Side Story 46. Dark Clouds (3)

No one answered Dylan’s question because they all felt there was more to the story than what they were seeing.

“Isn’t that… Seol-Ah?”

Hugo eventually got himself together and asked.

As he said, the person seen on the communication crystal was Yi Seol-Ah.

Or, at least she looked like Yi Seol-Ah.

They couldn’t see her face because she was standing in the corner of the room with her back turned against them.

But her medium-length hair and slender figure easily reminded them of Yi Seol-Ah.

“Hey. What are you doing there all alone?”

“Seol-Ah! Yi Seol-Ah! Answer me!”

Oh Rahee and Hugo shouted.

A few others also called out her name.

But Yi Seol-Ah didn’t look back, let alone answer them.

She showed no response whatsoever.

She would occasionally rock herself back and forth with her arms swaying at her sides, but that was basically it.

“I have a bad feeling about this….”

Vlad Halep muttered quietly as he unwittingly glanced at his sister.

Oana Halep looked confused as well.

The slight tilt of her head made her seem as though she was deep in thought.

“Flone. Can you head over there and see how she’s doing?”

Hugo asked urgently.

He knew he had to help Yi Seol-Ah as soon as possible, but something about her just seemed off.

He figured Flone would be better suited for the job because she was a ghost.

[Um… I could… and I will if you really really want me to… but I have no idea where that is, and….]

Surprisingly, however, Flone seemed reluctant.

She obviously didn’t want to go, although she couldn’t logically explain why.

“It’s too early to be sure, but something seems to have happened to Team 1.”

A deep, low voice broke the silence.

“I suggest we get ready for battle and head together to the place shown in the crystal.”

Dylan proposed as the header.

Oh Rahee bit her lower lip.

Like Flone, she was reluctant to go, but she couldn’t just ignore what she saw. It wasn’t like there was anything else on the screen other than Yi Seol-Ah.

“ …Everyone, adjust your formation to the width of the passage.”

In the end, she accepted Dylan’s proposal.

Oh Rahee grabbed the communication crystal and looked around at everyone.

“Dylan, you lead the way. Hugo? Why are you standing still? Cover the archer. I expect you two to make a good team since you’ve worked together before. The magicians and priests should go to the center. I’ll be their keeper. Erica Lawrence and Vlad Halep are in charge of the rear guard. Flone, since you aren’t affected by the terrain, you should cover us from various angles.”

An order was issued promptly.

The rescue team immediately rearranged themselves and began to advance with full vigilance.

“Are you sure this is the right way? I heard the way down is quite complicated.”

“In case you missed it earlier, we found traces of two people running off in a hurry at the base camp. My guess is that they reached the room from earlier through this passage.”

“Wait. Does that mean….”

“Nothing is certain. What happened in that room and who went to save whom…. Ayase Kazuki would’ve figured it out immediately, but I’m not at his level. I can only take my best guess.”

Except for Oh Rahee and Dylan’s exchange, no one said a thing.

As they traveled deeper, the darkness grew more and more intense, but their pace remained consistent.

Everyone was wary, but the atmosphere itself was calm.

There was nothing surprising about that—they were all professionals who fought in the war against the Parasites, and some of them even confronted the Parasite Queen.

No one seemed too afraid of what could happen.

They figured whatever might happen couldn’t be worse than the Parasite Queen.

It was then that the march suddenly stopped.

“What’s wrong?”

“Shh.”

Dylan, in the lead, stopped and held up his hand.

This was their signal to stop.

“…Found her.”

Dylan whispered as he raised his crossbow.

Oh Rahee looked up and observed the opposite passage.

A bluish light was coming from the room at the very end.

It seemed to be the light from a communication crystal.

As Dylan said, Yi Seol-Ah was barely visible near the edge of the blind spot.

She was still looking down with her back turned away from them in the stifling silence.

“…Call her.”

Oh Rahee checked the communication crystal again and lightly pushed Hugo forward.

Hugo cleared his throat and stepped closer.

“Seol-Ah.”

He called quietly, but Yi Seol-Ah didn’t answer.

“Seol-Ah! It’s us! We’re here to help you! Wake up!”

She was still silent, but there was a change.

Her body, which was swaying back and forth, suddenly stopped.

“…Fuck. I’m gonna kill her if this is some kind of joke.”

Oh Rahee cursed quietly.

“Should I fire a warning shot? Or I could just avoid her vital points.”

Dylan asked, aiming his crossbow at Yi Seol-Ah.

“That would be necessary if Yi Seol-Ah were as strong as Seol Jihu… but she isn’t.”

Oh Rahee smacked her lips and raised her blood-colored longsword.

“Let’s move forward. But remember to keep a distance of at least six meters between you and the target at all times.”

“What if she moves before we get into our positions?”

“Then, don’t hesitate to fire. But try not to kill her. She only has one life left.”

“All right. I’ll go for the leg.”

After hearing Dylan’s answer, Oh Rahee turned around.

She saw everyone clutch their weapons. Eun Yuri and Ian were chanting spells under their breath.

Soon Ian thrust his wand forward.

A ball of light erupted from the tip of the wand and illuminated their surroundings.

Once visibility improved, Dylan began to move.

The rest of the team followed him further in.

“Okay. Be a good girl and stay still. I might even give you a candy later…. All right, distance confirmed.”

At last, all the rescuers successfully entered the room.

Oh Rahee gulped as she stared at Yi Seol-Ah in front of her.

Then suddenly, she began to wonder.

‘Why am I so nervous?’

After all, there was only one enemy here. She was being way too careful.

She regretted laughing at Marcel Ghionea for setting up a circle of communication crystals back at the base camp.

Were her instincts trying to warn her? Or was the ominous darkness around them unknowingly exerting its evil influence on her?

Without reaching a conclusion, Oh Rahee clenched her teeth.

She was here on a rescue mission. There was only one thing she could possibly do.

“Eun Yuri. Can you use your wind magic on her? But weaken it just enough for her to feel something.”

“Of course.”

Eun Yuri stretched her arm forward.

The breeze from her palm swept toward Yi Seol-Ah.

The body that stood facing the wall swayed a little….

Tuk!

…Before falling swiftly to the ground.

The team released the breath they had been holding for too long.

“She’s unconscious. We need to start treating her right away…?”

With her tongue sticking out of her mouth, Mary Rhine rushed forward but stopped when Oh Rahee raised a hand to stop her.

“Flone.”

Oh Rahee’s eyes narrowed as she scrutinized Yi Seol-Ah.

“Flip her. I wanna see her face.”

Flone hesitated at first but then reluctantly agreed.

She carefully extended her arm toward Yi Seol-Ah, who lay still on the ground as if she were dead.

However, just before Flone’s hand reached Yi Seol-Ah’s face, at that very moment….

Whoosh!

Yi Seol-Ah raised her head.

[Mom…!]

Flone quickly jerked away in a startle.

“Seol-Ah….”

“Ah…. Huh…?”

The rest of the rescue team showed similar reactions.

They widened their eyes and covered their mouths in shock.

They all fell silent, and it wasn’t just because Yi Seol-Ah suddenly raised her head.

Her eye sockets were empty, as if someone had dug her eyes out on purpose.

They couldn’t tell whether her nose had been torn from her face or sunken into her skin, but almost no trace of it was left.

Her mouth was wide open, and she seemed unable to close it.

Her face was covered with dry blood.

The word ‘appalling’ wasn’t enough to describe the grotesque distortions of her appearance.

Her injuries helped them gauge the amount of pain she must have suffered.

KWANG!

Suddenly, the room began to shake violently.

Dust from the ceiling rained down all over the rescue team.

They jerked their gazes up in unison.

There, Yi Seol-Ah was hanging from the ceiling with her limbs sprawled out.

She had bounced toward the ceiling in the blink of an eye, like a spring that had been compressed to its limit had been suddenly released.

“What the…. What is….”

Someone began to mutter, but before they could finish their sentence, a gust of wind swirled across the room.

Yi Seol-Ah’s body fluttered furiously like a flag in a storm.

Kwang! Kwang! Kwang! Kwang!

She crashed into the ground, the ceiling, and the walls on both sides.

All this happened in less than three seconds.

“My mana is…?”

Eun Yuri tried to grab her but panicked when she realized her mana wasn’t working, even though it was working just fine until a moment ago.

“No…!”

Mary Rhine screamed out loud.

She tried to protect Yi Seol-Ah with a barrier, but it immediately shattered when her body crashed into the wall yet again.

Flone could barely keep up with Yi Seol-Ah’s terrifying speed and power.

Dylan drew his crossbow but couldn’t aim properly.

The situation was the same for everybody.

They couldn’t see the enemy holding Yi Seol-Ah hostage, let alone detect its presence.

It was then.

Paat!

The light that was illuminating the room went out suddenly.

The bluish glow of the communication crystal had also disappeared.

Darkness devoured everything.

“Master Ian!”

“It wasn’t me! I never stopped my mana!”

“Redemptio!”

Oana Halep’s voice resounded in the air.

Her spell must have been effective, for the sound of Yi Seol-Ah’s body hitting the walls stopped suddenly.

“Yi Seol-Ah…!”

Oh Rahee roused her eyesight and quickly looked around.

Suddenly, her face hardened into a frown.

“My anti-restraint spell is…!”

Oana Halep also muttered in a regretful tone.

And it wasn’t just the two of them.

Everyone could see it clearly: Yi Seol-Ah crossing through the air above them toward the opposite passage, her hair pushed to one side.

It was as if someone had grabbed a fistful of her hair and was tugging as hard as they could.

“Just now….”

A shaking voice rang out.

“Aura…?”

Yes. It was the Air Spirit, Aura, who pulled Yi Seol-Ah’s hair.

Or at least, it was someone who strikingly resembled Aura.

Malice and thirst for blood seemed to have replaced her usual warm and friendly atmosphere.

“No. But why would Aura do that? She didn’t even feel like a Spirit…!”

Ian shouted in shock, which was rare for him.

—Keehehehe!

Mocking laughter came from the opposite side.

Yi Seol-Ah’s body, which by then was only a dot in the distance, swayed in the air a few times. This was clearly meant to provoke the rescue team.

Even the last glimpse of her was soon swallowed by the darkness and disappeared from their sight.

“…Was it always this dark?”

Alarmed by the growing darkness, Oh Rahee quickly looked around.

Finally, she realized something was wrong.

“Wait a minute. Why are there only eight of us? There should be ten.”

The crowd began to murmur.

“Unni? Lawrence Unni!”

“Oppa…?”

Mary Rhine and Oana Halep were the first to realize who was missing.

Erica Lawrence and Vlad Halep.

The two in charge of the rear had disappeared without a trace.

As unbelievable as it was, this was what was happening.

“Keuk…!”

Oh Rahee clenched her teeth.

She remembered that the pair was with them when they first entered this room.

It must have been during their confrontation with Yi Seol-Ah that they went missing.

The incessant troubles left her feeling lost and confused.

To make matters worse, the darkness around them was growing with every second.

Oh Rahee once again roused her eyesight with mana. Even then, all she could see was darkness.

“What the hell is the magician doing!?”

“Darn it. I’m still chanting the illumination spell! It doesn’t seem to work!”

“Everyone, shut up!”

Oh Rahee growled.

“Form a circle around the magicians and priests with your backs turned against each other! Shout out your name once you’re in position!”

Even in the midst of chaos, the rescue team moved with unfaltering precision.

They settled into their positions and shouted their names.

This was done to ensure everyone was present, as they couldn’t even see a short distance ahead.

Another problem arose, however.

One of the names was missing, no matter how long they waited.

“Eun Yuri? Eun Yuri! Answer me!”

Oh Rahee pressed, but no reply came from Eun Yuri.

She heard nothing but a faint gasping sound in the distance.

“Damn it! If magic doesn’t work…!”

Hwrrrr!

A fire brightened the darkness of the void.

Ian had lit up the torch that he brought just in case.

“Where is Eun Yuri…!”

In the next moment, Oh Rahee doubted her eyes.

Eun Yuri was nowhere near the rest of the team.

She was almost at the end of the passage ahead.

There was something odd about the way she was walking.

With her upper body bent forward, she was taking one step at a time, as if she had a limp.

No—she wasn’t walking.

Her feet were dragging on the ground.

And her hair was being pulled forward by an invisible force, just like Yi Seol-Ah….

“Heavens!”

Ian exclaimed out loud.

Eun Yuri wasn’t walking. She was being dragged by force.

There were two reasons why she had been able to hold out for so long.

The first reason was Roselle. She was relentlessly chanting spells against the force trying to take Eun Yuri away.

The second reason was Eun Yuri herself. She had formed a seal with her hand, and her lips were moving constantly.

Her bloodshot eyes proved that she was resisting with her all might.

This was why she couldn’t shout out her name or ask others for help.

But the desperate resistance of the powerful witch and genius magician was now coming to an end.

“Kyaaaak!”

Before the rescue team could do anything, darkness devoured Eun Yuri, and she disappeared completely, leaving nothing but a scream behind.

[Huh? Wait, wait, wait!]

Roselle and Flone were also dragged into the darkness.

This was because Eun Yuri was wearing both the ring and the necklace tied to the Servants of Gluttony.

Finally, silence returned to the room.

The rescue team, however, was far from peace.

They had lost half their force in less than a blink of an eye.

No, it was more than half, considering who went missing.

What drove the rescue team even crazier was that it wasn’t over yet.

The silence lasted only briefly.

Soon, a strange buzzing began to emerge.

The noise almost sounded like a whisper, but no one could understand what it was saying.

Everyone’s hair stood on end from fear.

They could sense the enormous, terrifying, indescribable malice glaring straight at their faces.

Huk.

The torch went out.

Darkness descended once again.

Immediately confused murmurs and gasps broke out.

“Everyone, ruuunnn!”

Dylan’s desperate cry echoed across the air toward the few remaining members.


*


Some time went by.

Rattle!

Following the sound of a stone door opening, a man burst out of the door.

It was Hugo.

A commotion broke out in the void shortly after everyone sensed something had entered their midst.

Darkness was all Hugo could see. The enemy was nowhere to be found.

No matter how much mana he spent or how many times he swung his axe, the situation didn’t get any better.

Then suddenly, an invisible force knocked Hugo’s axe from his hand, and the time came when he could no longer tell what was happening to his comrades.

Dylan told him to run, so he did.

Hugo ran with his eyes shut tight.

He knew it was a stupid thing to do, but he had no choice.

He relied only on instinct to guide the way.

Whenever he hit a wall, or something scratched him, he changed his direction to where it felt right.

And again, he ran as fast as he could.

Whether it was by luck or fluke, Hugo couldn’t tell—but he was able to keep on running for quite some time.

He opened his eyes only after passing through the stone door.

“Huk…! Huk…!”

Hugo panted for a while before raising his head.

He had no idea where he was.

“…”

He had never felt so afraid of silence.

Hugo looked around carefully, trying to stay calm.

This place was not a hallway, but certainly not a naturally occurring cave either.

He saw artificial traces everywhere.

The staircase in front of him was one of them.

‘Stairs again…?’

Does that mean I have to go even lower? Hugo muttered to himself as he carefully approached the stairs.

He flinched the moment he looked down.

The stairway wasn’t long.

In fact, he could probably reach the lower landing in less than 30 seconds.

At the end of the stairs was a stone gate decorated with an intricate geometric engraving.

‘No, no. Not there. Not that place.’

Hugo thought as soon as he saw the gate.

‘Not there…. Not that door….’

I shouldn’t open that door, no matter what. He thought so without knowing why.

He could sense the vile energy flowing out of the door.

One could lose his mind just by going near it.

‘Damn it, of all the places I could’ve gone…. No, this isn’t the time to be complaining. I need to get out of here…!’

Just as he thought so….

Koong!

He heard a loud noise from behind.

Hugo quickly turned around and saw that the stone door he had passed through had closed itself.

Hugo’s eyes widened.

“Damn it! Damn it! Why won’t you open?”

He hurried back to the door and tried to reopen it, but it didn’t even budge.

Earlier, a push was all that was needed to open it. But now, despite Hugo’s bombardment of mana, the door stood completely still.

It was then.

Rattle! Rattle!

All of a sudden, Hugo heard a door open.

It had come from behind him, not in front of him.

Hugo held his breath.

‘No. It can’t be….’

Squeak.

It was truly a horrible sound.

It was the sound of something climbing up the stairs, its joints creaking and grinding against each other every time it moved.

The sound echoed once again.

Hugo’s face twisted into a frown.

His instincts told him he needed to open the door in front of him before something reached the top of the stairs.

“Damn it, damn it, damn it, damn it!”

But no matter how hard he pressed or pounded, the door remained absolutely still.

Squeak, squeak.

Meanwhile, the mysterious sound continued to grow.

It moved from the door to the top of the stairs, and from the stairs to where Hugo stood.

“Kkeeuuuuung!”

Rattle!

Hugo pushed with all the strength left in him, and at last, the door cracked open.

Because he didn’t expect it to actually open, he stumbled when it did.

Then, suddenly, he felt a hand on his shoulder.

Hugo froze in place.

“Uaaaargh!”

He unwittingly looked down, shaking his arms up and down.

“Uaah! …Ah?”

He blinked.

The thin, pale arm stretching out of the loose sleeve was familiar to his eyes.

To begin with, there was only one young magician in the rescue team.

“What the…. Ah. Eun Yuri, is that you? Jeez! You nearly gave me a heart attack!”

Hugo let out the breath that he had been holding.

With a chuckle, he grabbed Eun Yuri’s arm and lowered it from his shoulder.

“So you were alive. I’m glad. I really am…. But now isn’t the time for that! So… what happened to you after you were dragged away like that…?”

Hugo paused because the arm that was on his shoulder fell to the ground suddenly.

Then he saw it—blood dripping from the flesh at the joint where the arm had forcibly been detached.

In addition, all five fingers looked beaten and bruised as if someone had hit them with a stone.

Shock spread over Hugo’s face.

He almost turned around but stopped in time.

His instincts were ringing a frantic alarm.

Don’t look back! It said.

The back of his neck was wet with sweat.

The footsteps had already stopped.

Something was now staring at him from behind.

What was the distance between them? 10 meters? 5 meters?

In any case, he only had two choices left.

He could run at the risk of his life as he did earlier, or….

Hugo stopped thinking and gulped.

He finally realized that he never had any choice from the start.

His body was shaking, but at least the door in front of him was open.

Hugo took a slow, deep breath.

At this moment, even his own breathing sounded strangely loud.

Squeak.

The sound started again.

Squeak.

At this point, his body was so tense that he found it difficult even to move a finger.

But there was no time left for hesitation.

Squeak.

It was a do-or-die situation, and Hugo chose ‘do’.

Squeak.

‘Three….’

He decided to count to three and then run.

Squeak.

‘Two….’

Squeak.

‘…One.’

Finally, when the count reached zero, Hugo’s eyes shot wide open.

Then, just as he was about to lunge forward….

Squeeeeeeeeeak.

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