by Cher’s unexpected response. With a blank expression on his face, Takuya timidly asked again, “You… your family really owns a supermarket?”
Cher blinked once, before she rapidly responded. “Yes. I work there over the weekends, and help my parents out whenever I have free time. We also have a good stock on south American coffee beans and American grown peaches. Although we don’t sell as much meat, we do have a steady supply of fish that comes from the nearby fishing villages around the island…”
If left unrestricted, it seemed like Cher would drone on and on for who knows how long. It was as if a dam had broken, and the words continued to prattle on and one with no signs of stopping. Luckily, Takuya immediately cut her off as he raised a hand in defeat and sighed.
Off to the side, although faint, I could hear a conversation taking place between the President and Hina.
“Did you plan that? How did you know Cher’s family owned a supermarket?”
She nodded her head. “Really.”
“…I guess we got lucky then.”
“Y-yeah. We were lucky this time.”
Takuya, who threw a quick side glance at the duo, before staring back at Cher, who was still mindlessly prattling on about how the bananas they imported from Mexico were organic and 50% off, suddenly clapped his hands, and spoke. “Alright, alright, I got it. I believe you guys.” He paused for a moment, his eyes glaring at Cher as if to wanting to will her into silence. Cher, who looked like she wanted to say something else, reluctantly closed her mouth and walked to the back of the group, where she stood next to me with a sigh.
Seeing her go, Takuya wiped an invisible bead of sweat from his forehead, before he continued speaking. “Well, in truth, I wasn’t really going to pursue the matter. Whether you really came from the residential area or not is none of my concerns. Well… as long none of you came from within the city,” The tone of his voice dropped suddenly, and for a brief instant, an extremely dark and grim expression flashed through his face.
His eyes developed a cold, and hostile sheen, as he stared at us with open suspicion. “The St. Jude Memorial Activity Center? 5th battalion of the JSDF and US armed coalition? Lieutenant Colonel Miyazaki?”
He suddenly uttered out a few words and phrases in rapid fire succession. His eyes were sharp, and pointed, never once leaving our faces. He stayed silent for a long time, maintaining his glare with an almost fervent intensity, before he abruptly sighed. As if were an illusion, the atmosphere and hostility from before quickly evaporated, as he smiled at us with the same smile he wore from earlier.
“Judging from your confused and clueless reactions, none of you came from the inner city… well, at least not from that place.” He lapsed into another brief moment of silence, before he shook his head. As if remembering something, he suddenly looked past us and stared at the rice paddies behind. “So, the folks at Kagetaka already brought you guys here, huh?” He questioned with a smile. “That’s surprisingly fast, especially considering it took them two weeks to show me… well, I guess my situation’s kind of special. I guess I did take a week and a half to recover when I first came here…”
He laughed to himself again. “Well, enough about me, what do you guys think about this whole set up?”
The President, who showed a rather unwilling expression, and clearly didn’t want to talk to the man, was forced by circumstance to respond. “I think that it’s a very… effective system. It’s helpful to those with low levels, but… I don’t know.” He frowned. “I feel that something is off with it.”
Hearing his respond, Takuya smiled an ambiguous smile. “It’s weird, isn’t it? A place like this?”
As he talked, he ignored all of our probing stares and moved towards the box located in the corner of the center platform. He searched through it, scrounging around for a pair of boots and overalls that would fit him. In the meantime, he continued to one-sidedly speak.
His words, while they weren’t exactly lifeless or robotic, they lacked emotion and maintained a flat, constant tone throughout. “They collect experience here like their picking rice out from in between their teeth. The danger, the blood thirst, the adrenaline, the constant threat of death that should have accompanied them as they get stronger… it’s just not there. In here, that’s all gone, replaced by this, this… this farm filled with mud and maggots.”
He looked up and stared at each and every one of us. The expression on his face was strange, and he looked as if he was gauging our reactions. After a short pause, he finally spat out. “Frankly, I think it’s disgusting. Don’t you guys feel the same? A feeling of hostility, of resentment? Their spitting on all my hard work, on all of our hard work.
“All the people who died, who risked their lives fighting out there just to kill one more monster, just to raise their level by one more unit… None of that is here. You can’t feel any of it. When you’re out there, fighting against monsters, risking your life, you can feel it clearly. The threat. The intensity. The pain. In comparison, this lifeless, hollow place… it’s completely and utterly disgusting.”
He had a look of pure revulsion on his face. The light of unaltered hatred glowed brightly in his eyes, and he showed no indication of hiding it. “I absolutely despise this place. I hate it with a passion, but… in the end, it’s convenient.”
He finished putting on his new, rubber outfit, and grabbed a spear from within the box. Coincidentally, the spear he took happened to be the same one that the plain faced man had used earlier. “No matter how much I hate it, I’d be an idiot not to make use of it.”
He stood up and stretched out his waist. A resounding crack echoed through the air, before he looked over at us. A distant expression momentarily flashed in front of his eyes, before he shook his head and walked over towards the edge of the platform.
“I’ll look for you guys later. There’s something I want to talk to you about… think of it as a proposition of sorts… well, actually, don’t think too much about it right now, I’ll come find you guys when the time is right. For now though, all that can wait. Right now, I’m about to go hunting.”
He emphasized the last word with an almost reverent intensity. He looked down at the murky water, before murmuring, “The people here might treat these things lightly, but I know enough to realize that losing that edge, losing the train of thought that you develop when your outside hunting monsters and fighting for survival… I know that doing so is the same as sending yourself out to die. Out there… well, I’m sure you guys don’t need me to remind you.” He glanced past his shoulders and grinned at us. “Although we come from the same place, as a senior, let me give you guys a word of advice. Don’t become wrapped up in the complacency of this town. Don’t ever forget about the danger that’s out there, because this place is a lot like a straw house. Eventually, given a strong enough wind, everything will come tumbling down.
“When that does happen, you better be prepared to face the storm, or else you’ll end up drowning in your own regrets…” In the middle of his speech, he suddenly laughed to himself. “Pretty eloquent, right? I used to be a grad student who majored in literature. None of that matter now, but I guess it does come in handy when I have to give ominous warnings to my cute little juniors.”
He laughed again, before he tilted his head up and thought for a moment. “Oh yeah, one final reminder, a closing statement if you will; just because this place is safe now, don’t fall for the illusion that the only threat here is the one that comes from the outside. If you don’t understand what I’m saying, then ask yourself this question; Why don’t the monsters invade this defenseless town? Let’s be honest here, none of us really think that the fence they have out there is strong enough to block any of the monsters that wander out in the highway.”
After leaving behind that last statement, the chatterbox of a newcomer suddenly leaped out from the platform. He hopped over the wooden platforms that floated around the rice paddy, before he ended up in a corner of the field.
Holding the spear in his hand, the look in his eyes changed. A sort of bloodlust wafted through the air, before he grunted out and thrusted his spear into the water.
As his hunt began with full intensity, the rice fields lapsed into another heavy silence.
Our group watched him quietly for a long time, before the rest of us followed suit. We grabbed a few spears from the wooden compartment and began our silent hunt.