The overall atmosphere wasn't so good.
Quite some time had passed since the expedition had come to a stop, yet Dylan was maintaining his silence. An expression of unhappiness was writ large on Samuel's face. Both of them were simply glaring at the blameless ground. Since two Archers acknowledged by the others as experienced and excellent were displaying roughly the same expressions, it was quite likely that something had gone terribly wrong.
When the waiting time extended even further, Ian had no choice but to step up, although he didn't want to do so originally.
“Is there a problem?”
“….We found the traces of footprints that are definitely not human, but we can't figure out who they belong to yet.”
Dylan replied in a straightforward manner. Samuel too slowly shook his head. Now that the worst situation had come true, Ian was also displaying a crumpled expression.
“Hmm… If both of you are not sure, would you mind telling me if there is something of note? I can't give you any guarantees, but because I've been virtually living inside the royal library for a long time, I ended up memorizing the unique characteristics of most monster species.”
Samuel found Ian's suggestion reasonable, so he shifted his gaze back to the ground.
“First of all…. The length and the width of each footprint are quite large. The smallest is around 1.2 times bigger than an average human male’s, and the biggest is around 1.5 times.”
“A good chance it's a species with big physique, then. Anything else?”
“The depths of each print are also substantial. It's not like the surface here is soft as it was back by the entrance of the forest, either… Ah, and we can also see several strands of earth-colored fur as well.”
“Earth-colored, you say?”
Ian's brows quivered unsteadily.
“Are they light in color? Or are they dark?”
Samuel swiped the ground with his index finger and nodded his head as if he was sure of it.
“By any chance, are their six toes, no, I mean, six claw marks as well?”
Ian's question sounded rather urgent. The person who told them to stay calm couldn't keep his anxiety down at all.
“Pardon? Ahh, yes, that's correct. I was about to tell you that just now.”
“Also, are there small but deep grooves somewhere in the prints? Like, a sharp object pierced the ground then pulled out, something like that?”
Samuel dazedly stared back at the Magician. His face seemed to say ‘Well, how did you know that?’
Ian began biting his lips.
“Damn it, they are Lioners!”
Quite unlike him, Dylan grandly flinched after hearing that.
“Lioners…. THE Lioners?!”
Samuel belatedly began frowning as well.
“But, but…. But, that doesn't make sense. Why would Lioners be here at the Forest of Denial….?”
“I also know that Lioners don't live in the Forest of Denial, but call the mountain range on the other side their home. But that's not what's important, is it not? All the clues you've found match the description of a Lioner. And you actually discovered their trace right here!”
“Looks like this expedition is now over.”
Dylan turned around as if to indicate that there was no point in going further forward, but Samuel remained hesitant.
“Samuel, let it go. Those bastards are well known for their wily smarts as hunters, never mind their expertise on cloaking their presence. Trying to fight them inside the Forest of Denial is complete madness.”
Even when Ian urged him with a desperate voice, Samuel continued to hesitate. Seol Jihu wondered why he was wasting time like that when there was a clear danger waiting for them up ahead. Then, the youth recalled the conversation of the night before and that bitter smile on Samuel's face at the end of it, too.
Seol Jihu was about to activate 'Nine Eyes' but stopped himself. He needed to regulate his emotions, after all. He was not confident of maintaining his calm if he saw deep, deep red or jet-black color. Since Ian was doing his best to persuade Samuel, Seol Jihu decided to wait for a bit longer.
“But… we're almost there. We've definitely gone past the entrance of the forest. Give me one hour. No, 30 minutes. I am confident in locating the tomb. And besides, we should be able to handle three or four Lioners if it comes down to that.”
Samuel couldn't simply let it go. Ian was frustrated, but he kept his cool and continued on with his words.
“My friend. Indeed, there are a few occasions where a Lioner might act on its own, but most of the time they hunt in large packs. More importantly, an adult male Lioner is capable of overwhelming a Level 3 Warrior, and it can fight on even ground against a Level 4 warrior.”
“That’s not all. The pack's most important priority, the female Lioner, might not necessarily participate in the battle, but…. even then, it easily exceeds a Level 4 Warrior in strength. Additionally, the leader of the pack is a true, bonafide monster that can fight on equal footing against a Level 5 Warrior. Kahn most likely died because of that thing!”
As soon as Kahn was mentioned, Samuel sobered up. His inner conflict lasted only for a brief second. Samuel gritted his teeth and made an announcement.
“….This expedition is officially over. We are leaving the Forest of Denial right away, everyone.”
Ian nodded his head in relief after hearing Samuel's decision. Seol Jihu also let off a sigh of relief as well. Now that the decision had been made, their movements were swift.
“We increase our pace! We will maintain this pace until we leave the forest, so do not fall behind!”
His expression was dark but still, Samuel shouted out energetically and turned around. But, it happened then.
A weighty noise entered everyone's ears. Shortly after that, the sounds of the tall grasses rustling around, too. Everyone in the expedition froze on the spot.
“They were already waiting for us?!”
Ian spat out a rueful groan after realizing that it was already too late. Seol Jihu instinctively activated his Nine Eyes.
Red. Immediate Retreat Recommended.
Something that had been lying flat on the ground out in front slowly raised its body up. Seol Jihu's line of sight rose upwards to match the creature even before he realized it.
The giant that silently rose up was a monster boasting the eyes of a predatory beast and the wild set of lion-like manes. Its height easily exceeded three meters with light earth-colored fur covering its entire frame. The muscles on the upper torso was developed evenly like that of a human being, but the lower torso resembled more of an animal – lean, but taut and firm.
One eye-catching detail was a long scar extending from its chest all the way down to its belly. It was more or less fully healed now, but still, it seemed fresh.
“It's the….. leader of the Lioners!”
Ian spat out a long sigh.
The first Lioner to reveal itself kicked the ground. It ran as if it was flying and closed the distance in an instant, landing in front of the expedition with a loud boom.
One could sense that the Lioner in front of them was on a different level altogether from all the other monsters they had fought until now, simply from the aura it exuded.
Shortly after that….
The Lioner's vividly yellow eyes gleamed in a dangerous light before its chest expanded and its mouth opened up wide.
A powerful roar so shrill that a specter could have made it reverberated throughout the forest.
Seol Jihu fell down on his knees after his senses were assaulted by the roar that tried to rip his flesh into pieces. It wasn't only him. There was no need to mention the two porters as even Clara, Grace, and Alex fell down as well. Not only that, even Samuel and Chohong faltered.
His eardrums were numb. His sight blurred and his consciousness became muddled. What drove him even crazier was the fact that he so desperately wanted to deny 'something'.
It was then – along with Ian's shouts, Seol's blurred sights cleared up in an instant. His mind felt more comfortable, and his consciousness sharpened as well.
Seol Jihu muttered to himself and raised both of his hands. Some kind of shining powder strewn from above landed on his palms and seeped under his skin.
“Tsk. I should have 'memorized' at least one attack spell.”
Ian lowered his staff and without a warning, got down on his knees. He then unfurled a scroll on the ground and opened his gown before pulling out a small potion bottle. He quickly poured blue salt-like powder on the paper.
Alex too had recovered his wits and rapidly pulled out his crucifix and began mouthing a chant.
“Hey, that – isn't that Kahn's weapon?”
Dylan spoke as he pointed with his crossbow loaded with a bolt.
Just as he said, the Lioner leader was holding a black halberd in one hand. As it was held by a giant of a monster, it looked a little like a toy, but from a human's perspective, it looked plenty threatening still.
Along with the sound of an explosion, the Lioner leader retreated while raising its arm. There were two bolts stuck in its forearm, but none of them had penetrated too deeply.
The black pupils contained within the narrowly-opened eyes lowered slightly. The Lioner leader was staring deeply at the Magician kneeling on the ground, not Dylan in front.
Because it was a creature that didn't possess a high enough intelligence and thus remained faithful to its instincts, it was able to sense it – that the one responsible for reviving the prey on the verge of collapsing was that human.
As soon as it spat out growling noises, other Lioners hiding left and right revealed themselves one by one. Three on the left, and four on the right. They all carried human's weapons and slowly trudged closer to the expedition. They were all smaller than the leader, but none of them were shorter than two meters in height.
“Fyck me. Nine Lioners, huh…. Just what the hell is wrong with this damn forest?”
The lamentation was kept to a minimum. Seol Jihu realized that the combatants of the expedition had circled around him already.
“I'll take on the one in front. Hugo, Clara, take the left. Samuel and Grace, the right. We need to hold on until Master Ian is done with his spell.”
Dylan issued simple instructions and slowly stepped forward.
And as soon as the other four also pounced forward, the team's counterattack had begun for good. With loud battle cries, humans and monsters clashed.
Dylan fired his crossbow, and the leader of Lioners used an explosive turn of speed to close the gap and swung the black halberd down. It looked as if it'd cleave Dylan in two, but in the end, it simply slammed down on the ground instead. Meanwhile, he had circled to the rear of the Lioner, pulled out a dagger sheathed in his belt, and slashed at the monster's muscular thigh.
The surprised monster angrily tried to swat him away. However, Dylan again vanished from the spot and reappeared to the creature's side.
He rapidly fired five bolts in quick succession. All of them were accurately aimed at the vital spots of the monster, but the Lioner reflexively crouched and protected itself. Of course, it still couldn't avoid getting hit on the arms and the legs.
As if it got pissed off, the Lioner leader began swinging the halberd indiscriminately.
Kwang! Kwang! Kwang! Kwang!
Each of the hit was heavy enough to rock the ground, but none of them found the mark. Dylan easily evaded them all, took some distance, and continued to fire his bolts.
'Maybe we can….'
Seol Jihu grew hopeful. Although Dylan was unable to damage the Lioner critically, he thought the group might win if the battle persisted in this fashion. However, in the next moment, he wound up flinching.
He noticed the Lioner leader stealing glances in his direction. It was as if it was being mindful of something.
'Hang on a minute.'
What if that monster ignored Dylan and rushed over here?
As if to do exactly that, the Lioner leader turned its body towards Seol Jihu. However, its expression crumpled after Chohong stood in its way.
Seol Jihu spat out a sigh of relief. He was wondering why Chohong hadn't entered the fray, but as it turned out, she was their 'Keeper'. Dylan could concentrate freely only because she was protecting this area.
Chohong suddenly talked to him.
“Don't be scared and stick close by me. This noona will definitely protect you.”
Seol Jihu thought about arguing the logic behind that statement but shifted his gaze away after noticing Chohong quickly alternating her gaze to her right and left.
Hugo was swinging that battle-axe of his with everything he had. He was madly attacking the Lioners, but as he was surrounded by four of them, his wounds kept on piling up.
Clara was continuously firing her arrows, but none of them could penetrate the thick hide of her targets and simply bounced away, meaning she was not much of a help at all.
The situation on the right was even worse than left.
The battle hadn't been long, yet Grace's shield lay on the ground, broken. She was precariously hanging on with a single longsword. If it weren't for Samuel crazily throwing whatever throwing daggers he had on him, she would have turned into a tenderized slab of meat a while ago.
The flow of the battle looked very unfavorable at the moment. Dylan was holding the upper hand somehow, but the situation on either side was not so good. If one side collapsed, then the ensuing situation would be pretty obvious for anyone to see.
A sudden scream from the side caused Seol Jihu to reflexively circulate his mana.
A crisis finally happened. Grace inexplicably tossed her longsword away, grasped her head, and screamed. It would be hard to control one's emotions during a serious life-or-death battle. And because of that, the effects of the Forest of Denial had taken over her mind.
On the flip side, this was the perfect opportunity for the Lioners. Just as they extended their weapons towards Grace rolling around on the ground, Alex shouted something out and reached out with his left hand.
A thin, semi-transparent barrier formed around Grace. It truly had appeared at the right time. All the attacking weapons got reflected away.
“God damn it!! Why don't you help me out here too?!”
Hugo cried out in a dissatisfied voice. Alex calmly reached out with his left hand again.
“Luxu – Lu – Luxuria!!”
The four Lioners attacking Hugo suddenly stopped moving. Seizing upon this chance, Hugo swung his axe at the neck of one of his enemies, and a long line of blood flew in the air.
Finally, one had been felled, but Hugo was already full of wounds. His once-shiny armor was dented and crushed, while blood continued to stream down from his numerous wounds.
For a short while, the light of indecision flickered within Alex's eyes. He chanted another spell, and Hugo's body began emitting a bright light, as his sluggish movements regained some speed. However, his crucifix turned into dust right away.
Alex didn't even have enough time to feel the pain of losing his precious item and shifted his gaze to the right. The protective barrier was about to shatter.
Dylan called out to Chohong and stood in between the Lioner leader and the expedition team. The bastard resembled a hedgehog with all the bolts poking out from its body, but it still looked pretty much fine.
Meanwhile, Chohong was already on the move. Her long hair whipped about as she ran to the right. She ran like a streak of lightning and swung her mace at the back of the monster's head as it concentrated on breaking the barrier.
A fountain of blood exploded and one more Lioner keeled over. The remaining three spun around to face her, and as if they had a prior arrangement, began attacking her simultaneously. She got into a defensive position and raised her empty left arm.
Thud! Thud! Thud!!
A longsword, an axe and a spear were all deflected away in that order.
In the empty air – no, on her left arm, a white shield could be seen.
'A divine spell?'
Chohong's feet left a pair of long grooves on the ground as she was pushed back, but she was not wounded at all.
“Samuel! Throw them off and get back here!”
She displayed swift footwork and approached her enemies in a zigzag pattern, before spinning in a half-moon orbit and swung her mace. She didn't just jump into their midst but made sure to circle around them and bought as much time as possible.
While Chohong attracted the aggro of all three monsters, Samuel dragged Grace away. The flow of the battle that could have tilted the wrong way stabilized once more with Chohong's participation.
'What am I supposed to do now?'
After circulating for dozens of times, both of Seol Jihu's mana and Circuit had been warmed up properly now, and they felt boiling hot. His 'Nine Eyes' still returned the color red.
He wanted to fight together with them. He didn't want to be protected all the time.
However, he was not in a position to make a move carelessly. Didn't he agree not to mindlessly jump into the battle before coming here?
It wasn't only that, either. With Chohong taking over for Grace, there was no 'Keeper' anymore. She didn't have a choice in the matter, but at this rate, both the Magician and the Priest wouldn't even be able to put up a resistance and die if there happened to be a sneak attack.
'For the time being….'
Seol Jihu made up his mind. He put the heavy bag down and pulled out his spear.
Both Dylan, still busy contending against the Lioner leader, and Alex, still desperately chanting out the next spell, glanced at Seol Jihu. They didn't say anything. After all, the current situation was dangerous enough to ask even a Level 1 to do something.
It was then.
Ian finished what he was doing and finally stood up from his spot. His entire face was soaked in sweat – so much so that even his lengthy beard was dripping wet.
On the ground, there were five unfurled scrolls. There were intricate geometric shapes drawn on them with the blue salt-like powder.
Ian's eyes opened up wide. All five scrolls suddenly burned away and blue grains emitted bright light beams. They then rose up to the air in a helix starting from the left side, before the rotation picked up speed and shapes formed from the five spirals.
Their final forms were five spears made of ice. Resembling a stalactite found in a limestone cave or some such, the sharp blue spears began spinning crazily like a power drill.
Ian raised his staff up and loudly cried out.
“Ark Ce Acedia!”
Ice spears exploded forward as if they were catapulted off from a rubber band pulled back to the limit. Two spears to the right, two to the left, and the last one, to the front.
As soon as those ice spears flew off to their targets, pathetic cries resounded out from here and there. The monster with its head pierced through died instantly. There was one that managed to cover its vital spots, but still, its arms and the lower torso had been penetrated.
Unfortunately for them, the penetration was not the end but just the beginning of their troubles.
The ice spears penetrating the flesh gradually disappeared as if they were getting absorbed by their hosts. As they got smaller and smaller, layers of ice covered more and more of the Lioners' flesh.
In the end, even the Lioner leader fell down on one knee. It was not spared either, as one of its shins with the ice spear lodged in it was gradually being taken over by the blue ice at the moment.
It had been paying close attention to the Magician, but it couldn't shake off the Archer and ended up getting hit like this.
The flow of the battle had changed drastically now. Two monsters had died in an instant, while three of them had received mortal wounds as well. That was including the Lioner leader, as well.
Dylan would never miss a chance like this one.
“Don't give them a chance to rest. Kill them all!”
He quickly took a greater distance away while taking off the crossbow attached to his arm. He then pulled out his massive longbow. His main class was the Arch Shooter, a sniper.
'So, this is a Magician….'
Seol Jihu had been watching anxiously, but after seeing this new development, he inwardly let out a cry of admiration.
With good timing, Alex also completed his divine spell, and that allowed the dangerously-tottering Hugo to regain his balance. Seol Jihu clenched his fist tightly.
'We can do this.'
The best proof of this was the color of his Nine Eyes changing from red to orange….
Seol Jihu's eyes opened widely. The moment that Lioner leader roared, the forest that briefly changed back to orange reverted back to crimson red.
Sure, their situation hadn't become truly advantageous yet, but compared to before, it was definitely for the better. Both Chohong and Samuel worked together to suppress the enemies, and with Alex's support, Hugo should be able to endure until the end of the battle, too. More importantly, Dylan had pulled the string of his longbow to the absolute max and was aiming at the Lioner leader.
Simply taking one look at all the arcs of electricity buzzing around the arrowhead told how dangerous this attack would be. If struck, the best one could hope for would be a mortal injury. However, the eyes of the Lioner leader, even as it stared at this arrow, was drawing a confident, mocking grin.
Just as Dylan let loose the string, Seol Jihu formed a frown. The Lioner leader crouched and bared its fangs. At the same time, the youth felt a creepy, chilly air tickle by his neck.
Seol Jihu witnessed the arrow of electricity penetrate the Lioner leader and hurriedly spun around to look behind him.
Right then, he spotted yet another Lioner without a set of manes leaping up from its hiding place and rapidly closing the distance.
[The pack's most important priority, the female Lioner, might not necessarily participate in the battle, but….]
Ian's words rapidly popped up in his mind.
Seol Jihu cried out as if he lost his mind.
Dylan shifted his head slightly, only for his jaw to drop. Hugo, who was enduring with all his might, started frowning even deeper; Samuel and Chohong, who managed to kill one more Lioner through their combined efforts, began freaking out too.
Despair filled the faces of Ian and Alex.
As if it had been aiming precisely for this moment, the eyes of the Lioner crossing the air gleamed coldly. As the monster pulled back the axe held in its hands, getting ready to chop down, Seol Jihu suddenly found himself trapped in this strange sensation.
During this short period of time, everything he took in had slowed down to a crawl.
'What am I doing?'
He felt dizzy now as if he was drunk.
'I should be dodging.'
His gut lurched painfully.
'I do? Really?'
All sorts of emotions swept past in his heart.
The front locks of his hair danced in the air. Only then did Seol Jihu realize that he was running to the front.
He knew he shouldn't have done that.
Yet, his body moved on its own.
The voice of shocked Alex grew further away.
The boiling-hot mana inside him circulated fiercely It crashed all over his body with the force of violent storm waves.
The slow-moving world suddenly reverted back to normal. And in that moment, his breathing stopped from the powerful fear.
'I want to live….'
Sweat seeped into his eyes and it stung.
'I don't want to die…!'
His muscles were freezing up from the blades of winds slicing into his flesh. This was the terror of death he was feeling for the second time in his life.
Seol Jihu grasped the spear shaft tightly. He gritted his teeth and glared at the descending monster.
He had been simulating thousands of times and practiced tens of thousands of times more back in the Neutral Zone.
All of those, exactly for moments like this!
In the next moment….
Seol Jihu finally succeeded in straightening his arms that wanted to shrink back instead.
The axe falling fast and hard as if to split apart the world and the spear smoothly gliding upwards collided in the middle of the way.Previous Chapter Next Chapter