Side Story 45. Dark Clouds (2)

When an organization went out on an expedition, it was common sense for the expedition leader to report the expedition’s status to the organization periodically.

At the very least, they had to do so at a time of danger or when they were on their way back after the expedition was over. That way, the organization would be able to send reinforcements if necessary and would not have to think, ‘Why is there no news? Did something happen to them?’

If the worried organization sent reinforcements because of the lack of communication, and the expedition team went back without running into them, that would prove to be a total waste of time and resources.

Quite some time had passed since the second expedition led by Team 1 began, more than enough for the team to have finished the expedition and contact the organization about the result.

Of course, unexpected trouble might have occurred in the middle, delaying the completion of the expedition. But if that were the case, the team should have contacted the organization about it. The Marcel Ghionea that Kim Hannah knew would have contacted her long ago.

A concept called the golden hour exists in medicine, where prompt medical and surgical treatment could prevent death after a traumatic injury.

Rather than waiting a few days to hear back, Kim Hannah acted promptly. She called for an emergency meeting, calling Hugo as Team 2’s acting leader since their leader was away and also calling Team 3’s leader, Oh Rahee.

Though Jang Maldong was also an executive member, he was currently away on a long-term leave due to the Neutral Zone’s opening being stopped.

After hearing Kim Hannah’s explanation, Hugo and Oh Rahee put on a serious expression.

“No way. Team 1 is completely… No, aren’t they still in the middle of the expedition? Maybe they’re in a region where the communication crystal doesn’t work.”

“Of course, that’s a possibility. But I think it will be best to assume the worst and deploy reinforcements. After all, there has only been one situation where the communication crystal didn’t work.”

After thinking about what Kim Hannah said, Hugo looked shocked.

“The Parasites! Wait, then this isn’t a matter we should keep to ourselves. We should let the other cities know and also message Seol…!”

“Come on. The Parasite Queen is dead. How can it be the Parasites?”

Oh Rahee criticized Hugo for making a fuss about nothing and looked back at Kim Hannah.

“I agree with sending reinforcements. If that guy, who’s pretty much the incarnation of rules, hasn’t contacted HQ, I’m sure that means something unexpected happened…. But.”

Oh Rahee’s eyes flashed with a sharp glint.

“You’re not telling us to go right away, are you?”

She was right in pointing this out. Whether it be an exploration or an expedition, having an Archer was an absolute necessity. Otherwise, it was all too easy to get lost.

The unfortunate truth was that Valhalla currently did not have an Archer. It wasn’t as if they lacked any, but the ones they had were all newly selected members. None had the experience nor the strength to act as the header of an important expedition. Deploying all of Valhalla’s skilled Archers in the second expedition had come back to bite them in the ass.

“Thinking that the Archers are the cause of Team 1’s failure would be too hasty… but in any case, shouldn’t we at least have a skilled Archer in the reinforcement team?”

“Of course.”

Kim Hannah wasn’t all that surprised.

“Since there aren’t Archers that fit the criteria in Valhalla, I plan on recruiting help from outside.”

In fact, she replied right away as if she had already thought of this.

“Really? I was under the assumption you didn’t want outsiders to know about this.”

Oh Rahee raised her eyebrows in surprise.

“The reputation of an organization should not be placed before the safety of its members. That said, I still believe this expedition can be resolved with just us. For now, rescuing the expedition team will be our priority.”

Kim Hannah spoke eloquently and then cleared her throat.

“As of this moment, Mister Richard Hugo will be the acting leader of Team 2. The two team leaders should notify the team members of the situation and prepare to set out.”

“I don’t mind getting ready, but what about the answer to my question?”

“I already have an Archer in mind for the job. I’m sure no one will doubt his abilities, and I can assure you that his lips are tight.”

“Hnng. There’s someone like that in Paradise? I’m curious to know who it is.”

“I’m sure you’ve heard of his name, Team Leader Oh Rahee.”

With that, Kim Hannah turned her head. Oh Rahee did the same.

“...Hm?”

Hugo blinked in a daze, receiving the two women’s gaze.


*


A few days later, two men visited Valhalla.

“...I understand the situation.”

A deep voice flowed out.

“I have a question before deciding whether to participate or not.”

Tak. A burly black man put down his teacup and raised his head.

It was the revived leader of Carpe Diem, Edward Dylan.

“Chung Chohong, Marcel Ghionea, Hoshino Urara, Marika Larisa, Ayase Kazuki… I’m well-acquainted with most of them, and even the ones I have not met, I’ve at least heard of their names.”

Dylan locked his fingers together and said.

“They’re all veterans in both battles and expeditions. Though it is only speculation right now, we cannot look down on an enemy that defeated them. Perhaps the enemy is a ridiculously powerful one.”

“It’s possible.”

Kim Hannah nodded her head readily.

“...If you agree, representative…”

Dylan’s eyes narrowed.

“Then why haven’t you asked Seol for help?”

“I would like to ask the same thing.”

Hearing Dylan’s sharp tone, Ian, who was listening silently, also chimed in.

“I understand calling Dylan because you need an Archer… but wouldn’t everything be solved immediately by calling Seol?”

“It would. But as you said, nothing is certain.”

Kim Hannah shook her head.

“We don’t know whether they’re dead or alive, or if they failed the expedition or are still in the process. It might just be that we can’t contact them for an unknown reason.”

“Still.”

“Of course, that might not be the case, but that would mean it’s already too late.”

“....”

“The important thing is that Seol Jihu is currently not in Paradise for personal matters.”

Kim Hannah smacked her lips.

“I know. We’ll be able to resolve this easily if we call Jihu… but he told me before he left that he wanted to focus on Earth for a while.”

“....”

“I’m sure you know, Master Ian, how obsessed Jihu was with Paradise in the past. It was almost to the point of madness.”

“That’s….”

“Calling him is not difficult. But no matter the outcome of the incident, how do you think Jihu will react?”

The expedition team might be rescued, or they may already be dead. But how would Seol Jihu accept this incident?

“He’s finally escaped from his Paradise obsession and is trying to manage his life on Earth…. If he thinks his presence is necessary to protect Paradise….”

Kim Hannah’s point was that she did not want to worry Seol Jihu, who was standing at an important turning point, with Paradise’s matters. Ian could see where she was coming from.

“Mm… If that is what you think, I don’t really have much to say….”

Ian groaned.

“Indeed… This decision of Seol’s might be a one in a thousand opportunity….”

Ian knew how much Seol Jihu cared about Paradise. After all, he caused a huge commotion on Earth when he died last time.

“If they are simply unable to contact us through a communication interference and are still in the middle of the expedition, calling Jihu might lead to the absolute worst-case scenario. Not for Paradise, but for Jihu.”

Ian closed his mouth. Seol Jihu had sacrificed enough for Paradise. It was time for him to get some rest, and since he made up his mind to do so as well, he didn’t want to rope him back in either.

“Also.”

Seeing Ian’s silence, Kim Hannah handed him a piece of paper.

“I think we can take care of this without Jihu.”

The paper contained a list of people joining the rescue team.

“Hoh….”

Dylan exclaimed after scanning the list.

“Erica Lawrence and Mary Rhine… I heard they were scouted by Valhalla. It seems the rumors were true.”

“Miss Eun Yuri and even Miss Flone? Doesn’t Miss Eun Yuri joining the team naturally mean that frightening witch will also be joining?”

“Ah, I’ve heard of her as well. She apparently played a huge role in defeating the Army Commanders in the final battle.”

Seeing Ian and Dylan’s positive reaction, Kim Hannah took the opportunity to speak.

“That’s not all.”

She pointed at a name on the list.

“An Executor will be joining the rescue team as well.”

Seeing the name Kim Hannah pointed out, the two men became dazed for a moment.

“...This is the first time I’m hearing that Invidia has selected an Executor.”

“Of course, because we hid it all this time. The Star of Envy also wanted to keep it a secret. Not many people in Valhalla know, and you two are the first outsiders to find out.”

“Oho, the Star of Envy….”

“If the worst-case scenario happened, I doubt the battle that took place was simple. So to be safe….”

Kim Hannah trailed off purposely. Ian rubbed his beard. After a brief moment of silence, Dylan glanced at Kim Hannah.

“Despite not calling Seol… it seems Valhalla is risking life and death in this.”

“We do have to think about all possible scenarios.”

Kim Hannah spoke clearly.

“And just so you know, you don’t need to push yourselves too hard.”

“What do you mean?”

“Rescuing the expedition team will be our top priority, but if the situation has already reached the point where that is impossible, or you judge that advancing further will not be safe, you can come back after simply investigating what happened.”

Kim Hannah continued.

“If this is a matter that we cannot solve on our own, then I will not keep up appearances and contact Jihu. And not only will I notify all Executors, but I will also contact all cities to tell them what happened. You can think of this mission as a preparatory process to gather clues on what exactly happened.”

“...I see.”

Dylan chuckled after listening quietly.

“I always wondered why you were called Miss Foxy. Now I know. With such a huge reward and a well thought out team, I guess I have no choice but to accept the mission.”

Dylan flicked the paper after rubbing his chin.

“Alright.”

He nodded his head and spoke.

“I will be the header of this rescue expedition. With Master Ian coming along, of course.”

Dylan finally agreed.

“Thank you.”

Kim Hannah smiled faintly.


*


Just like that, Valhalla’s third expedition began. There was no difficulty in getting there. As many people had gone back and forth to the imperial capital after the war, the surrounding region had already been cleared up.

“We arrived at the Empire just now. We’ll enter the area of operation soon.”

Oh Rahee hung up the communication crystal and sighed.

“They still haven’t heard back from the first team.”

“So it’s almost certain that something happened to Team 1.”

“We shouldn’t jump to conclusions just yet. We did hear that the ruin underneath the palace was more complex than any labyrinth we’ve ever seen.”

Oh Rahee clicked her tongue and tilted her head up. Not liking how dark the sky was in the middle of the day, she muttered quietly.

“Was the Empire’s sky always this dark?”

She recalled it being warm and clear at the end of the final war. She did not see dark clouds looming over them or anything, but the sky seemed darker than usual.

Just as she was about to chalk it up to being her imagination…

“Wait.”

Ian called Oh Rahee over.

“What’s up?”

“Let’s talk about something before going in.”

Oh Rahee tilted her head curiously. The way Ian was acting had been on her mind during the trip here. She liked him because of his lighthearted temperament, but he seemed to be in deep thought today.

“I don’t see why not.”

Oh Rahee walked with Ian and strayed a bit from the expedition team. While they were talking with their voices low…

“...Hold on.”

Oh Rahee suddenly raised her eyebrow.

“The fact that you’re telling me this…”

“I hope I am wrong too. But it just hasn’t been sitting right.”

Ian gestured at Dylan, and Dylan joined their conversation. The three of them talked about a lot of things.

After some time, Oh Rahee sighed while pressing her temples.

“...If you think that is for the best, then okay. It’s nothing difficult on our end.... Hey, you.”

Oh Rahee pointed at someone.

“Come here.”

“Huh? Ah, yes!”

A curly-haired woman hurriedly ran up to her. Rachel Chastain. She was an Archer of Valhalla’s Team 3 who was under training. Of course, she was not a High Ranker yet.

“Don’t go in with us and wait outside.”

“Eh?”

“I’m not telling you to sit still. From now on, you’re our communication line.”

“Communication line…?”

Seeing Rachel Chastain’s confused face, Oh Rahee spoke in an annoyed tone.

“Are you stupid? I’m telling you to keep in contact with us while we enter the ruin. Shouldn’t you know what I mean if you’re an Archer?”

“Uh… Just me?”

“Then do you wanna go in with us?”

Hearing this, Rachel Chastain hesitated. Though she participated to gain experience, she did not really want to go into the ruin. The surroundings were dark and gloomy, and she didn’t have a good feeling about it.

“Let me chime in.”

Ian took a step forward.

“The job we’re entrusting you with is nothing difficult, so don’t be scared. We’re just trying to check how the communication connections are down there.”

“Oh, if it’s just that…”

“But.”

Just when Rachel Chastain’s complexion brightened a bit, Ian cut her off.

“Just bear one thing in mind. You cannot hang up first no matter what.”

“Yes, of course.”

“And if the communication cuts off from our end…”

Ian’s voice slowly subsided.

“And the communication doesn’t re-establish for more than 20 minutes… then immediately run away without looking back.”

“...Pardon?”

Rachel Chastain doubted her ears.

“I’m not done yet. This is the important part.”

Ian lowered his voice even further.

“If you successfully return to the city, do not stop by to report to anyone. Not even to Valhalla’s representative. Your job is to return to Earth as soon as possible…”

Ian paused and then handed over a piece of paper.

“Call this number and explain the situation. Then, that person will take care of everything.”

Rachel Chastain took the note before turning her gaze hesitantly. Oh Rahee looked back and nodded with an expressionless face.

“This is for everyone’s benefit, so just do as you’re told. If something happens, I’ll cover for you.”

“...Understood.”

Rachel Chastain carefully grasped the piece of paper. Oh Rahee turned around.

“Are we good now?”

“Mn. Let’s go in.”

Soon, the expedition team advanced toward their destination.

Only one person remained behind.


*


After entering the imperial palace, the rescue team found the stairway leading underground and advanced. When they arrived at the first underground floor, a complex network of crossroads appeared.

However, this did not pose a problem. All they had to do was follow the traces of the first expedition team.

Following the tunnel and advancing further, the team eventually arrived at the second underground floor. To be more precise, this was where Team 1 set up their base camp.

“This is….”

Seeing the scene in front of them, the rescue team became lost for words. They didn’t see any traces of battle. Tents, sleeping bags, and luggage bags were perfectly preserved.

They even saw mana stones. Given Marcel Ghionea’s meticulous nature, the first expedition team must have set them up around the base camp. They did not reveal any sign of intruders.

That was what made it so strange. It looked like someone would come out to greet them, but only a deathly silence filled the base camp.

‘The communication connection….’

The crystal was still connected to Rachel Chastain. Meaning, the communication interference did not happen in this room.

“It must have been further down that the communication cut off. Either that or something happened.”

It seemed like the latter scenario was more likely, but Oh Rahee did not say anything and looked at Dylan.

“How much can you find out?”

“Don’t underestimate me.”

Dylan stepped up at Oh Rahee’s question.

“Although I’m specialized for battles, experience and knowledge that I acquired on my own can’t be ignored.”

After entering the base camp, Dylan slowly went around the room. Oh Rahee, who was standing still at the entrance, suddenly fixed her gaze in one spot.

“...Communication crystals?”

There were eight or so communication crystals sitting in the corner. Oh Rahee immediately walked over.

“What are these doing out here?”

“It looks like they used this place as a control tower.”

When Eun Yuri shoved her face forward, Oh Rahee flinched slightly before gritting her teeth.

“Ah jeez, you scared me. And what? Control tower?”

“Yes, my teacher and I enhanced the communication crystals through research. You can think of them as security cameras. It looks like they used those crystals for this expedition.”

“That’s not a method I would have used, but given that guy’s personality, it makes total sense.”

Oh Rahee spoke casually and then crossed her arms.

“Anyway, if you’re right, then this maze is complicated enough to require several communication crystals. It’s either that, or there’s something that requires us to look at multiple places at once.”

Oh Rahee tilted her head and fell into thought. After a brief moment, she glanced at Eun Yuri.

“Should we try turning them on?”

“I don’t see why not.”

Eun Yuri shrugged.

“As long as the communication crystals that they’re connected to exist, and there’s something to pick up the call, they will work like normal communication crystals.”

“Perfect. If we’re lucky, one of them will turn on. Give it a try.”

Oh Rahee laughed. Eun Yuri quietly infused her mana into the crystals.

On the other hand…

“I don’t see anything particularly noteworthy.”

Dylan, who was closely examining the pathways, shook his head.

“It looks like two people stayed behind at the base camp. I don’t know what happened, but it looks like they ran into this pathway in a hurry.”

He straightened his bent knees and got up. Then, he flinched after looking back.

The rest of the rescue team were gathered in a single spot, looking fixedly at a communication crystal. They all had blank, dazed expressions.

“...Dylan…”

Ian, who barely snapped out of his stupor, pointed at the crystal below.

“Come here… and take a look at this….”

His voice trembled out. Of the several communication crystals lying on the ground, only one was shining with light.

“What’s wrong, Master Ian? Why is everyone…”

Dylan walked over and looked into the faintly shining communication crystal. At that moment, Dylan furrowed his brows.

“...Dear god.”

He then muttered as if he could not believe what he was seeing.

“What is she… doing there…?”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter