Because Seol Jihu was so hard-pressed for time, he almost missed it. It was already dimly lit in this place, and because of his darker skin, the man up there was hard to see.
But, once up close, it was much clearer to see. A man with his lowered head was hanging in the middle of the air. And it seemed that the mutated Orc was in the middle of reaching up to grab the man before its action was halted.
Seol Jihu cried out loud and even without realizing it, ended up touching Hugo's foot.
The moment his body rocked slightly, Hugo threw his head back and cried out. No, his hoarse voice sounded much closer to a pained groan than an actual scream.
Only then did Seol Jihu realize that Hugo was suspended in air with a hook piercing through his back.
“W-What the hell?! What's going on??”
Yasser Rahdi also discovered Hugo up there. He was hung up too high and they couldn't carelessly touch him. Seol Jihu chewed on his lower lip before glancing at the rudium, still emitting that black smoke. Its size had been reduced noticeably, but… if it was only for a little while, it should be fine.
'Lower Hugo as safely as possible.'
When he issued that order, four mutated Orcs began moving at once. One of them disappeared into the darkness and not too long afterwards, the creaky sounds of a turning pulley echoed in the chamber. The hook was slowly lowered. Two of them grabbed Hugo from both sides, and the last one cautiously extracted the hook from the human's back.
Once his restriction was undone, Hugo toppled over, and Seol Jihu quickly caught him. The big man must've regained his consciousness somehow because he struggled through pain and forced his eyes to open up. His blurry eyes had a faint glow, a hint of life in them.
“Euh, uh…. Euh uh….”
His mouth opened as if he wanted to say something, but only flute-like reedy sounds came out. Just one glance was enough to tell that he was completely enervated. Seol Jihu hugged his head and whispered softly.
“It'll be alright. We came to rescue you. It's going to be alright.”
Hugo must have heard those words because, even though he looked dazed and unfocused, the corners of his lips arched up. He closed his eyes again and sagged powerlessly in Seol Jihu's arms.
Yasser Rahdi quickly spoke up.
“Five minutes might be up already. I understand how you feel, but we gotta go, now. We can only heal him after meeting up with everyone else.”
“Ah, right. Okay.”
Although his words were logical in nature, his voice sounded thick with restlessness. Of course, he wasn't wrong, so Seol Jihu hurriedly lifted Hugo up.
Before they returned the way they came from, though, he stopped briefly to take a look behind.
'Why is Hugo the only one here?'
His head might be filled with questions, but he didn't stop moving forward. The important thing was, Hugo had been found and he was still breathing somehow. It was unknown whether his sturdy constitution was to thank for this feat, but he was definitely alive. That alone was enough for them to thank their lucky stars.
The two men carried Hugo to the intersection. However, the team that went to the left corridor hadn't returned yet. They waited for almost a full minute, but there was no sign of even a single shadow. The longer the time went, the more agitated Yasser Rahdi became.
“Damn it! Why aren't they here already?”
“Could something bad have happened to them?”
“O-oii. Can't you be more positive in the way you think?! You've been saying all these negative things.”
Seol Jihu cautiously put Hugo down.
“What was that?”
“We can't wait here forever. I'll go and take a look.”
Yasser Rahdi didn't look convinced at all. He was feeling quite nervous right now. In movies depicting similar situations, one of the two would get killed for sure. Didn't someone say this was a 'death flag' or some such? But then again, even he knew being still and not doing anything was a bad move to make.
“Damn it. Come back quickly, you hear me?”
Seol Jihu broke into a sprint right away. The left passageway was the same as the right one, and prison cells lined up on both sides of the walls. He took several glances as he ran but as he thought, he couldn't see any captives inside.
Soon, though, he was able to spot three silhouettes in the distance. The closer he got to them, the colder the air became, and it pricked his skin.
He wasn't sure what happened, but the atmosphere between the three of them was rather poor. Ayase Kazuki carried this pale and utterly sickened face, while Chohong looked to be in agony over something. Meanwhile, Mary Rhine was toppled on the floor to…
….To vomit her lungs out. She was even crying nonstop, too.
Perhaps Seol Jihu's presence woke him up, Kazuki hurriedly opened his mouth.
“You… What are you doing here?”
“You guys didn't show up even though we were waiting for you.”
Kazuki gasped out, “Damn it” in exasperation. He quickly grabbed Mary Rhine's side and tried to pull her back up on her feet by force.
“What happened? What's going on?”
“We stopped our search.”
“You stopped? Why?”
Now that Seol Jihu looked beyond the trio, he could see a stone door of some kind. Whitish strands of cold air leaked out from the slightly-open gap. He finally understood why he was feeling cold like this – bitingly chilly air was permeating out from inside that open doorway.
“There's no point in searching beyond this area. Even if we find someone, there's no point.”
He sounded unnaturally calm. This ominous feeling suddenly wormed its way into Seol Jihu. Was it because of that cold air or the way the header said those words?
“What are you….”
….Even talking about? He was about to say those words and tried to open the stone door, but then….
Chohong angrily shoved it close.
“Don't look inside.”
Her voice might have sounded a little emotional, but still, she was quite forceful when she stated her opinion. Seol Jihu flinched a little. Chohong was glaring with eyes full of unexpected chilliness. No, when he took a closer look, she seemed to be scowling in order to hold back her tears.
“You might end up with mental trauma. So, do not ever look beyond this door.”
Chohong even stood in front of the stone door to block it. Meanwhile, Kazuki asked a question.
“What happened on your end?”
Seol Jihu had been taken aback from that unexpected response but barely regained his wits to make his reply.
“We found one.”
“You found someone?”
“Yes, we found Hugo. He's still alive.”
Chohong abruptly raised her head. And then, without another word, flew down the passageway. Kazuki worriedly stared at her departing back before looking at Mary Rhine.
“Have you calmed down yet? Can you move now?”
“Y-yes. I'm sorry. I tried to hold back, but….”
She managed to nod somehow.
“Okay, we should get going, too. Ah, as we make our way back, can you tell me what you saw? Did you see anyone else? What was the situation on that side look like?”
Since Seol Jihu himself was puzzled by several things, he decided to describe what he saw in detail and get some answers that way as they ran back the way they came from.
“It's the 'infection'.”
Kazuki nodded his head as if he thought of something. Seol Jihu stared at him blankly, so the Japanese man explained himself.
“Have you heard before that 'infection' also has a success rate?”
He had never heard of this story before.
“You see, a Parasite in itself isn't much to write home about. It's like a larva and is pathetically weak. If the host is a corpse, then it wll 100 percent infect it without a problem, but if the host is still alive, the story changes drastically.”
Kazuki carried on.
“The stronger the host's constitution, the harder it is to infect that person. That's why the host gets hung up on the hooks. Just to sap out all of his stamina.”
Seol Jihu felt his heart tumble to the pit of his stomach. Only Hugo was found hanging on those hooks. Which meant that the others were….
“Hugo raised only his physical strength and endurance like a bona fide idiot. And that saved his life.”
Kazuki spoke in a bitter tone of voice. Seol Jihu cautiously asked him.
“Does that mean other people are….?”
“….Who knows. At least, they aren't dead yet. After all, for this plan of mass production to work, they need to infect living hosts.”
Mutated Orcs could also be manufactured from infected corpses, but the overall numbers would ultimately be limited. However, if the infected host didn't lose its reproductive capabilities, then the numbers could be produced indefinitely – that's what he meant. No matter how many times one thought about it, this whole thing still remained a disgusting plan through and through.
“Hugo got lucky on this one. If others have been infected already, then… Then, we can't do anything for them. It'll be better to kill them off, instead.”
“Is it completely impossible to save an infected host?”
“It's not completely impossible, no. It depends on how advanced the infection is or which part of the body has been taken over, stuff like that. However, nine times out of ten, you can't save them. It's not for nothing that we have to incinerate any and all corpses, you know.”
Even though he was still explaining things, Kazuki seemed to be trying to read the reaction of his team member. Seol Jihu felt deeply uncomfortable, but he did his best not to show it.
A short while later, the three of them arrived at the intersection. Mary Rhine immediately cast a healing divine spell the moment she saw Hugo.
“Cure Massive Wounds.”
Pure white light enveloped Hugo's body and his condition visibly improved before their eyes.
“Good. We managed to find one person.”
Kazuki checked the rudium, now about one-fifth smaller than before, and shifted his gaze over to Chohong and her pale-blue face. He then looked at Seol Jihu, who was comparatively in a calmer state, and opened his mouth.
“Chung Chohong. You take Hugo back to the magic circle.”
“What do you mean, what? Didn't we agree that every time we rescue someone, one person would take them back as long as the situation permitted it?”
There were several reasons for this decision, but the most important one had to do with making sure that the rescued captives returned safely. No one knew what might happen during the mission, after all. Also, if the number of people the rudium needed to protect decreased, its consumption would also decrease slightly, too.
“I know that! But, why me?!”
“Because you'll become a hindrance to the mission.”
Kazuki's cold, collected voice cut her off.
“And also, he's your original team member. It's not like you know the remaining captives any better than other members in this team, too.”
'But what about Dylan?'
Seol Jihu tilted his head slightly before understanding this reasoning. After all, there were two members of Carpe Diem present here.
“I'm not telling you to go there and do nothing, either. You know how important the role performed by the first person to return is, don't you?”
That made some sense. It was worrisome to leave Ian alone for too long, a communication line needed to be opened up, and in case of emergencies, traps had to be installed to ensure their safe retreat, too.
“This is an order from the header. Know that the longer you waste our time, the greater the trouble you are causing us.”
Chohong couldn't stand around after hearing those words. She was seething in anger, but in the end, picked Hugo up and turned around to leave. Seol Jihu spoke to her.
Chohong's expression was gloomy, dark – but she didn't say anything out of place.
“….You too. If you can help it, just come back, okay?”
With those parting words, she walked away with Hugo in tow. Kazuki quickly pointed to the front.
“We go ahead and continue with our search. If we don't find someone, then we go down to the second underground floor.”
The passageway in front was different from the other two and had no prison cells. Instead, the hazy, dim light was gradually getting clearer and brighter.
When the corridor finally came to an end, Kazuki pressed himself close to the wall.
“I don't sense anything moving, but…..?!”
He suddenly stopped talking, then. Seol Jihu was sticking very close to the Archer so he didn't miss the man's shoulders flinching just now.
In the next moment, he heard the sound of someone sucking in his breath, hard. He looked back, but Yasser Rahdi was already running forward at full tilt. Kazuki reached out to stop him, but could only bite his lower lip before entering the room beyond himself.
The space they entered was a huge chamber reminiscent of a laboratory. Several wooden 'tables' were laid out in a somewhat messy order, and what looked like equipment of some kind were placed in rows as well.
Seol Jihu looked on at the mutated Orcs standing around frozen still in the middle of whatever they were doing before his attention was snapped away from the sound of a tearful wail. Yasser Rahdi was leaning against one of those tables as a flood of tears exploded from his eyes.
“Oh, brother! What is the meaning of this?? We worked our butts off together, and we were barely…! But this….!”
Seol Jihu scanned the table the crying man was leaning against before his jaw nearly hit the floor. There was a person lying on top of it.
….No, he wasn't sure if that 'thing' could be classified as a person anymore. The face, the torso, and down to his hips, they were all a human's features. However, none of his limbs – arms and legs – were visible, only to be replaced by a whole bunch of tentacles wiggling around in disgusting fashion, instead. It was as if something, or someone, had stuck a bunch of squid tentacles on a person's body.
'What the f*ck is this….??'
It was right at that moment his eyes latched onto the spot where several mutated Orcs had gathered around. And beyond them, he saw another wooden table. He stumbled his way over there as if he was bewitched by something, and the first thing that greeted him was the acrid stink of blood.
His eyes trembled; his hands quivered uncontrollably. The emotion of disbelief spread all over his body in an instant.
Seol Jihu pushed past the unmoving mutated Orcs and rushed in. The closer he got, though, it became harder and harder to deny the reality. Just like the person before, there was Dylan, laid out on top of a table, with his limbs gone.
“Oh god, Dylan, Dylan….”
His quivering hands reached out and quite out of nowhere, he realized that the surface of the table was soaking wet. There was a prickling sensation in his fingertips before they went numb altogether. He saw a bucket full of clear liquid substance located at the end of the table.
“It's a sedative. A really powerful one at that….”
The voice was quiet, hushed. Kazuki had come in closer with a deep frown on his face.
Dylan was simply staring at the ceiling, his eyes wide open. It was as if he was already dead.
Every thought in Seol Jihu's head got tangled up into a mess in an instant. He couldn't think, and he didn't know what to do. Mary Rhine looked at him with some amount of pity, but when their eyes locked onto each other, he suddenly felt as if his mind had finally cleared up.
“A divine spell! Please, heal him…!”
Kazuki was about to say something, but she pulled out her crucifix and came closer to stop him.
“Just in case.”
“What do you mean?”
“There are only two people here. And Dylan's state isn't as advanced as Ali's. He might know the whereabouts of the other three.”
Kazuki didn't seem all that convinced but didn't try to stop her. He clicked his tongue in anger and walked over to the still-crying Yasser Rahdi.
“W-Wait. I'll, I'll go and find the limbs first….”
Seol Jihu hurriedly looked around to find the missing limbs, but the Priest didn't wait for him and cast her spell.
“H-Hold on, wait!”
The bright, white light enveloped Dylan's body. He shuddered a little, just then. His eyes, once dazed and distant, began blinking again. Seol Jihu hurriedly ran over and blocked the view of the ceiling, prompting Dylan to open his lips.
“Oh… my gosh….”
Dylan let out a hollow chuckle and shook his head.
“Am I… still dreaming?”
“No, this isn't a dream. We came to rescue you. We are here to save you!”
Seol Jihu grew tearful in an instant. To him, Dylan always looked confidence-inspiring and cool-headed. Always. Yet, seeing this heart-wrenching sight, tears wanted to erupt out of his eyes.
“What about Hugo?”
Dylan seemed to have completely recovered his faculties now.
“We rescued him. Chohong took him back.”
A languid smile crept up on Dylan's lips. His eyes darted around as if he wanted to understand the current situation before fixing his gaze on the Priest.
“Aren't you Mary Rhine? You also here to save us?”
“I have something to ask you.”
She spoke in a calm voice.
“It might sound confusing, but still, listen to me. Both Miss Agnes and Sir Ian returned safely. We also rescued Hugo. And then, as for you and Ibrahim Ali, well… uh, mm….”
“If you want to know about the remaining three, I also don't know.”
As expected of Dylan, he immediately latched onto what she wanted to ask and replied to her.
“…I see. I understand. Well, then. We'll….”
She couldn't bring herself to finish her sentence. Dylan nodded his head.
“Can you give me a minute?”
“Sorry, but we can't. We've got a 30-minute time limit and have already used up about half of that. We gotta find others too, and considering how long we might need to go back, there's just not enough time.”
“Alright. I don't know the full story, but if you say so, it must be true.”
Seol Jihu dazedly alternated his gaze between these two people. What were they even talking about here? Everything would be okay if he's brought back to the base, right?
“Dylan, I know you've been through hell. Thank you for surviving until now. Okay, we'll…”
Just as he reached out, Mary Rhine snatched his arm back. She then wordlessly shook her head.
“B-But, why? He's still alive!”
“It's already too late.”
She pointed to Dylan. There were dozens of worm-like larvae wiggling in and out from the wounds where his limbs should have been.
“Shit like this is….!”
He tried to yank those larvae out, but the Priest did her absolute everything to not let go of him.
“Don't touch those. Things might get complicated if you do.”
Seol Jihu was going to shout out loudly, but Dylan spoke first and stopped him.
“Just give us 30 seconds. I'll make him understand.”
“You gotta understand. This friend's bit soft about these kinds of things. But, he's got great abilities and has a good head on his shoulders. So, don't blame him.”
“…I know that.”
Mary Rhine let out a helpless sigh.
“If it wasn't for this guy, we wouldn't even be able to come here in the first place.”
Dylan looked as if his interest was roused. But that lasted only for an all-too-brief moment. He remained lying on his back as he looked up at the young man who didn't seem to know what to do and was sweating buckets in panic.
“Seol, if you got some water on you, can I have a sip? I'm a bit thirsty, you see.”
Seol Jihu hurriedly pulled out the canteen filled with water. He placed it on Dylan's lips and cautiously tilted it. The latter gulped and gulped some more, clearly relishing the refreshing liquid. Keuh~! Dylan exclaimed out softly.
“Thanks. When I was hanging on the hooks, every drop was precious, you see.”
“You don't have to worry about that. Once we return, you can drink as much as you want.”
Dylan smiled without making a sound.
He then carried on.
“First of all… Thanks.”
“Dylan, I hear you, so let's hurry and….”
“To be honest, I did hope for the rescue to come. Did you know that, when you're stuck in a pit of despair, all sorts of weird stuff pop up in your head? I even dreamed that you'd come to rescue me.”
“I'm sorry for being late, but more importantly, we….”
“Actually, I wasn't scared of dying. But, when I thought about how I'll neither be alive or dead, I got scared.”
Seol Jihu stopped talking, then. Neither alive or dead?
“I almost gave up, but then, you showed up like this…. And I'm really grateful that you did. It's like, I knew you'd come for us, somehow. Haha…”
Two men from the distance were walking closer. Dylan sent them a knowing glance and reverted his gaze above his head.
“So, what I'm saying is….”
“Can you help me die?”
“W-What was that?”
Abruptly, a smell of something burning assaulted his senses. Seol Jihu turned to look and found Ibrahim Ali, his head separated from the torso, going up in flames.
“B-But, why, why die…….”
Seol Jihu stuttered. Dylan simply formed a refreshing grin.
“It's been a while, senpai.”
Kazuki bowed his waist smartly.
“You the header of the rescue team?”
“That's a relief. A Pathfinder of your quality will ensure that everything goes down smoothly.”
“You're overestimating me.”
“Overestimating, my foot. In any case, hurry up and finish this, so you can get going. I heard that you guys have a time limit?”
Kazuki formed a complicated expression.
“Got it. Thank you for your understanding.”
He then grasped the hilt of his sword tightly.
In an instant, someone grabbed Seol Jihu's shoulders and pushed him down. Both Yasser Rahdi and Mary Rhine clung onto his body and blocked him.
“Don't, don't kill him!!”
He freaked out. His arms flailed about, and he put up a frenzied struggle. Still, he was forced down on his butt. Even then, he didn't stop shouting.
“Y-You can't kill him, no!”
“No, we must kill him.”
“H-hang on! I, I don't underst….”
“No time to explain. And you already know this. Or, at least, you have an inkling. You just don't want to accept it.”
Kazuki spoke coldly. Seol Jihu began babbling whatever came to his mind.
“P-Please, just listen to me. All I'm saying is, let's not kill him right now. W-What if there's a higher rank Parasite somewhere that starts suspecting something??”
“Both of them have not been taken over completely.”
Kazuki rebutted him.
“This is the reality of the situation. Killing them now is for the good of both men.”
It was then when he heard someone else sobbing next to him. Seol Jihu flinched and stopped after feeling the warm liquid fall on his cheek.
“I know how you feel, okay…. I know, but…. We, we gotta save others, too….”
Yasser Rahdi was crying. His face was distorted like a crying 'hahoe' mask, thick tears dropping from his eyes.
Dylan spoke in a dignified tone of voice.
“Kazuki. Hurry. Seol can't kill me. He's someone like that. So, you should act like a header.”
Kazuki raised his blade up high after hearing that.
“I'm still grateful for that matter of three years ago.”
“Don't mention it. Let's call it even with you doing this for me.”
“If it's you, senpai, you should easily overcome the death penalty.”
“Well, it should be better than becoming a puppet of the Parasites, unable to go back home.”
Dylan cackled on.
“Hey, Seol? Thank you. For coming here to rescue me. I mean it.”
He spoke with a relieved face.
“And also, say goodbye to the other two for me, okay?”
He then grinned. At the same time, the blade struck down.
In that next moment, everything slowed down to a crawl.
[Don't mind it if the tea tastes a bit bland, okay? I've been practicing making tea lately, but I can't seem to get any better at this thing.]
He couldn't believe this was happening.
[Mm. I understand where you're coming from, but I agree with Seol's deduction he came up with outside the tomb.]
This had to be a lie.
[Don't worry about it. When you're ready, go ahead. I'll match your timing.]
This was too fast.
[Listen. I am supposedly the leader of Carpe Diem. But even I find it pretty rough trying to control these two idiots. That's why, would you like to lend me an aid doing that?]
If nothing else, they should talk for a bit longer.
[Heheh. In that case, I think this mission will be a perfect chance for you to pop your cherry. It may sound like a simple job, but once you take it on, you're going to learn about lots of things. It was the same story for me, too.]
All the tears he was holding back flooded out.
Seol Jihu shot back up to his feet and raised his ice spear. He was about to take a wild swing at one of the mutated Orcs, but Kazuki restrained him in time. Tumble! He fell ungainly on the floor.
A short bout of silence later….
“….Don't think of it that way.”
Kazuki sheathed his sword back, his complexion extremely gloomy.
“I said this before, didn't I…. If the infection was in the early stages, fine, but…. Dylan was in the middle stages. Ali was towards the end. Over half of his body had been taken over already. Even if the Daughter of Luxuria was here, I doubt they could be saved.”
Seol Jihu didn't reply. He couldn't, as all he could do was to shed his tears as choked-up, gagging noises gasped out of his mouth.
He knew that. He thought he was prepared for the worst possibility.
But, in all honesty, his hopes were raised when he found Hugo. He simply wished for Dylan to be alive, that was all. He simply didn't expect things to play out this way. This was like having the worst of all the worst nightmares imaginable.
“Isn't it better to let him die in peace rather than leaving him be? At least, he'd be able to return to Earth and….”
Kazuki spoke up to here and lit the remains on fire. Watching Dylan slowly turn to ashes, Seol Jihu slammed his head down to the floor.
A sorrowful cry, akin to a wild beast howling, echoed in this chamber.
Kazuki watched on, his eyes dejected and energyless, before his shoulders drooped even further.
“Yasser Rahdi, take Seol back to the circle, please.”
This team was formed in order to save the captives. However, the sense of loss born out from the realization that the captives were no longer alive would be indescribable. He made this choice because he understood this point well. Forcibly taking along someone this heartbroken would only prove to be a hindrance later on.
“….I got it. I'm sorry about this.”
Yasser Rahdi tried to help the young man to get up. But, Seol Jihu didn't want to budge.
“Seol, we don't have the time for this. Hurry, and give me the rudium….”
“What was that?”
“…We'll go, together.”
Seol Jihu spat out his words in short bursts before pushing himself off from the ground unsteadily.
Dylan was dead. His emotions hadn't settled down yet. His tears hadn't stopped flowing out nor had he accepted this damn reality.
However, there were people still waiting to be rescued. That purpose was forcing his body to move again.
“No can do. Your current condition will only prove to be a hindrance. I know the Princess's face myself, so you don't have to worry and go back first.”
“I know the Princess’s face too.”
“There are three captives left. We need at least three people.”
Those words weren't wrong. Kazuki quietly stared at the young man, before massaging his forehead.
“Yasser Rahdi, what about you?”
“I'm sorry. I…. I can't. I don’t have the confidence anymore….”
“Fine. You should go back. Us three will go downstairs.”
Yasser Rahdi nodded without much energy and turned around to leave.
A short while later….
One person disappeared down the doorway they came in, while the other three slipped into the stairway leading down to the second underground floor.
As his steps led him down to the lower floor, pale-cold flames burned fiercely in Seol Jihu's eyes.
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