The Arden Fortress had not fallen yet. No, it was still bitterly defending itself. After receiving that message from Dylan, Teresa Hussey whipped her soldiers even more and increased the marching speed.
As they mounted the steep slope, they were soon greeted by the part of the mountain standing tall all by itself. It was the peak of the mountain, dyed crimson by the setting sun. It was the Dawn Peak.
Suddenly, the atmosphere had changed. Seol Jihu had been running forward in silence until then, and when he ran past a certain, intangible 'border', he sensed the air becoming much hotter than before.
It was a bit difficult to put it into words, but he found it harder to breathe and his body felt lethargic, as well. It was as if he was subconsciously sensing the presence of something just past the peak.
He stopped momentarily and that delayed him just for a second or so. When he got to the peak, he found Dylan shaking his head while looking over the edge.
“It's a sea of 'Bugs'. 'Cockroaches' are flying everywhere, and…. even a 'Medusa' is present, I see.”
Chohong's face crumpled in an instant. Seol Jihu sneaked to the peak and peeked over the edge, only to freeze up stiff in place. His jaw fell to the floor from the sheer astonishment.
“Oh, my god.”
“What in the world….”
That was someone's gasp of lamentation that also happened to perfectly capture the feelings of everyone present.
The fortress was built along the undulating bedrock and was an enormous structure that boasted the walls as tall as eight meters high, but right now, its current status had fallen to the sorry, devastated shell of its former glory.
The once-smooth, pristine walls were now destroyed in several places, and most noticeably, the front gate, or what remained of it, was scorched jet-black and had been split into countless pieces, making it hard to tell what just happened to it.
Although it was blurry, the black dot-like things were in the middle of trying to rush past the now wide-open gateway. Besides those, one could also see countless large flying creatures spread around to every part of the fortress to hasten its destruction or to simply fly around in confusion.
Within this confused maelstrom, the soldiers of the fortress were desperately defending that gateway with everything they had.
Every second mattered at this point.
“I'm telling you. you can't!!”
It was then, Teresa Hussey's sudden shout entered Seol Jihu's ears. She was the first one to arrive at the peak, and now, she was in the middle of trying to convince the Earthlings.
“The fortress hasn't fallen to the enemies' hands yet! They are still defending it. We can definitely save them.”
“No, even if you say that….”
A man blurred the end of his sentence and sneakily avoided her gaze. Teresa's face reddened even further. She did her very best to suppress her rising anger and continued on with a relatively calm voice.
“We did our best to come here as soon as we could, yet the fortress walls have been destroyed. They are in the middle of a battle, so there is no guarantee that we will be able to enter the fortress safely.”
“You’re right, but….”
“That is why we should sneak attack the Medusa from the back. Because the enemy is focused on this all-out attack, you can see that there aren't that many guarding it.”
The man displayed an unwilling expression.
“Looks like Your Highness isn't aware of it, but well, both the Bugs and Cockroaches are born from the mother body of the Medusa. Not to mention, a Medusa is the final evolved form within the 'medium' class.”
“That is why I'm saying….”
“Most importantly, Parasites have the characteristic of absolutely obeying the higher ranking entity. How will they react when their 'mother' is attacked? Every single one of those bastards would be pouncing on us, their eyes hungry for blood.”
Teresa glared at the man, her facial expression clearly implying 'You think I don't know that already?'
“….There is only one high ranking entity present here. As long as we sneak attack and quickly finish off the Medusa, we should be able to emerge victorious in no time at all.”
“But that doesn’t mean the Medusa is completely unguarded. A single mistake will lead to failure. In other words, everyone will end up dying.”
Even though Teresa desperately pleaded, the man still resolutely rejected her idea.
“So, how about doing things this way, Princess? You form a detached force out of your army and sneak attack the Medusa. Meanwhile, the remaining forces secure an escape path and evacuate the folks from inside the fortress.”
'This crazy bastard!’
Curses crawled all the way up to the top of her throat, but Teresa managed to swallow them back down, just like how she'd gulp down her saliva. Did these bastards come here to spectate or fight a war? She just couldn't understand it at all.
“What you're suggesting is basically to abandon the fort.”
“Let's just call it a tactical retreat, Princess. You can gather a bigger force to reclaim it at a later date or, well, now that things have turned out this way, it doesn't seem like such a bad idea to just cut your losses.”
It was precisely at this point that Teresa gave up on talking to this man. Even as they were wasting time like this, her precious soldiers were dying down there. There was no meaning in dragging out this unproductive strategy meeting anymore.
She shifted her gaze to Dylan with hope, but even he chose to remain quiet. Teresa bit her lower lip and spoke up with some determination.
“That, we will not do. We will simply continue on with the strategy as discussed previously.”
The man immediately displayed signs of dissatisfaction.
“Are you disregarding our opinions again? Trying to do whatever you want, is it?”
Teresa looked back at her silently-waiting soldiers. Although there were only a few hundreds of them, every single one was an experienced, wizened veteran who had fought and survived several years of constant warfare. She gazed at them with apologetic eyes, her voice sounding powerless.
“My soldiers and I will stand in front to carve out a path. In the meantime, concentrate your firepower on the Medusa.”
“Well, we can certainly do that much, supporting you from the rear.”
“Wow. I'm so grateful that I might break down and start crying.”
Teresa finally voiced her own dissatisfaction and turned around. Chohong had been staring at her with narrowed eyes until then, but she suddenly searched around for someone.
Seol Jihu was still staring at the fortress while kneeling down on one knee.
When she looked a bit closer, his condition didn't seem so good. He was sweating buckets, and his breathing was labored, too. Not only that, his brows were raised up high as well.
'….Could it be?'
Every now and then, you'd find some people like him.
War was fundamentally on a different realm compared to explorations or expeditions. No, it was a bloody, messy battle to the finish, where different races holding different views put their lives on the line just to kill the other side. However, there were those who failed to realize this fact and take part, only to get scared shitless by the brutality of it all and display some unsettling psychological reactions.
'So, why did you even follow us here, then?!'
Chohong hurriedly trod to where he was and cautiously placed her hand on his shoulder.
Even though someone spoke to him, Seol Jihu couldn't tear his eyes off from the battlefield.
Jet-black smoke rose up to the sky. He wasn't even close, yet the smells of burning and metallic odor of blood seemed to fill up the air.
Seol Jihu watched on as if he had been bewitched before gently placing his hand on his chest. His heart that he worked so hard to calm down was pounding incredibly hard again – even harder and faster than when he met Teresa Hussey for the first time.
“Are you feeling okay?”
“This can't go on.”
“What? What can't go on?”
Chohong had spoken out of worry, but she flinched slightly and backed away. Seol Jihu abruptly pushed himself up.
'The fortress must not fall.'
He didn't know why, but this was the feeling he got. Just like the time he met Kim Hannah for the first time as she was trying to sucker him in, his emotions were violently opposing this. They were telling him to do something. Anything.
He could almost, just barely, remember something. His eyelids trembled. His breathing quickened, and the nearly-forgotten deja vu began gripping him a bit by bit again. He spun his head around, but he wasn't looking at Chohong.
A short while later.
As he stared at Teresa's utterly forlorn-looking back….
The feelings that were on the precipice of his reach suddenly came crashing in and caused his chest to tumble. His body physically quaked hard, just as much as his emotions.
He instinctively activated his 'Nine Eyes' and cast his glance down below once more. The ruined Arden Fortress was glowing in the color of gold.
'The Golden Commandment.'
He now understood it.
Once, before he was facing the Gaekgwi in the assembly hall.
Another, when breaking past the second floor of the school….
[Your innate ability, 'Future Vision' has been activated.]
Seol Jihu's eyes began sparkling brilliantly.
“Hold on, please.”
Teresa's steps came to a halt. Her sorrowful face turned to greet the youth. Seol Jihu scythed past the gathering eyes and hurried with his steps.
“That tactic is too dangerous.”
Teresa's expression crumpled as if to imply “No, not this again!”
“Damn it! I know that, too! But we can't afford to waste any more time!”
“I understand that you're feeling urgent, but….”
Seol Jihu calmly carried on.
“Even if you succeed, your combat force will suffer significant losses. It'll be the same with you as well, Princess.”
“….What did you say?”
Teresa's forehead creased up. Rather than getting angry, it was more like she couldn't really believe what she was hearing.
The man who was chuckling in secret angrily opened his mouth at the sudden intrusion of this hindrance.
“Who the hell are you again?”
Ian raised his hand. He may not be a High Ranker, but still, he was a Level 4 Magician. Not only that, he was also someone who could exercise some authority within the groups of both Earthlings and the Paradisians.
“Seol, from the way you say it, you must have thought up of a better plan.”
“I have thought of something, yes.”
“In that case, allow me to ask you a question.”
Ian asked quietly.
“Warfare is quite a different beast from expeditions. You see, as a strategist, you're risking hundreds and thousands of lives if we're talking about a small scale, and hundreds of thousands, even millions, if we're talking about a greater scale conflict. Are you offering this strategy, fully aware of the implications?”
Ian's expression dimmed slightly. After a moment of silence lasting for 4, maybe 5 seconds, he continued on.
“…I've witnessed your capabilities with my own eyes, but I still need to ask you again. Do you truly believe that your plan is worth a shot?”
“Before answering that, I'd like to ask you one thing as well. Master Ian, by any chance, are you able to use this spell?”
When Seol Jihu asked back, Ian slowly nodded his head.
“I should be able to perform it. If you can give me enough time to Memorize it, as well as to prepare the potions, then, well….. Wait a minute.”
Suddenly, he began blinking non-stop.
“Friend, could you be thinking of…?!”
“That's a relief. If you can indeed use it, then we will be able to decimate over half of the enemy's forces without sacrificing anyone from our side. As long as everything unfolds according to plan, that is.”
Ian let out a soft gasp.
“I'd like to hear this plan of yours now.”
“Princess, do you have the map of the valley?”
At the youth's sudden question, Teresa hesitated slightly. She only now recognized this young man as the Level 1 Warrior she met at the crossroad earlier on.
Right now, every second and every minute was precious to her, but Ian's reaction spoke volumes. Even Dylan, who had been maintaining a neutral stance until now, was approaching closer with some interest in his face.
Just who was this Earthling??
“If it's a map, yes, I obviously have it.”
Teresa was stuck in a dilemma, but in the end, she pulled out the map. If there was a way to not sacrifice any of her men, but still shave the enemy's forces by half, then she'd not ask for anything more. However, could there really be a method as wonderful as that?
Teresa unfurled the map and spread it out. Meanwhile, Seol Jihu quickly scanned the land around him. The surrounding topography was filled with several precipitous inclines that truly deserved the label 'valley'; on the ground below, many narrow alleys could be seen, with countless smaller roads spreading out from them like spider's web.
“How many paths are there from the Dawn Peak to the fortress?”
Teresa pointed to several spots on the map. Seol Jihu nodded his head and hurriedly explained his plan. When he was finished, everyone stared at him in a daze.
“Puhahaha! That's bullshit!”
The Earthling man guffawed out in ridicule.
“And here I was, wondering what kind of tactic you might come up with, but if that qualifies as a plan, then I…..”
“Excuse me, fella. Do you know what an egg of Columbus is?”
Ian's question caused the noisy man to falter.
“Uh-uhm? Excuse me?”
“Well, if you don't know what it is, then just stop.”
Ian easily silenced the man and shifted his gaze over to Teresa and Dylan. Teresa was deeply pondering something, while Dylan was tilting his head this way and that.
“The plan itself is pretty simple, I see. Since the Parasites don't know that we're here already, we should use that fact as a weapon – I get that. However, even then, the odds of success is near zero.”
“But I believe it's worth trying.”
Teresa hurriedly raised her voice.
“Dylan. Will it still be impossible even if it's you?”
“Yes, totally. If you're talking about a High Ranker Archer who raised his agility to the limit, then it might be doable, but in all honesty, not only is the terrain of the valley too rugged, the Cockroaches can fly as well. You will be caught in no time.”
Dylan's immediate refusal was about to bring Teresa to despair, but then….
“I'll do it.”
Seol Jihu raised his hand up.
“W-What did you say?!”
Chohong's eyes opened super-wide as she freaked out.
“Hey, you!! You can't do that!”
Hugo also displayed a similar reaction.
“Seol, bravery and foolhardiness is….”
Ian spoke as if he was sighing out, but his words came to a stop – because, Seol Jihu was pointing at the single earring attached to his left earlobe with his thumb.
“…..M-hmm. However, you still can't control it properly.”
“If it's running in a straight line, it's possible. You saw me last night.”
As if she couldn't bear to listen to this nonsense anymore, Chohong roughly grabbed his collars.
“Are you really, seriously trying to kill yourself here?! Hah??”
“What?! Why are you even….”
“Let me go.”
Chohong flinched, then.
There was a clear hint of annoyance in Seol Jihu's eyes. It was as if he was telling her not to get in his way.
Right at that moment, Chohong realized the shocking fact that this youth felt like a total stranger to her. No, it was as if he had become someone else entirely different. His deeply calm eyes were quite similar to when he was confronting Clara inside the tomb. A rush of unexplainable bitterness filler her up.
“Do whatever the hell you want! You damn son of a bitch!”
In the end, Chohong flew into rage and threw his collar down before turning around. As an added bonus, she even spat out, “Die or survive, I don't care!!”
Seemingly not caring either way, Seol Jihu shifted his gaze back to Teresa Hussey.
Her face showed how flustered she was. She found it unbelievable that an Earthling had volunteered to take on such a dangerous assignment, but she also couldn't believe that this young man was capable of performing the role that even a High Ranker Archer said was nearly impossible to pull off.
In the end, she decided to leave it to Ian's judgment. She thought that these two men knew each other well enough.
“If you stack the Boost up to three times, then…. Mmmmm….”
Ian licked his lips for a bit before opening them with a bit of hesitation.
“There is certainly a chance of success.”
Ian's complicated eyes landed on Seol Jihu. He wondered to himself, ‘what if something goes wrong?’
No, the odds of something going wrong was much greater than anything else. When that happened, he'd beat the ground in lamentation for sure. The youth's actions in the Forest of Denial left that much impression on the Magician, and the potential displayed by the boy back then was also something else, too.
On the other hand, he couldn't help but feel his anticipation rising up.
“Princess, we don't have much time left.”
Seol Jihu urged her.
“I-Indeed, that is true, but….”
Teresa remained at a loss, but eventually, she spoke in a serious voice as if she had finally made up her mind.
“May I…. May I truly entrust it to you?”
Seol Jihu grinned refreshingly. She was supposed to be a complete stranger to him, but for some reason, she didn't feel unfamiliar to him. Hearing her ask if she could believe in him inexplicably lifted some kind of unseen weight off his chest. He had no idea why.
“The decision's been made. I'll get ready, then.”
Ian unsteadily pushed himself up. He still didn't seem too convinced, though.
“Princess, we must remain undetected.”
“Yes, I know.”
Teresa nodded her head.
“Seol, I'm well aware of that artifact being amazing, but don't you want to reconsider?”
Both Dylan and Hugo were trying their best to dissuade the youth, and surprisingly enough, Seol Jihu agreed with them. Somewhat.
“Yes, I know that it will be far too difficult for me alone.”
“That is why I'd like to give Dylan an opportunity to pay back the rest of the change.”
Seol Jihu's crafty suggestion caused Dylan's expression to harden instantly.
“Oh, my gosh. I'd like to decline the chance to die with you.”
“That's not it. Just provide me with cover fire from a suitable vantage point. And also, with Dylan helping me out, the odds of the operation succeeding and me walking out of there alive will increase substantially, don't you agree?”
If it was the princess asking him, Dylan would have refused right away. However, the youth in front of his eyes was a different story altogether. The youth had saved his life twice already.
For a little while there, Dylan lightly tapped the top of his head before a helpless sigh escaped from his mouth.
“….Okay. Tell me. I'll decide after hearing you out.”
The operation began.
After climbing down from the peak, Dylan and Seol Jihu hid behind a hill.
“My fate's in your hands, Dylan.”
“Don't worry about it. When you're ready, go ahead. I'll match your timing.”
Seol Jihu smiled at those confidence-boosting words and re-checked his spell balls as well as the bow and arrow he received from Teresa's soldiers.
Realizing that there was not a single trace of the youth being tense no matter how hard he looked, Dylan could only chuckle wryly. It couldn't be helped since he didn’t know about 'Future Vision'. No wonder he found the youth rather mystifying.
“To be able to think about the direction, too. It's a lot more intricate plan than meets the eye.”
“I'm just doing everything that I can.”
“Is that so.”
“Well, I'm off now.”
Dylan was about to pull out a lengthy arrow but stopped and asked the departing Seol Jihu.
“Hey, Seol. This could be the last time we meet again, so is it okay if I ask you about something?”
Hearing Dylan's playful tone of voice, Seol Jihu nodded his head.
“I think Hugo asked you this before. But well. Just what did you do back on Earth before coming here?”
Seol Jihu scratched his cheek, looking troubled a bit, before a bitter smile formed on his lips.
“I was a gambler.”
Dylan chuckled without making a sound.
“Okay. I think I now understand what kind of a guy you are.”
“I quit, though.”
“I believe you. I shall pray for your success.”
Dylan extended his fist out. Seol Jihu bumped fists with him, and while keeping himself very low, he climbed down from the hill.
With every passing second, he got closer to the fortress. The acrid odor and deafening noises grew ever louder; the remaining distance was nothing more than the proverbial leap away.
And eventually, he arrived at his destination.
The first thing he saw was a crustacean-type bug creature about half the size of a grown man featuring an alligator-like maw and eight legs, busy rushing inside the crumbled ruins of the fortress's front entrance.
However, Seol Jihu's concentration was solely focused on one single creature.
When he first saw it, he thought it was an over-four-meters-long battering ram.
But when he took a much closer look at it, beastly legs were mixed in among the limbs of humans sprouting out of its main body; spotting a thick green hue, they tangled messily with one another to form a mishmash shape coiling upwards, and the upper torso of a female was located on top.
And surrounding this bizarre creature were several bugs roaming around that resembled supersized cockroaches.
He wanted to take an even closer look, but there was no more time left. He could be discovered at any moment, and more importantly, the desperate resistance of the soldiers trapped inside the fortress was nearing their end, too.
However, it was a strange thing, indeed – he didn't feel afraid at all. No, he was excited, instead. If he managed to save this fortress, what kind of ramification would that have in the future?
When he thought about it, things were always like this – 'Future Vision' caused him to be led by his emotions, not logic. It was as if that supposed 'skill' was pushing him from behind, telling him to just do it. If he were to be honest with himself, then this so-called skill only seemed to boost his baseless confidence, but the important thing here was that he still managed to accomplish everything in the end.
[Your Innate ability, Future Vision, is responding to the awakening of the new ability!]
'….Could it be that my two Innate Abilities are connected to one another?'
Like a compass guiding him to change the future.
Seol Jihu shook his head, having recalled the messages he saw back in the assembly hall when his 'Nine Eyes' awakened. He knew that the answer he was looking for would only become clear after he unlocked the remaining direction of 'Nine Eyes' first.
In order for that to happen, though – he simply had to save this fortress and return to Haramark, alive.
Seol Jihu breathed out deeply and quickly raised his body up. And then, chucked one of the two spell balls held in his hands. Seol Jihu silently stared at that ball containing a magic spell as it flew towards its intended target.
Perhaps sensing that something was wrong, the Medusa's head snapped to the sky above. The spell ball spinning in the air suddenly emitted a bright light, then it transformed into a large pillar of liquid that crashed to the earth below.
The Medusa became soaked in an instant, and the moment it reflexively took a look around its vicinity…
A strand of electricity streaking in like a ray of light pierced the chest of the female portion of the creature.Previous Chapter Next Chapter