The carriages raced to their destination at full speed.
The speed of Horuses trained for military use far surpassed the speed of normal Horuses that pulled ordinary carriages.
Of course, having run day and night, they tottered from fatigue by the time they passed Haramark. However, the speed of the expedition team did not slow down thanks to King Prihi preparing them a new set of carriages.
The team immediately got on the new carriages and set off toward Delphinion Duchy.
The atmosphere inside the carriages had been silent ever since they left Scheherazade.
“Yes, father. Yes. I’ll be fine. Don’t worry….”
Only Teresa’s voice could be heard as she quietly whispered to her communication crystal.
Prihi had not come out to see them off. Knowing the importance of this operation, he must not have wanted to delay the team by talking with Teresa or lower the morale with a tear-jerking show.
Teresa also knew this and called her father herself.
Seol Jihu watched Teresa as she cracked a smile every now and then while talking with her father.
His parents did not even know about Paradise’s existence, but that didn’t mean he didn’t have a father figure in Paradise.
Seol Jihu pulled out his own communication crystal and infused his mana into it after much thought.
“Hey, Kim Hannah, can you put Master Jang on the line?”
—Yes, hold on.
Kim Hannah disappeared from the communication crystal, and soon, a familiar face appeared in it.
A heavy silence flowed between the two of them. Seol Jihu stayed silent despite asking Kim Hannah to call Jang Maldong, and Jang Maldong also waited silently.
It was because they had a tacit understanding between them.
Looking back, Seol Jihu never had a comfortable fight against the Parasites.
Perhaps this wasn’t so surprising given the vast difference in their force, but Seol Jihu had always fought desperate uphill battles. With heaven-swallowing tsunamis threatening him periodically, his life, ever since he entered Paradise, had been a series of challenges.
However, Seol Jihu overcame such hopelessness each time, and by achieving what everyone said was impossible, he managed to overturn disadvantageous battles not once, but several times.
And now, humanity was facing a storm that was bigger and fiercer than ever before.
In a situation where all signs were pointing to hopelessness, he overcame despair and stood up with his spear.
To prevent the Parasite Queen’s revival, he chose to fight, risking his life as always.
…Right, nothing had changed.
The reason Seol Jihu called Jang Maldong despite this… was because he had a feeling that this might be the last time he could see his face and hear his voice.
Though the operation certainly had a hope of success, charging into the heart of enemy territory was undoubtedly a very dangerous undertaking.
By the time Teresa finished talking with Prihi and hung up, Seol Jihu broke the long silence.
“There’s something I want to talk to you about.”
Jang Maldong replied calmly.
Seol Jihu took out a transparent, cube-shaped crystal from his Dimensional Pocket.
“The Harmonia Magic Square. I showed it to you once before.”
Sinisterly dark energy was swirling inside the transparent crystal.
Jang Maldong’s eyes narrowed.
“By any chance…”
Jang Maldong cut Seol Jihu off before he could say anything.
—I said it before, and I will say it again. You must never use that thing. Did I not tell you to throw it away?
Jang Maldong continued solemnly.
—Of course, I know what you want to say. That the seven gods must have had a reason for giving it to you.
—I agree with that logic, but you have to consider the difference between your current state and how you were back then.
Seol Jihu was a Level 5 during the Special Tutorial, but he was a Level 7 now. It wasn’t a simple difference in levels as he was now in a completely new realm.
The current Seol Jihu was strong enough to thrash an Army Commander like Vulgar Chastity, who was weak in close combat.
—You would have gained a powerful strength if you had used the Harmonia Magic Square back then, but after going through the trials in the Path of the Soul, you obtained an even stronger power.
—What’s important is that these two powers have different directions of growth.
The power that the Harmonia Magic Square granted its user came from the reverse flow effect.
Although Seol Jihu could not remember it, he had used the power of reverse flow effect once before during the Arden Valley War.
By reversing the flow of mana, it allowed him to gain explosive strength for a limited time. As a result, his body became tattered to the point it was deemed irrecoverable.
—I know you said it was temporarily controllable, but that also means you will lose control the moment you cross a line. And all this is based on your former state.
It might have been a different story if he used it before he built up and solidified his foundations. But at a point where his growth was nearing completion from having climbed up one step at a time, suddenly accepting a reverse flow energy would only destroy everything he had built up so far.
That was what Jang Maldong was worried about.
Moreover, as he had seen what happened to Seol Jihu’s body after the Arden Valley War, he could only reject the usage of such a dangerous item.
—Jihu, you are already complete to a certain degree. You might be able to temporarily gain a powerful strength rivaling that of a god by accepting that darkness, but the only thing waiting for you will be death.
—Even if you somehow survive, the newly introduced energy won’t disappear from your body. That means you’ll end up with a body that can’t fight.
Seol Jihu smacked his lips. He remembered how Black Seol Jihu said he should forget about learning Berserk if he wanted to use the Harmonia Magic Square. Black Seol Jihu had even refused to teach him Thousand Thunder.
The two teachers who had guided him to his current state were both vehemently advising against using the Harmonia Magic Square.
—So please, don’t use that thing! No, throw it away now!
Moreover, he couldn’t bring himself to say no when Jang Maldong was practically begging him.
Seol Jihu sighed and then feigned a smile.
“Don’t worry about it.”
Jang Maldong still looked uneasy but did not say anything else.
“I’ll be back soon, then.”
—Take care of yourself.
Seol Jihu said goodbye like he was going for a stroll at a nearby park, and Jang Maldong replied calmly as he always did.
The call hung up.
Seol Jihu put the communication crystal in his pocket. Just as he was about to put Harmonia Magic Square back into the Dimensional Pocket…
“Why aren’t you throwing it away?”
He flinched at the sudden question.
Teresa was staring intently at the cube that was halfway inside the Dimensional Pocket.
“You’re not planning on using that thing… are you?”
She asked carefully.
It wasn’t just Teresa.
Baek Haeju, Seo Yuhui, Eun Yuri, Chung Chohong, Phi Sora… He couldn’t figure out why only female members were riding in his carriage, but they were all staring at him with the same doubtful look.
Well, given how quiet things were, it wasn’t surprising for them to have overheard his conversation with Jang Maldong.
“Jihu, give it to me. I will hold onto it.”
Seo Yuhui reached out.
Slightly taken aback, Seol Jihu blocked her hand.
“No, I’ll hold onto it.”
“What? Did you forget what Grandpa said just now?”
“Hey, just throw that thing away. What’s the point in keeping it? It sounded useless anyway.”
Phi Sora and Chohong voiced their complaints.
Eun Yuri glared at him and breathed sharply as if to say she would scold him if he did not listen.
Seol shook his head, chuckling at the idea that such a puny glare would force him to change his mind.
“You never know….”
“What was that?”
Chohong raised her eyebrows.
“I’m not saying I’ll use it. I can give it to someone else.”
“Then give it to me. Now. That’s fine, right?”
“I’m thinking of giving it Hugo, actually.”
“…Chet, as if I’d believe that.”
Chohong grumbled and turned away.
Seo Yuhui continued to reach for the cube with an untrusting face, but she couldn’t break through Seol Jihu’s defense. Her worry-ridden look didn’t disappear even when he promised he would not use it.
Baek Haeju also kept her eyes fixed on Seol Jihu’s Dimensional Pocket.
It wasn’t until Seol Jihu showed himself talking to Hugo when the carriages stopped to give the Horuses a quick break that their gazes fell off.
Hugo said it would be hard to use it during the expedition and that he would consider using it after the matter, grabbing Seol Jihu’s hands, and thanking him.
Just like that, the carriages set off to the Delphinion Duchy once again.
The expedition team got over the first hump without a hitch.
The Parasites must not have finished deploying their troops to the Delphinion Duchy’s border as the four carriages cruised through the border region without hindrance.
It was a massive relief as the team expected to get into a few scuffles along the way.
Once the carriages crossed the border, the team ran through the Delphinion Duchy’s territory without rest and finally arrived at their destination.
The laboratory was still buried under a huge sinkhole-like cavity, but going down didn’t pose much of a problem.
After finding the entrance, Seol Jihu led the expedition team inside the laboratory.
“Damn, I never thought I’d find myself in here again.”
Hugo grumbled quietly as he had a bad memory of the place.
‘The dummy hideout is in the storage room of the research area…’
The team made their way forward using the map that Arbor Muto had drawn up for them.
When they discovered the storage room at last, Teresa shot forward and changed the layout of the bricks.
Click. Along with the sound of the locking mechanism being undone, a gap was made in the wall.
“I’m surprised you still remember it.”
“Well, my brain is just as pretty as my face and just as sexy as my body.”
“Just kidding. It’s kind of hard to forget memories that leave a strong impression on you. I was trembling in fear in this place for a long time…”
Teresa laughed blandly and pushed the wall, and a section of it spun like a revolving door.
A long staircase was seen on the other side, and the team found themselves in front of a door when they went down.
The hideout that they finally reached looked exactly like the last time they visited.
Eun Yuri ran to the altar as soon as she entered the room.
After examining the magic circle for a long time, she chanted a spell and collapsed.
She must have gone to talk to Roselle in the Dream World to discuss ways of improving the magic circle.
“Being here again is making me remember those embarrassing moments.”
Teresa let out a tiny, embarrassed yelp with flushed cheeks.
Seol Jihu smiled bitterly.
He couldn’t deny it since he and Teresa had planned an escape with Teresa wearing only a small chain mail over her naked body and himself wearing only a broken armor over his underwear.
“If we had given up back then and decided to settle down in this place happily ever after… don’t you think we would have had three kids by now?”
“No, we would have starved to death long before that…”
“With two sons and a daughter~”
Teresa wasn’t listening, but Seol Jihu didn’t stop her. Although she was laughing and smiling on the outside, he could see how stiff her facial muscles were.
Soon, they would be entering enemy territory. He figured Teresa was trying to ease her tension in any way possible.
At that moment, Eun Yuri shot up from the floor. She crawled to the center of the altar before focusing mana on her fingertip and expanding the magic circle that was drawn on it.
Everyone waited silently with how much she was concentrating on her task.
How much time went by?
By the time the magic circle had broken past the altar’s boundary and filled up a third of the room, Eun Yuri slowly got up.
She breathed out a sigh while wiping off beads of sweat from her forehead.
“It took a while to straighten out the warped pathway. I increased the weight limit as much as possible and changed the activation method so that it would be instantaneous.”
Meaning, the magic circle now easily supported the entire team, and a Magician wouldn’t have to remain behind to maintain the magic circle.
“I got rid of the time limitation, but I also had to get rid of the self-charging mechanism that makes it reusable…. According to Teacher, we won’t be able to use it again. We’ll have to modify the magic circle at the destination too.”
“That’s fine. We’ll only use the magic circle here and at the destination once anyway.”
Seol Jihu spoke calmly. He then activated the Future-Gauging Nine Eyes. The magic circle that Eun Yuri modified was yellow.
‘Attention Required, huh…’
He expected to see a color of danger. There was a chance that the color would change to an even more dangerous color once they arrived at the other side. But no matter what the color might be, the fact that they had to go would not change.
“Though we can only use it a limited number of times, this is no different than a Teleport spell. Eun Yuri, was it? You look tired. Should I operate the magic circle?”
“Sure, go ahead.”
Philip Muller pushed his glasses up and looked at Seol Jihu.
Seol Jihu nodded his head and walked forward.
“I need one person here… no, you go over there, Unni.”
Once everyone got to the spot Eun Yuri led them to, Philip Muller stood at the center of the magic circle and infused his mana into the circle.
As the mana swiftly spread out, the magic circle began to emit a faint glow.
Soon, while a bright light dyed everyone’s line of sight white…
The magic circle spat out a sudden scream.
At the same time, an intense burst of light shot up and swallowed the expedition team whole.
The room, which turned bright in an instant, became dark again in less than two seconds.
By the time the hideout regained its original color, there was no one left standing on the altar.
When Seol Jihu opened his eyes, he was greeted with an unfamiliar scenery.
Via Lactea. That was the name of the place that the magic circle was connected to, and it was supposedly a dense forest where countless trees made the area look like the Milky Way.
But no matter how much he looked around, he couldn’t see a single tuft of grass, much less a whole tree. The only trees he saw were the withered, hollow remains that were spread out intermittently.
The surroundings were entirely grey as if he was looking at a dead world.
“I’ll start the modification process right away.”
After looking around the area, Eun Yuri began to work on the magic circle as if there was nothing else to see.
“How long do you think it will take?”
“50… no, 40 minutes. It should be quicker this time since I’ve done it before.”
Seol Jihu nodded.
“I can’t see anything.”
Little Chick, who came back from patrolling the sky, landed on Seol Jihu’s shoulder and spoke.
“I don’t see a single rat running around. I almost can’t believe this is the Parasites’ territory.”
“Not a single one?”
“Nope. My ability to sense evil got a lot better ever since I evolved to adolescence. I can even sense the ones that are concealing themselves or staying underground, but there’s nothing around the area.”
This wasn’t too difficult to accept, given that the Parasites were deploying their troops around the Federation’s and humanity’s long border.
Seol Jihu activated his Innate Ability just to be safe, and his eyes narrowed immediately.
Immediate Retreat Recommended.
The entire area turned crimson red as if to scream danger.
Seol Jihu quickly organized his thoughts. They now had to be quick on their feet.
According to the members who participated in the Imperial Oath Expedition in the past, they were as good as discovered the moment they set foot into this place.
This was because the Empire was different from the other Parasite-occupied territory, being the place where the Parasite Queen resided and a place she made into a divine area of sorts.
It wouldn’t have been a problem if they infiltrated the Parasites’ territory while the Parasite Queen was incapacitated, but unfortunately, the Parasite Queen was clear-minded and healthy.
“So, what’s next?”
“We’ll stick to our plan.”
Seol Jihu replied clearly to Philip Muller’s question.
The expedition team then split into two groups.
The first group would remain in the hideout. The only way for them to escape, now that they had come this far, was to use the transfer magic circle.
Although Little Chick said there wasn’t anything around, it could only detect evil in a few kilometers radius.
If they traveled together and the magic circle was destroyed, everything would have been for naught, so they needed to leave behind members to protect the hideout.
The second group would take on the role of entering the catacombs and retrieving the stele.
Baek Haeju estimated it would take about half a day, or about six hours, to get to the destination. However, her estimation was based on getting to the location on foot. The expedition team had a way to significantly reduce the time needed.
Little Chick looked reluctant, but it didn’t complain, given the gravity of the situation.
It roused its energy, and along with a burst of light, the Arcus Spirit revealed its true body.
Having transformed into a large phoenix, Little Chick craned its long neck and grumbled.
“Hurry up. I can stay in this form a little longer now that I’m in my adolescence phase, but even then, I only have an hour or two.”
Flone carried Seol Jihu up while the rest quickly jumped on the phoenix’s back.
“Oi, you, one with the mask. You come to the front. You’ve been there before, so you should know the way, right?”
Baek Haeju nodded silently.
“Good. You can tell me where to go. Everyone, hold on tight.”
The phoenix raised its body. Flone also shot up while holding onto Seol Jihu tightly.
“We’ll keep this place safe! So come back quickly!”
“Hey, Seol! Be careful!”
The phoenix soared into the sky while being sent off by the members remaining at the hideout.Previous Chapter Next Chapter