Seol Jihu stared at the march of hundreds of beasts as they kicked up a mighty dust storm on the rugged terrain.
Ian raised his hand and waved it while shouting out. Someone from the march also raised a hand as if to reply back. When that happened, the cavalry slowly decreased their ground-shaking march.
A beast boasting the greatest size among them approached the location where the expedition team was. Shortly thereafter, the beast stopped in front of Ian.
When the rider pulled on the reins hard, the horse-like creature growled and reared on its hind legs.
“I didn't expect you to arrive before us, Ian.”
A voice that sounded light and energetic but also refined rang out from the top of the beast.
Ian replied with a short bow and a smile.
“What gentleman would dare to be tardy when invited by Princess Teresa Hussey?”
“Thank you for your kind words. I was worried that you might ignore the invitation.”
Teresa smiled before turning her shapely chin away to shout at her men.
“We will take a short break here! With the exception of the soldiers entering the Arden Valley, the rest will immediately prepare to return to Haramark with the carriages and the Horuses!!”
Instantly, lots of activity broke out behind her.
Ian slowly rubbed his beard.
“But isn't there a road leading to the fortress? By riding on Horuses, we should get there much faster compared to running on foot.”
“Well, the communication with the sentries posted on the road to the fortress has been cut off as well.”
Teresa replied in a clear voice and elegantly dismounted from her Horus. When her feet landed on the ground, a loud metallic clank resounded out.
“It's obvious. The sentry posts have been lost already. And we don't know if there's an ambush lying in wait for us. Rather than taking on the risk, it'll be better to climb up the Dawn Peak to survey the situation first.”
Ian nodded his head as if he understood her intention.
With a fatigued look on her face, Teresa Hussey scanned her surroundings, and upon finding the team of Carpe Diem silently standing to the side, she winked at them.
“Been a while, Dylan, Chohong, Hugo.”
Dylan bowed slightly to greet her, while Hugo raised his hand and waved it. A cold aura was oozing out of Chohong as she deliberately avoided the princess's gaze.
Next up, Teresa's disinterested gaze shifted over to an unknown young man staring back at her; he kind of looked dazed at the moment.
“….And this gentleman here is?”
“He's an Earthling that graduated from the Neutral Zone during March this year. He's a comrade who participated in the scouting of the Forest of Denial with us.”
“Oh…. Wait a minute? Hold on. If you're talking about this year, then he's only Level 1?”
Without realising it himself, Dylan took a look at Seol Jihu. And then, didn't open his mouth anymore.
The youth was simply staring, utterly dumbstruck… at the beautiful woman and her pale smooth skin that seemed to have shunned sunlight until now.
Suddenly, there was a gust of wind.
As she was not wearing a helm, Teresa's hair flowing down to her shoulders like a waterfall danced in the air. Her pale pink-colored hair playfully wavered about, scattering reddish-golden sparkles around at the same time.
When Seol Jihu gazed into her deep, profound eyes that were seemingly carved out from the Pink Star diamond and emitted the same golden hue like her hair, he was finally able to regain his senses.
Sunlight reflected off her marvelous silvery-platinum armor, making it hard to keep his eyes open.
Seol Jihu placed his hand on his chest.
Thump, thump – his heart was beating wildly.
He failed to hide his flustered state.
The moment he saw her, he was captured by an unexplainable emotion. Although it didn't violently rampage about in his head, he was overcome with this inexplicable sense of deja vu.
‘….Right. Must be….’
“Argh! Let's chat after we sit down first. I haven't caught a wink of sleep for the past two days, so…. Ouch, even my butt hurts.”
Teresa tore her gaze away from him with 'Oops!', and as if she was performing a light exercise routine, she began to turn and loosen her lower half. Then, after finding a boulder with the right size, she strode there and plopped down on it.
She even beckoned others to come and join her.
Ian opened his mouth first.
“It is truly praiseworthy that you have set off as soon as possible with a contingent of elite troops, but the Parasites have been making a mockery out of our expectations every time. If they are using radio wave interference to block the communication, then we do need to hurry, but you must consider the possibility that the fortress has already fallen.”
“I know that. That's why we're climbing up the Dawn Peak first.”
“In that case, I shall follow. However, what are your plans if it's the latter situation?”
“You mean, if the fortress has fallen already? Just thinking about such a dogshit situation… Cough, cough!! Argh, goddamn it!”
Teresa's rather beautiful eyes suddenly narrowed to a slit; she roughly spat on the ground before taking several large gulps of water from a bottle.
“Oops, excuse me. My throat was hurting a little, what with riding hard and fast on this dry desert sand.”
Teresa covered her mouth 'primly' and grinned brightly. Others didn't mind that at all, but Seol Jihu's face looked as if he was struck dumb by a huge culture shock.
Her outer appearance of a dignified knight was straight out of an old-school fantasy epic, yet the way she acted was straight out of those backstreet hooligans.
'Is this what he meant?’
Seol Jihu recalled what Ian had said not too long ago and told himself that he should try to be more understanding.
Well, going by the examples of both Maria and Chohong, he should be able to get used to this too.
“In that case, we go back home. What else can we do? However, I think the possibility of the fortress falling to their hands is very low. The Arden Fortress is a heaven-defying defensive structure. Simply by utilizing the surrounding topography well, the fortress's personnel can defend against an army several times bigger in size.”
“Che, it's not even finished, you know.”
“Well, it's almost finished, you know.”
When Chohong spoke up in an icy voice, Teresa eloquently returned the volley. Then, she crossed her arms and frowned slightly.
“However, something just doesn't add up. I definitely had lots of sentries stationed all over the place, so how did the enemy manage to ambush us…?”
“I have something to report in that regard.”
Ian informed her in a swift but well-organised fashion on the result of the scouting of the Forest of Denial. Teresa's eyes narrowed to a fine slit when they got to the part about the ambush of Lioners.
“That's impossible. How could the bastards calling the mountains on the other side their home enter there?”
“If I were to offer up an opinion, then I believe they were chased away.”
Teresa quickly let out “Ah!” after that.
“That certainly does make sense. Sensing the presence of the scouts, the Parasites traversed through the mountainside next to the forest, and the Lioners ended up running away towards the Forest of Denial after sensing the approaching danger…. Damn it. I should've commissioned the scouting of that damn forest sooner.”
Ian then made a short report regarding the demise of Samuel's and Kahn's teams. Teresa hid her face while sounding deeply unhappy.
“Screw this. Losing Vanessa already hurt like hell, but now, Kahn’s and Samuel's teams are all annihilated…..? Now of all when every High Ranker is important?”
“I understand your concern, but the current situation is far too urgent. Right now, the soldiers of the Arden Fortress could be locked in a bitter battle of attrition, believing only in the timely arrival of the kingdom's support.”
Teresa wordlessly nodded her head. She let out a soft groan and rubbed her cheeks before shifting her gaze over to Dylan.
One of the reasons the army decided to stop here, even though the situation was urgent, was to take a short break. But, there was also another much more important reason as well.
“Whew…. Dylan, what are your thoughts?”
Dylan quietly waited for her to finish.
“I'm well aware that you're tired from the scouting of the Forest of Denial. However, I'd feel a lot more reassured with a trustworthy Arch Shooter and two experienced warriors watching my back.”
She extended an invitation while sneakily raising the evaluation of the other party. However, Dylan remained impassive as he opened his mouth.
“How many Earthlings heeded the recruitment call?”
“….Not even 100.”
“Surely, you should know the exact number of them.”
“It's 68. 12 Level 4s, 56 Level 3s. Ian is the sole Magician, while we have four Priests.”
“That's far too few.”
As soon as Dylan displayed signs of doubt, Teresa squeezed her eyes shut.
Chohong snorted loudly.
“Of course there are only a few. Aren't these the consequences of your actions?”
Chohong had been waiting for this moment, so when Teresa curtly replied back, she went on a full-on snide attack.
“You know what I'm talking about. You forcibly got this thing off the ground, so we all thought you had the confidence to take care of stuff by yourselves. From what I hear, not one answered your draft notice, right?”
“If you really thought like that, I'm disappointed.”
Teresa shot back in a tone of voice that said, “How can you even say such things?”
“How many times do we need to say it before you finally understand? This is something we simply had to do. Once completed, we'll have ourselves a sturdy fortress that will encompass the entire mountain range.”
“Give me a break. You honestly thought the Parasites would sit by and let that happen? Look, they came invading already! Why did you have to poke a…..?”
“But that's not such a bad thing.”
Teresa cut Chohong off there.
“At a bare minimum, we'd be helping indirectly.”
“And we'd be helping who now?”
“Who do you think it is? The Federation, obviously.”
Chohong formed a dumbfounded expression.
“I can't even bring myself to call you a thick-headed idiot. Have you forgotten the fact that the core of the Federation is actually made up of those foreign races that invaded Paradise in the first place?”
“Of course I remember. I fought them off several times myself.”
Teresa nonchalantly replied and began her explanation.
“Currently, the warfare between the Federation and the Parasites are getting far more intense.”
“I know that.”
“I acknowledge my oversight in failing to consider the possibility of the Parasites traversing through the rugged, hostile terrain of the neighboring mountain range. However, it is undeniable that we managed to draw their attention away by building a fortress there. And they even attacked us, too.”
“Oh, so you wanna split their focus, is it?”
“That's right. The Federation has been expending all of their military might to fight the Parasites, but with us doing this, they should be feeling less pressured now. Of course, it'd be no more than splashing a couple of cups of water on the bonfire, though.”
“Oh boy~. You must be feeling pretty comfy with your life now? Worrying about the folks over at the Federation and all.”
“You shouldn't take this issue so lightly like that.”
Ian cautiously offered his opinion, having been quietly listening to the tit-for-tat between the two ladies.
“I don't know what your thoughts are, but I wholeheartedly agree with the princess's opinion.”
Ian slowly stroked his salt-and-pepper beard and continued on.
“Once upon a time, the Beastmen Alliance boasted the second greatest power in this land, but eventually, they couldn't withstand the Parasites' offensive and ended up being destroyed. Meanwhile, we humans stood by the side and did nothing. The end result was that only a few remnants of the formerly-glorious Beastmen survived and they had to enter the Federation in order to survive.”
“And a result of that, the battlefront we have to deal with doubled. Not to mention, the Parasite army grew even stronger after preying on the corpses of the Beastmen.”
Teresa wrapped the strand of her attractive hair around her index finger while muttering out helplessly. Ian, too, looked rather bitter about that.
“You all heard about the Cave Fairies joining the Federation recently. To be more specific, they have entered the Federation that the Sky Fairies have entered first.”
Now that Seol Jihu thought about it, he could just about recall Dylan and Ian discussing that very matter earlier.
“Those two might have come from the same ancestors, sure. The important point here is that these two opposing forces that had been at constant loggerheads with each other for centuries – nay, millenniums – are joining hands. I want you to think carefully about how pressed and desperate the Federation must have been for such a situation to occur.”
Seol Jihu listened to those words and quietly agreed with them.
It was just like the proverb, ‘without lips the teeth will feel cold’. Right now, the humans and the Federation were in a similar relationship of interdependence.
'It makes sense.'
It was a simple enough story.
What if they stood by the sidelines once more sucking on thumbs and doing nothing as the Federation fell?
“Listen to me. If us royals really wished to do whatever we wanted, then we would have tried to invade the Parasite’s territory. After all, that would make it clear whose side we are on. But that's not what we did. We're simply building a fortress. As long as that is completed, we'd have ourselves a trustworthy fortress to rely on.”
Teresa suddenly began pleading with the group, sounding rather earnest now.
Chohong hmphed and turned her head away, but she kept her mouth shut as if she couldn't think of anything clever to say.
“That's why, please aid us. You already know this. Even though I'm a High Ranker, Earthlings don't respond well to directives issued by the royal families.”
“Dylan, not only are you a High Ranker, but you're also the leader of the famed Carpe Diem. I believe you'll be able to control them.”
“I must think about my comrades first. We were supposed to be returning to Haramark, but this…. Moreover, this friend here is still only a Level 1.”
When Dylan pointed at Seol Jihu, Teresa shook her head.
“I'm not that much of a shameless and brazen bitch. I'll have him return alongside the carriages and Horuses.”
“Dylan~ You can earn experience points from the battles, and you'll also earn lots of achievement points by participating in the war. Since the royal family will also give out suitable rewards, it will be like killing three birds with one stone. What is there to even think about? We've never short-changed you when it came to rewards, haven't we?”
Teresa spoke while folding her thumb, index, and middle finger one at a time. Even then, Dylan didn't show a single trace of being convinced. She let out a long sigh and raised her head to the sky.
It was a bit out of nowhere, but Seol Jihu found her deer-like neckline quite pretty and rather pale to the view.
A short while later, Teresa spoke in a powerless voice.
“….I understand. I won't ask you for anything excessive. I promise. I won't rashly order you to start fighting, so please, safeguard Ian if nothing else.”
“We can do that.”
Finally, Dylan agreed.
As if everyone was waiting for that…
Hugo's mouth opened and closed several times, and as for Chohong, she did look wholly unsatisfied but still, didn't say anything. It seemed that Dylan did indeed have a chat with those two earlier.
As if she was relieved by this, Teresa expressed her gratitude in a soft voice and eventually, pushed herself up rather lethargically.
“We'll set off again in five minutes. I wish we could rest for a bit longer, but the situation remains too urgent, you see. Please forgive me.”
She then walked away.
Seol Jihu watched her departing back as she strode forward, and activated 'Nine Eyes'.
“Seol, now that the situation has come down to this, I'd like to ask you for an important favor.”
Dylan suddenly spoke to the youth.
“Mm. We'd be grateful if you returned to Haramark and safely guarded our loot. Until we return, of course.”
Ian revealed a toothy grin. It was a clear sign that Dylan was looking after the youth. But then, Seol Jihu looked behind him again at the distant back of the princess.
“I'd like to go with you.”
Dylan refused right away.
“If you are thinking of your loyalty to the team or about your feelings, then let me tell you this, you've done more than enough already. You're a Level 1. There's no need for you to participate in a war yet.”
“Am I going to be a hindrance by going there with you?”
Was that an unexpected question for them?
Dylan quickly waved his hand.
“Not at all. You even managed to stand your ground against a female Lioner whose strength should have exceeded a Level 4 Warrior. Never mind your skills, that kind of balls means that you'll be helpful in any situation.”
“That's a relief. In that case, let me go with you.”
“Look at this kid. Hey, are you saying that for real?”
At Chohong's question, Seol Jihu simply nodded his head.
“Whether I want to or not, I'm bound to get involved in the war anyway. I figured that it wouldn't be so bad to experience it first-hand here.”
Of course, that was just the surface explanation. There was another reason Seol Jihu wanted to participate in the war.
Teresa Hussey, the person he felt an unknown but powerful attraction from the moment he saw her. He was curious about the reason for this.
He even thought that, were he to let her slip through his fingers here, then he'd never find another opportunity to see her again.
In other words, he was moving according to his emotions.
“Mm…. If that's what you want, I won't try to stop you. Looks like we'll have to add one more person to the list of those we protect.”
“You know, you shouldn't be acting like this already.”
Dylan shrugged his shoulders and spoke, while Chohong massaged her forehead as if she had given up now.
“I'm grateful about you guys wanting to protect me, but doesn't that mean I gotta pay you guys something?”
“Not at all. We still haven't even paid you back for the rest of the change, yet.”
Dylan chuckled gently.
Whatever the case may be, this youth was an Earthling that saved their lives a few times already back in the Forest of Denial. For some reason, he made others hold high expectations of him.
“This is why I like you so much, Seol!”
Hugo suddenly pounced on him.
Seol Jihu did his best to push the bald and muscular black dude away from him and looked back at Teresa once more.
His 'Nine Eyes' did not see a color on her.
The expedition joined up with the reinforcements led by Teresa Hussey and immediately set off towards the Arden Valley.
Although it was already expected to some degree, the path leading to the Dawn Peak was an arduous one to take, with boulders and jutting rocks of varying sizes strewn about everywhere.
Not to forget, they were marching forward at a breakneck pace, so cases of Priests falling behind occurred as well. Of course, that didn't mean the army would abandon them and continue on, so the warriors had to go back and give them a piggy-back ride.
Before long, the sun was about to dip below the horizon; the fading twilight drew shadows, big and small, on several places of the steep ridge.
While being carried on Hugo's back, Ian was tirelessly manipulating the communication crystal to get in touch with the fortress.
For a time, these communication crystals played the strategically important role of swiftly transmitting the unfolding situation elsewhere. But that was only until the Parasite Queen developed an ability to emit the communication-disrupting interference.
With that, the Parasites also changed the way they attacked.
In the beginning stages of the conflict, they pushed forward with absolutely overwhelming numbers, but nowadays, the Parasites began performing sneak attacks after interfering with communication first.
From the perspective of the human alliance, this was a truly maddening development, but still, they couldn't stop using the crystals to communicate with each other.
When the distance between two crystals shortened, the strength of mana being sent between the two, not to mention the amount of time the two stayed connected, would improve greatly. Which meant that it was possible to break through the interference.
That was precisely why Ian tried his best to communicate with the fortress, even now. As long as they had not fallen, then the closer the reinforcement army got, the greater the odds of getting through to the fortress.
Ian's once-worried eyes opened wider. A noisy discharge of energy came from the crystal.
“Yes!! It worked!”
Ian shouted loudly.
His shout was so loud that it even took Seol Jihu by surprise as the youth was breathlessly running up the steep slope.
“This reinforcement effort wasn't in vain. At the very least, it's not the worst-case scenario!”
Ian declared so, and hurriedly poured more mana into the crystal. Almost right away, it began emitting an ear-splitting mess of noises that contained all sorts of buzzes and crackles.
Dylan opened his mouth.
“Master Ian. Should I speak to the princess and stop the march?”
“No! It's fine. I'll continue to connect to them while we're on the move.”
Ian brought his face closer to the crystal.
“Can you hear me? This is the Magician Ian in the direct employ of the Haramark's royal family!”
Perhaps because he hadn't completely gotten through the interference, the cracking noise was still quite severe, but still, one could hear the urgent voice coming through.
Hell, the listeners could even sense desperation in the voice, too.
—Wait a second! If you're coming, then….?!
“As soon as all communications with the Arden Fortress had been cut-off, we summoned Earthlings and set off from Haramark with elite troops. We're on our way to the fortress.”
—But, the interference….!
When hearing that disbelieving voice, Ian began to carefully explain the situation.
“We already entered the Arden Valley earlier in the afternoon.”
—Truly? Did the Haramark royal family really figure out the situation on this side and dispatch reinforcements? This quickly??
“Yes, they have. Her Majesty Teresa Hussey is personally leading the troops.”
—The Princess is personally leading the troops?!
It was then, a loud cheer could be heard coming from the crystal.
That couldn't have been made by just one or two people. They must have been elated because there were a couple of tearful voices mixed in there as well.
The sounds of things exploding intermittently, as well as strange beastly roars in the background, were simply an added bonus.
“How does the situation look?”
—We're giving everything we have to defend against the enemy horde, but their number is far too overwhelming! The defensive line will fall at any second now!
“Just wait a little bit longer! We'll arrive at Dawn Peak soon! Reaching the fortress will only be a matter of time!”
—Thank you! I beg of you, please hurry!!
The guy on the other side of the line shouted out in an elated, emotional voice.
The moment they realized that the royal family had not forsaken the Arden Fortress, the fighting spirit that was running dangerously low had been re-ignited.
“Can you tell us the enemy's size?”
—Understood! The invading Parasites are….!
Another wave of interference abruptly ended the communication. Ian clicked his tongue, poured more mana into the crystal, and shouted out.
“Dylan! Please go inform the Princess!”
Dylan ran forward hard as if he had developed a pair of wings.
Meanwhile, Seol Jihu swallowed down his saliva nervously.
During this rushed march forward, the whole thing felt intolerably tough, and he only wished that they could get there sooner. But, now that he heard the communication, his tension was shooting up through the roof.
Those people, just how much of a desperate struggle were they in right now?
Seol Jihu's eyes drifted upwards.
They were about to arrive at Dawn Peak.Previous Chapter Next Chapter