Chapter 81. The Difference in the Temperature of Hope and Reality

Should he describe this sensation as suddenly being yanked down by his feet? Or, like falling off a cliff with a loud boom?

Without a warning, he couldn't breathe anymore. Dry and unpleasant air tickled his nostrils ever so slightly. Seol almost coughed reflexively, but he squeezed his already-closed eyes even harder and endured it.

He knew he should open his eyes. But, his ears were ringing out loudly and his brain was spinning inside his head. Every ounce of energy seemed to have seeped out of his entire body.

He moaned softly and instinctively fumbled around with his hand. Once his fingers tightly grasped the ice spear's cool shaft, a strand of refreshing aura traveled up his arm and calmed the confusion in his head.

“Is everyone alright?”

Someone whispered from close by. The voice belonged to Ian. Only then did Seol feel his breath return and opened his eyes.

The first thing he saw was a wall. More specifically, an ancient ash-grey wall coated in a thick layer of dust. He hurriedly scanned his vicinity. Heavens seemed to have blessed them because he couldn't see a single Parasite.

“Looks like this place hasn't been discovered yet.”

Mary Rhine whispered in a low voice. She was the Level 4 Priest accompanying the team; she also happened to be a member of the organization that the Level 6 Imperial Knight Erica Lawrence was the leader of. She owed her leader a big debt once upon a time, so she volunteered to become a part of the rescue team the moment she heard of the news.

“Very good. Looks like we don't have to worry about staying hidden or escaping from here. Let's get started right away.”

Ian urged the team. The sand had begun trickling down in the hourglass as soon as the magic circle was activated. They couldn't afford to waste one minute or even one second now.

The five rescuers, excluding Ian, quickly walked out of the magic circle. The rescue mission had commenced for good.

The hideout was about 33 square meters in size. It didn't even have something as common as a window. Excluding the altar with the transfer magic circle and a large bookshelf pressed tightly against the opposite wall, everything else in this room was in the same sort of ash-grey color.

Seol cautiously put the shield down outside the magic circle. He then focused his gaze on Kazuki, currently kneeling down on one knee and pressing his ear tightly against the bookshelf.

The mutated Orcs were quite a different breed compared to the variants spawned by Ramman Village's Nest. These things would definitely leave behind traces of their movements.

Kazuki spent 20 valuable seconds to decipher the situation outside the hideout before quietly gesturing with his hands. That signal meant he hadn't sensed any presence on the other side of the wall. The team had agreed on a couple of simple hand signs to convey messages before commencing with the mission. Seol quickly made his way over there.

Kazuki began pulling out books from the bookshelf in the order written on a slip of paper. Every time the pulled books were placed back on different rows and columns, the group could hear the distinct clicking noises of latches being undone.

Eventually, he pushed the edge of the shelf ever so gently, which prompted the corner of the furniture to go out of alignment just a little. A thick curtain of dust cascaded down.

Slowly, very, very slowly – Kazuki continued to push the edge a bit more and created a bit of a gap. He immediately stopped moving and scanned for any movements beyond the wall. After making sure of the hallway being deserted, he pushed a little harder than before.

Creeack, crrreaak… The bookshelf rotated about halfway and a gap large enough for an adult to slip through was created. With that, a decrepit space lost to the decay of time revealed itself.

The success or failure of the mission depended on how quickly they moved. They even had to economize on time spent on communicating. Once everyone exited the hideout, Kazuki pushed the shelf back in. He didn't push it back all the way, though – he only left a minute gap, one small enough that a casual glance wouldn't reveal that anything was amiss.

“Be careful.”

Ian, staying back to maintain the magic circle, looked on and whispered to the rescue team.

Compared to the hideout, this new space resembled far more like a proper room. The sense of desolation still remained, but it was in surprisingly decent shape, considering that it must've experienced the violent winds of war.

Two pieces of information could be gathered, or guessed, from this sight. One, the Parasites learned what sort of research went down here and began reusing this place for their new plan. Otherwise, this place wouldn't have remained intact like this.

If that guess proved to be right, then the layout of the laboratory wouldn't have changed by a great deal. That would be the second guess, and it sure sounded like a great piece of news because they would be able to trust the floor plan the village head drew up.

They could see a doorway up ahead. Kazuki took to the front and pressed against the door before gesturing with his hand again. Seol silently scurried over and settled down next to him. They didn't immediately open this door, though. Instead, Kazuki extracted a piece of paper from his pocket and flipped it open.

The first underground floor was basically laid out in a straight line and was divided into two distinct districts – the research area where the five rescuers currently were, and the other one being the prison block used to lock away other species.

According to the village head's explanation, these two districts were connected via a massive bridge, and the stairs leading down to the second basement floor was located in the prison area.

Kazuki folded the paper and placed it inside his pocket, and then opened the door. A darkened corridor with no light revealed itself. Kazuki quickly scanned the path up ahead before speedily advancing forward. There were many doors to either side of the corridor, and it split into several branches as well, but he continued to advance without saying anything.

Seol suppressed his anxious mind and followed after him. He knew that the path they were on couldn't be wrong; Ayase Kazuki was a Level 5 Archer. His class was the Grand Pathfinder, one of the best classes available in the High Ranks of the Archer class. No other class came even remotely close to Pathfinders in regards to finding the right direction or ability to sniff out clues, so he'd be the first one to react if a problem suddenly manifested itself.

The five rescuers safely got to the end of this corridor and stared at yet another doorway.

They had not run into a single creature on their way here. Rather than them being lucky, it seemed more likely that the research area was not in use at all. Perhaps Kazuki thought the same because he was even more focused on detecting the ongoings of the space beyond this shut door.

Soon, the Archer waved his hand once and opened the door. According to the map, they would immediately be confronted by the bridge taking them to the prison block.

'Wow.'

Seol 's jaw dropped from the impressive scale of the spectacle laid out before his eyes. Since they were ostensibly in the basement of a building, he kind of expected to see something similar to an underground floor of a school, but the sheer scale of this place blew his mind away.

The two areas were connected by a sky bridge of some length suspended high up in the air, and the massive, wide-open chasm visible on either side of the bridge made him feel like he was now looking at a whole separate 'city' built underground. It was kind of like looking at a bridge connecting two underground cities.

Out of nowhere, he felt a frightening chill run down his backside. Just how strong were the Parasites exactly for them to destroy the Empire that boasted such an incredible magic engineering know-how, in only four years? On the flip side, he was rather impressed by the tenacity of the Federation that managed to endure against such an incredible might of the invaders up until now.

“It's far bigger than I thought.”

Kazuki whispered in a bitter voice as they crossed the sky bridge.

The original plan was to spend no more than two minutes and forty seconds to leave the hideout and cross this bridge. He tried to hurry the proceedings, yet over double that amount of time had been wasted already. He now needed to modify their search and rescue plan, so how could he not feel bitter about it?

They crossed this railroad-like lengthy sky bridge and finally spotted the entrance to the prison block. That's where they would start their rescue mission in earnest.

“….”

Kazuki killed his footsteps and placed his ear against the door. For the first time since the mission began, his eyes narrowed to a slit. He clenched his teeth and flipped open all ten of his fingers. That signaled he had found a countless number of presences beyond. It was now the turn of Seol to do his thing.

He did his very best to not make any sound and got to the front of the group. Worried gazes were glued onto his back. It didn't matter, he already knew pretty well how to use the rudium. It wasn't that hard, actually. He concentrated his mana towards the little black object dangling around his neck.

The Parasites maintained a pretty distinct command structure. The rudium didn't actually change the functionality of that system but emitted a unique radio wave signal to override the command for a bit of time, instead. Equating it to a computer virus infecting a network would be an easier analogy to understand.

Seol was thinking of two commands for today's mission. First, disrupting the enemy's friend or foe identification system and making them see the five intruders as their allies. Two, making every single one of them stop what they were doing and be on standby where they stood.

He could have gone with, 'Kill each other', but that carried too much risk. The consumption rate of the rudium would shoot up by several folds if the number of the subjects being controlled increased, as well as when the given command became more complex and difficult to carry out.

Most importantly, the odds of a high-ranking Parasite that the rudium was ineffective against being nearby were not low, so they simply couldn't afford to cause some kind of a ruckus this early on.

Chiiek, chieeeek…

A sound similar to lighting up a cigarette could be heard. Once mana was channeled into the rudium, a thin, thread-like strand of black smoke rose up. Perspiration formed on its surface, and a couple of drops of liquid fell quietly.

Kazuki had been staring at the rudium with some amount of trepidation, but still, he pressed his ear against the door once more. Soon, he tightly clenched his fist.

“….I can't believe this.”

Kazuki gasped out softly.

“Lots of things were busy moving about up until a second ago, but now, every single thing came to a standstill.”

That meant the rudium's control worked. Seol cried out in elation inwardly before forcibly suppressing his emotions. It was still way too early to pop a champagne bottle, wasn't it? The moment they run into a higher-ranked Parasite, then never mind rescuing someone, this whole thing would quickly turn into a damn disaster.

“Can you sense anything moving in there?”

“None at all.”

Kazuki shook his head. He then placed his hand on the door.

“Our mission is simple.”

Before opening the door, he addressed others.

“The important thing is to control your emotions. No matter what you see, do not get angry and do not try to kill them.”

Rather than him warning his team members not to waste their energy and valuable time, it sounded more like he was trying to remind himself, instead.

“We quietly search. We quietly rescue them. And we quietly make our escape from this place. That will be all. The rest will be an unnecessary surplus.”

Kazuki confirmed his team nodding their heads and shifted his gaze away. And then…

“Let's go.”

….He opened the door.

Creak.

The door opened a sliver and light entered their view. It was hazy, grainy sort of light. Seol felt this sticky moisture cling to his skin before he abruptly stopped breathing altogether. Euh-heup! Rhine craned her neck like a tortoise and then, hurriedly covered her mouth.

Their noses didn't need a lot of time to get used to the smell of rancid air that hadn't been circulated for a long time, plus the combined whiffs of rusted steel and burnt ashes. The end of the stinkfest was soon followed by the sight of a mutated Orc. Seol reflexively raised his spear only to barely hold himself back.

The enemy's command structure was incredibly annoying to deal with. It also acted like interconnected spiderwebs, so him carelessly killing this creature might make a higher-ranked creature to suspect something was off.

In any case, the monster in front possessed a truly abnormal-sized physique even at a quick glance. Every little thing his eyes could see on the creature's body, from its over two-meter-tall height to those tusks that jutted out sharply from the sides of its mouth, and even the bulging muscles the size of a grown adult's head on its arms, came across as incredibly threatening.

'Something like this is being mass-produced?'

He fell into a bit of panicked state but then, met the beastly eyes of the monster shooting out yellowing lights and immediately regained his wits. His scanning eyes immediately discovered dozens and dozens of these creatures but not one of them displayed hints of hostility. They simply stood still, not doing anything.

Having fully recovered from his initial shock, Seol was able to notice something strange. The skin color of the mutated Orcs came across as quite familiar. Sure, there were some differences in the depth of the shade, but at the end of the day, most of them had peach-like hue – just like humans. There were a few distinct colors mixed among them too, but their numbers were extremely small.

That wasn't all. Other than those that resembled humans in appearance, there were also quite a few with animal-like manes or thick coats of fur all over their bodies.

'Could they be 'half'….?'

Just as an ominous foreboding was about to enter his head, Kazuki began walking forward again.

“There are three places we must search within the prison block.”

Just like his calm, collected voice, his steps had no hesitation in them. They walked past the linear corridor illuminated by the hazy, diffused light and arrived at a wide-open space. There were quite a few mutated Orcs here too, but the Japanese Archer didn't even stop to give them a second glance. Only after they arrived at a crossroads did he finally turn around to address the group.

“We were supposed to move as one unit according to our original plan. But we wasted too much time getting here. I'm changing the plan. We need to conserve time from here onwards.”

Kazuki glanced at the corridors going to his left and right before speaking again.

“Chung Chohong, Mary Rhine, and I will go to the left. Seol, you go with Yasser Rahdi and search the right side. Whether you find someone or not, we meet again here in five minutes.”

“Shouldn't one of us search the passage in front?”

Chohong offered her opinion, but Kazuki shook his head right away.

“We'll have to go forward when going down to the second underground floor, anyway. We'll meet up back here and go together.”

“But….”

“It's already a big risk splitting up the team like this since we don't have another Archer. I do not wish to increase the risk factor even more than this.”

Kazuki spoke quickly like a machine gun being fired. Chohong didn't look convinced, but she closed her mouth shut as if she too wasn't interested in wasting time butting heads with him.

“I'm sure you have people you wish to rescue yourselves, but… You must keep your eyes open and be thorough. Especially when you see a human. Even if you don't know who it is, do not walk by no matter what.”

Leaving behind those words, Kazuki and the two nominated rescuers disappeared down the left path. Seol and Yasser Rahdi then moved to the corridor on the right side.

'….Prison?'

They only walked a little bit ahead and soon encountered prison cells blocked off by iron bars on either side of the passageway. Not wanting to miss anything, the two men did their best to pay close attention to their surroundings.

Unfortunately, they had no results to show for their diligence. Every prison cell they looked into was empty. They only spotted dirty stains on the stone floor.

As they continued to advance forward, the already-faint fuzzy light grew dimmer and dimmer.

The corridor was enveloped in eerie silence. Seol finally managed to figure out that the stains on the floor were all dried up blood. Around the same time, Yasser Rahdi studying their right side slowly rubbed his mustache and murmured quietly.

“Why can't we see anything?”

“I don't know.”

Seol whispered back his reply. With only the two of them here, their nervous tension kept soaring higher and higher. He wanted to say something, anything, to alleviate this sense of foreboding that made him shudder constantly.

“I heard that the first floor was used as a pen.”

“I heard that, too. But, we haven't even seen a hair of a captive so far, no?”

“Which could only mean that the enemy's mass production plan is for real.”

“How did you figure that?”

“If they weren't killed during the battle, they would have been captured as prisoners. However, it already has been many days now since then.”

Yasser Rahdi's complexion hardened to a frightening degree. He finally understood what Seol was saying.

Mass production meant, well, producing something in great quantities. It was rather obvious that no one would leisurely wait for the arrival of a rescue team. Even worse, something could have already happened to the prisoners the day they were captured.

“L-Look, man. That, that means….”

Yasser Rahdi's voice was trembling noticeably. Seol decided not to speak any further. What he said just now was the worst possibility he could think of. All he could do right now was to pray for their survival. Indeed, as long as they were still alive….

They could see the end of the prison corridor and encountered a massive open dome-shaped space. There was almost no light in this darkened place. While Yasser Rahdi was cautiously scanning around, Seol activated his 'Nine Eyes'.

The entire surrounding area was immediately washed in the riot of yellow color. Only one spot was in the deep orange hue that wavered into the red shade. 'Retreat' was strongly recommended, in other words. Seol quickly recalled the layout of the laboratory.

'Since we went right from the middle of the prison block….'

He finally understood the reason for that red hue. Most likely, that was where he'd find the stairs going up to the surface. He had absolutely no reason to go there, and he definitely should not go anywhere near there either. Not only did they not have enough time to search the surface, the security there must be pretty incredible, too.

'Is there really nothing here?'

Seol tilted his head slightly and shifted his gaze slightly upwards, only to suddenly form a frown. He saw something gleam softly within the darkness up there. When he looked harder, he thought he could see ropes or some such resembling hooks….

No, he was wrong. They really were hooks up there.

“Oii.”

Yasser Rahdi quietly pointed to the side. There were four, five mutated Orcs standing around in a group in the distance. Other than them, though, there was nothing else to see here.

'How many minutes has it been?'

Time relentlessly marched on, yet he had no results to speak of. His heart was racing even harder, his throat getting drier. He knew he shouldn't be agitated like this, but he continued to get more and more anxious with every passing second.

'What's going on with the left side, I wonder?'

“Looks like we…”

…Should go back. He wanted to finish his sentence with those words, but his mouth stopped automatically by itself.

Something was off. Those mutated Orcs were all looking above them. Not only that, one of them was frozen still with its arms raised up above its head.

“Should we go back?”

“No, hang on. I just need ten seconds.”

Seol whispered quickly and entered deeper into the veil of jet-black darkness. He scurried and approached the group of Orcs, and raised his head.

“….!!”

His steps came to a sudden halt, and in an instant, he became completely dazed.

And shortly thereafter…

His eyes staring above shot open even wider than before.

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