Chapter 166. Skirmish

The morning sky was clear and silent, but Haramark was buzzing with noise.

Jang Maldong had a worried look the entire morning, but unlike usual, he didn’t say much.

“Don’t underestimate your enemy no matter what.”

He advised Seol Jihu calmly and imposingly as always.

“Yes.”

“Work hard at training. Listen to Master well.”

Yi Sungjin bowed with his back straight. He was extremely nervous even though he wasn’t the one going out to war.

As for Yi Seol-Ah…

“Don’t look so mournful. It’s not like I’m going to my grave.”

She was pouting her lower lip and looking like she would cry if someone nudged her a little. Seeing this, Seol Jihu held back his embarrassment and remarked nonchalantly.

“Don’t worry. That place is like my home ground. Haven’t you heard of the legend of Arden Valley?”

Yi Seol-Ah forced herself to smile, but her nose quickly flushed red.

Not wanting to stay and film a soap opera, Seol Jihu quickly turned around. His comrades were waiting outside, so he had to leave quickly anyways.

“Good luck!”

Jang Maldong sent him off calmly.

“I’ll be back soon.”

Seol Jihu replied casually as if he was going to a neighborhood barbershop. And sure enough, the Yi siblings began to bawl their eyes out, and Seol Jihu escaped the building, leaving them behind.

The streets of Haramark could only be described as total chaos. Seol Jihu plowed through the crowd and headed to the castle gate.

Over a thousand Earthlings were setting off from Haramark, so it wasn’t that easy to find a carriage. Even with the Haramark Royal Family providing as many Horuses as possible, the competition for carriages was steep.

The group could always walk all the way to Arden Valley in the worst-case scenario, but Seol Jihu managed to find a carriage after much difficulty.

And because Oh Rahee had thought far enough to extend her contract with the two carriages she took from Scheherazade to get to Haramark, the party could conserve their energy that they otherwise would have needed to use for the march.

The three carriages they procured were more than enough to fit their 14-member group.

After checking in with the royal family officials, Seol Jihu headed straight to the carriage so that he didn’t need to wait outside.

Coincidentally, it was at this moment that Hugo threw the carriage door open and hurriedly rushed out.

“Hugo?”

“Save me!”

He shouted at the top of his lungs before running for his dear life. Seol Jihu blankly stared as Hugo grew farther and farther away. He then tilted his head and opened the carriage door.

He froze immediately.

Maria, Chung Chohong, Phi Sora… and for some reason, even Oh Rahee was here.

Moreover, these four women all had their arms crossed, while staring in different directions.

The law of inertia seemed to disappear as Seol Jihu’s feet stopped walking up the carriage in an instant. Having sensed an unusual air, his complexion turned sour.

His brain was ringing warning bells due to the unknown smell of danger gushing out in front of him.

Chohong, who was sitting apathetically, turned to him stealthily.

“What are you doing? Why aren’t you—”

Kwang! Before she could finish saying ‘why aren’t you coming in?’ Seol Jihu shut the door reflexively.

He suddenly wanted to ride another carriage. But just as he was about to scurry away, the door was thrown open, and somebody grabbed the back of his neck.

“Uck!”

“What are you doing? Why’d you slam the door shut? I was in the middle of talking.”

“Cho, Chohong.”

“Hurry up. We’re setting off soon.”

“Wait. I—”

“Ah, just get in here!”

Chohong yelled angrily and pulled him in. Seol Jihu struggled with all his might, but he was taken inside helplessly.

And with that, Seol Jihu did not come out of the carriage until the time of departure.

*

The carriages stopped at the entrance of Arden Valley.

Strong Horuses trained for military use could go on further, but having so many carriages drive through rugged terrain wasn’t such a good idea.

Hugo, who spent the past several days getting closer to the members of Blood Line, got off the carriage with a bright face.

“Iya~! I haven’t seen you in a while!”

When he saw Seol Jihu staggering dangerously, he made a pitying expression.

“Seol… are you okay?”

“….”

“Why, did their bitching illness sprout up again?”

“…Don’t ask.”

Seol Jihu’s voice was hoarse. He furrowed his brows as if he didn’t even want to remember it.

Hugo patted his back with an understanding face.

The march began. General Jan Sanctus led the way on a mount with countless people following in a line.

When they finally entered the valley, Seol Jihu got a strange feeling in his heart remembering the memories of the time he came here as a Level 1, who didn’t know a thing.

Rather than saying that he was moved… the feeling he had was similar to when he was drafted to the army for mandatory service.

Even though he came determined and resolute, he couldn’t help but frown. His heart began to pound, and he even felt like pissing himself a tiny bit.

The clouds of war swirling in the valley pressed down on him heavily.

‘Maybe it will be different once the battle starts.’

Rather than struggling to overcome this emotion, he accepted it fully to get used to it.

Having lived 26 years of his life on Earth, it should be normal for him to feel out of place participating in a war. And that should be the case especially for a war of this scale.

The road was flatter than he thought. Last time, he had climbed up to Dawn Peak to check out the situation, but that wasn’t necessary this time round.

Not only was the fortress not under threat of being conquered, but the enemy’s speed of advancement was also constant.

Of course, they were in a volatile situation. Even now, many scouts were putting their lives on the line with a single communication crystal in their hands. The entire group had to keep in mind that the enemy’s marching speed could change abruptly.

How much time went by?

Around the time the sun began to set, Seol Jihu was walking down a rugged incline, when…

“Yo!”

He turned around at the sensation of someone lightly hitting his shoulder.

He could see Ian smiling brightly as he wiped off his sweat.

“Master Ian.”

“So this is where you were. I’ve been looking for you for a while. Cough, cough!

Ian spat out a dry cough.

“Damn it. I should have trained to raise my Stamina stat when I was at a lower level. Kak—”

Ptui! After spitting on the ground, he panted roughly.

“What about Princess Teresa?”

“Huu…. Hm? Oh, she’s in the front. I barely managed to escape.”

“?”

“I mean, she’s been bragging about her new longsword and shield every 10 minutes. I thought my ears were going to start bleeding from hearing the same thing over and over again.”

Ian grumbled as he stole a sideways glance.

Seol Jihu scratched his head.

“I just gave them to her. I remember the homework you assigned for me, but given the situation….”

“No, you finished the homework superbly.”

“Come again?”

“If I were a professor, I would have given you an A+.”

Ian winked.

“Anyways, I’m curious what you’re thinking now that you’re back at Arden Valley.”

It sounded like Ian was changing the topic on purpose, but Seol Jihu decided to go along with it.

“Nothing much.”

He lied. In truth, his heart was pounding faster and faster the closer he got to their destination.

At this point, even he wasn’t sure if he was simply nervous or if he was itching to fight.

Seol Jihu tried to hide his true feelings, but Ian observed the youth’s face here and there before laughing warmly.

“It doesn’t look like you’re particularly worried… but if you are nervous, rest easy.”

Seol Jihu returned a curious glance. Rest easy? Against the Parasites of unknown strength?

Ian snickered.

“Of course, you need to be nervous at least a little bit. But I don’t think this war will be different than any of the other wars. In truth, I think everyone is overreacting.”

“Why?”

“They’re saying the Parasites have besieged six of the seven cities, but the size of the army each city will have to fight should be similar. In comparison—”

Ian surveyed his surroundings.

“A vast majority of Earthlings residing in Haramark are participating. Well, there are quite a number of Earthlings who aren’t, but most well known figures should be here. Do you know why?”

Seol Jihu answered what he heard from Kim Hannah. Ian caressed his beard.

“You’re sharp, as expected. That’s right. But I think there is another reason that is limited to Haramark.”

“Limited to Haramark?”

Seol Jihu tilted his head and asked.

Seeing this, Ian burst out into laughter.

“You played the biggest hand in this. It’s interesting that you don’t realize it yourself.”

“I’m not sure what you mean….”

“Geez. It’s Arden Fortress. Arden Fortress!”

At that moment, someone’s voice rang out loudly from the front.

Seol Jihu had been too busy talking to notice that the road had become steeper.

Ian trudged up the hill and pointed to the front. He looked down at the youth standing in place and moved one shoulder up.

He was telling Seol Jihu to come up and see.

Puzzled, Seol Jihu climbed up the hill.

And soon, when he stepped onto the peak, his eyes widened. His jaw dropped as his face was dyed in shock.

He had been overwhelmed by the boundless sight spread out before him.

“This is….”

“The Arden Fortress you protected.”

As if to brag about a child who had grown up to be a successful adult, Ian smiled in satisfaction.

Surrounded by a deep valley, the current Arden Fortress couldn’t be compared to how it was in the past. Not only had the walls gotten higher, but there were also defense facilities merged with the surrounding steep cliffs, and even watchtowers standing tall at high vantage points.

The fortress had expanded as well with more fortified buildings closely connected to the main structure, forming a near-impenetrable wall.

This natural fortress, seemingly crafted by carving out cliffs of the valley, stood tall and imposingly.

“How is it?”

Seol Jihu stared at the fortress in a daze before feeling a gaze on him and shrugged awkwardly.

“It’s amazing! Truly.”

Seol Jihu wasn’t the only one to feel amazed as several exclamations of awe were rising from the crowd.

“It’s all thanks to you.”

Ian continued.

“Not only did you save the fortress, but you also provided the beginning for this fortress to come this far.”

“No, you and Princess Teresa are the ones who should get the credit.”

“With just the two of us, not even half of this fortress would be complete.”

Ian spoke firmly. He then looked around as if searching for someone before suddenly shooting his hand up.

“Oi—!”

Seol Jihu turned around reflexively and saw someone under the hill raising his arm in response.

When Seol Jihu noticed the man’s face from a distance, delight quickly spread across his face.

It was Arbor Muto, the village head of Ramman Village and the Mage of the Delphinion Duchy.

*

The troops that set out from Haramark finally entered Arden Fortress.

Seol Jihu made time to go see Arbor Muto. He was waiting at the same place expecting the youth to come.

“It’s been a while.”

The old man reached his hand out. Seol Jihu smiled and grabbed his hand.

“You look great.”

Just the way the fortress evolved, Arbor Muto seemed to have gone through a metamorphosis himself.

At Ramman Village, he coughed frequently from frailty and illness, but looking at him today, he had lost weight and his eyes were shining brightly. It was almost as if he had returned to the days of his youth.

“Do I? But thanks to someone revealing my identity, I’ve been dragged away forcefully and assigned the role of a commander.”

“Ah.”

“I’m kidding, I’m kidding! The Haramark Royal Family is supporting me more than you think. My life’s gotten a lot better because of it, and I’ve been feeling like my life is worth living again.”

Arbor Muto guffawed before eyeing the fortress.

“Why don’t we go for a walk? I want to show you around.”

“Sure.”

The old man and the youth slowly walked around the fortress. And when they climbed up the wall, Seol Jihu exclaimed in awe nonstop.

“I can’t believe this is the same Arden Fortress I saw all those months back.”

“Fufu. In what way?”

“I’m not sure where to begin.”

Seol Jihu marveled at his surroundings before suddenly fixing his gaze on one spot.

Only then did he realize why this spot seemed so familiar.

“The terrain.”

He muttered as if he was enchanted.

“You changed the terrain as well.”

There was no way he wouldn’t notice. After all, this was the very place he risked his life to cross.

Seeing that the youth recognized this place, Arbor Muto clapped his hands in joy.

“Sharp, very sharp. As expected of Haramark’s Hero.”

How did this old man know about this title?

“It must have been tough.”

“Hardly. We’re facing the Parasites, after all. This isn’t enough.”

He spoke as if the amount of effort gone into building this fortress was the bare minimum.

“You can never triumph over the Parasites by just defending.”

Arbor Muto emphasized the word ‘never’, and Seol Jihu tilted his head. He thought the human forces would stay inside the fortress and fight, so what did Arbor Muto mean by not being able to triumph by just defending?

Having read Seol Jihu’s face, Arbor Muto opened his mouth.

“When the Parasites first appeared… do you know how they fought?”

“No.”

“It was nothing special. They just flooded in. No tactics, no strategies. They overwhelmed Paradise’s forces with sheer numbers.”

“….”

“It wasn’t because they were stupid. The Parasite army has three traits. They don’t need to eat or drink, they follow whatever command they are given so they know no fear, and they are immortal in that they can revive as long as there are bodies to parasitize. With these traits, tactics and strategies were unnecessary.”

Arbor Muto’s voice grew softer as he reminisced the past.

“How terrible.”

“It’s only terrible at first. Later, you just get tired. Of course, the Empire didn’t just sit still. They raised their castle walls, dug deeper trenches, and developed several effective defense mechanisms. But those had a limit.”

“Right, come to think of it, I heard the Parasites evolved too.”

“Yes. And the first evolution was the appearance of Nests.”

‘Nests…?’

“Do you know what the greatest ability of the Nests is?”

Seol Jihu shook his head.

“Their capability to give birth to lower-ranked entities is only one of its abilities. What makes them so terrifying is that they decay the land where they take root.”

“Decay?”

“They absorb nutrients from organisms and use the energy to decay surrounding objects. It wasn’t until the Empire lost twelve castles that they realized what happened.”

Seol Jihu recalled what he saw while escaping from the Delphinion Duchy— A dead world without a single tree or a tuft of grass.

He had wondered why the land was so grey, but things finally made sense.

“Then if the Nests appear….”

“That’s why you can’t win by just defending.”

Seol Jihu became speechless, and Arbor Muto smacked his lips.

“Princess Teresa knows this as well. And looking at things this way, her idea of turning the entire valley into a fortress isn’t too bad.”

Meaning, they couldn’t rely on just the fortress and had to fight alongside it, using traps or frontal assaults if necessary.

This wasn’t anything unexpected, so Seol Jihu could accept it without difficulty. Still, he was worried about the existence of Nests.

The more he came to know about the Parasites, the more he realized they weren’t easy foes. Even without the Seven Armies, their ordinary forces seemed difficult to deal with.

Their conversation came to a brief halt. Arbor Muto walked silently before pausing in front of a ballista placed on the wall.

The gigantic ballista was sitting on a wheeled pedestal and seemed more like a field artillery than a ballista.

The drawstring was so tense that it looked like seven or eight healthy soldiers were needed to pull it back.

What caught his attention the most was that a large, boomerang-like blade was attached to the launch pad rather than an arrow or a spear.

Looking around again, Seol Jihu saw dozens of similar ballistas positioned on the walls. Unable to hold back his curiosity, he asked.

“What’s this?”

“A new weapon I developed. Well… not new, per se. It’s a weapon designed during the time of the Empire. It was quite effective.”

Arbor Muto grinned. He caressed the ballista a few times before taking his hand off and gazing at the valley fixedly.

“I’ve heard about the situation roughly. The Parasites launched a rather unusual tactic, but we’ve made all the preparations we can.”

“Right.”

“Are you worried?”

Seol Jihu shrugged at the sudden question.

“Maybe I shouldn’t say this… but you see, I’m looking forward to it a bit.”

“You’re looking forward to the war?”

“I guess it would be more correct to say that I’ve been waiting for it.”

Arbor Muto sounded lonely.

“I don’t know what will happen in the future, but if the Parasite Queen’s tactic stops at just besieging six cities….”

Arbor grabbed the corner of the wall made of stone.

“Then the ones who enter Arden Valley will get a taste of humanity.”

As he said that, the Mage’s eyes were burning with confidence and vengeance.

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