The word ‘if’ denoted those unexpected instances that may or may not happen. In dictionaries, it was used often in suppositions and assumptions, and humans attached ‘only’ at the end in order to express their hope or regret.
There could be one in a ten thousand chance that such a future would come true. Arriving before it’s not too late…. No, at least, arriving just before something terrible happened to the captives – the members of the rescue party would’ve been dreaming of such a future.
However, there was no meaning in saying such things when the crap had hit the fan already.
Paradise was the reality. It was neither a cartoon, a web novel, nor a movie. It was definitely not a computer game where you could save your progress at the click of a mouse as you sit on your comfy chair. Once something happened, it couldn’t be undone.
When things had come this far, stuff like ‘if only’ or ‘one in ten thousand’ were all useless suppositions. The final stop the winds called ‘Just in case’ or ‘Maybe’ would take you to was self-denial, that was all.
The ‘rescue’ as spoken by Ayase Kazuki didn’t simply mean the physical rescue of the captives. No, it was much closer to ‘saving’ them. Seol Jihu didn’t necessarily think of that as bad. Instead, having such a determination to unhesitatingly find the best possible answer to any given situation was befitting of a pragmatic, realistic Earthling.
Seol Jihu couldn’t throw away the wickers of hope burning in his heart; even though he felt as if his body was sinking deeper into an inescapable quagmire the lower he went down the stairs, he was still searching for that ray of light buried somewhere within the murky depth. Even if it was just one ray, one small piece – as long as he could rescue another one.
But then, they arrived at the bottom of the stairs and the flames of a candle burning faintly in his heart quaked violently from the spectacle laid out before eyes.
“Oh, my god….”
Mary Rhine hurriedly covered her mouth.
Even Ayase Kazuki was rendered utterly speechless.
A true hell on earth!
Crimson light illuminated this space as if it was a red-light district; spectacles of truly horrendous nature ran rampant everywhere, and they could hardly keep their eyes open. Even the so-called cities of depravity, Sodom and Gomorrah, wouldn’t have been this heinous. The advent of living hell on humanity would somewhat resemble this place.
“First time seeing such an unsightly hatchery in my damn life.”
Kazuki murmured to himself in a hushed voice before pulling out the paper with directions written on it. However, he began forming an expression of confusion. First of all, his eyes could see well over a thousand of them already. This was already a mind-numbing number to go through.
“W-What will you do?”
Mary Rhine began chewing on her nails. Kazuki whispered, “Hang on,” and continued to pore over the paper, before he sniffed the air. They were standing by the entrance, yet there was this overly strong sweet odor wafting in from somewhere. It only brushed past his olfactory senses, yet he felt a light case of dizziness.
His sharp eyes quickly shifted over to his left. The second underground floor was also divided into two districts, but it wasn’t separated like how it was on the first floor.
“For the time being, let’s head over to the experimentation area.”
They spotted almost no movements. Kazuki paid extra careful attention to his surroundings as he led the way. The location the Archer led them to was a structure with reddish walls. The closer they got, the stronger that sickly sweet smell became.
The interior of this small structure located next to the hatchery boasted a rather strange sight of its own, as well. There was only a single mutated Orc inside, but then, there were dozens upon dozens of pots, large enough for a person to sit inside, placed here. On top of them, there was a matching number of ropes dangling from the ceiling.
The source of the smell was, without a doubt, this building. The sweet smell had become so heavy that it almost made them gag. Kazuki stood on his toes to take a look inside the closest pot before his expression crumpled somewhat.
The pot was filled with a sticky but clear liquid. He cautiously dipped his index finger before withdrawing it. A small strand clung onto his departing fingertip before snapping loose, evidence of the weak amount of viscosity present in this liquid.
The Archer tilted his head and brought his head even closer to take a deeper look, only for his cold, determined face to crumple in an instant.
He yanked his upper torso away in a hurry and quickly took several steps back. Seol Jihu hurriedly lent his aid. Kazuki breathed heavily to regain himself before spitting on the ground with a disgusted face.
“God damn it! It’s an aphrodisiac!”
Even though things were in a bit of mess right now, Seol Jihu still got to form a rather dumbfounded expression. He realized that all these dozens of huge pots were filled with the same liquid.
His gaze then drifted towards that lone mutated Orc standing still, unmoving. His experiences told him that the creature wasn’t standing there for no reason. Now that he could see, the rope going into the pot in front of the thing was stretched taut.
He remembered how the mutated Orc lowered Hugo from the ceiling, so he was able to quickly locate a pulley-like device nearby.
Even though he was unsure, he quickly ran over there and turned the handle. Creak, creak…. the rope was pulled upwards as it wound around the pulley. Splash, splash… The sounds of liquid falling could be heard next.
Eventually, a person whose entire body was tightly wrapped around with rope suddenly emerged from the pot. The drops of liquid fell from the oily, seemingly naked body. Seeing the soaked but still-abundant red hair, it must have been a woman. It was at this point in time that Mary Rhine began freaking out.
Kazuki moved swiftly. He leapt up in the air, sliced the rope off, and caught the woman before landing back on the ground. Seol Jihu furrowed his brows immediately – all of her limbs were intact, but once she was laid down on the ground, he realized that her legs and arms were all bent in terrible angles.
“Damn it, did she drown??”
“N-No, that can’t be it.”
Mary Rhine spoke with a pale complexion.
“Big sister Erica learned the ability to breathe underwater. There’s no way she’d drown.”
Kazuki quickly pressed his hand near the unconscious woman’s nose. He sensed her breathing. Even her chest began rising and falling, albeit faintly.
Suddenly, the woman’s eyes shot wide open. Her blurry irises stared up at the ceiling above, and then…
She began flailing her body this way and that. Forget about the usual pained moans, she was busy emitting cries of horror right now.
‘This person is…’
She was none other than the Level 6 Imperial Knight, Erica Lawrence, a powerful being on par with Agnes.
While Erica Lawrence was breathing and panting in pain, the Archer quickly checked for signs of infection and the Priest cast her divine healing spell.
A short while later, Kazuki stood up and addressed Mary Rhine.
“Take her back.”
That meant that Erica Lawrence was not infected.
“Got it. Be careful, you two.”
Mary Rhine didn’t say anything unnecessary and supported Erica Lawrence. Their exit was fast enough to mildly surprise the others.
The second person was rescued beside Hugo. Now, only two remained.
They checked other pots to make sure, and they were all empty. Kazuki squatted down and glared at the ground. Seol Jihu didn’t urge him. Everything he saw of the Japanese man said that this guy was a dependable Earthling. If he wasn’t moving, then there must be a good reason for that.
Kazuki opened his mouth.
“It’ll be extremely difficult to search through this place with our remaining time.”
That was true. Even Seol Jihu had been masking his frustration. It wasn’t just one or two buildings in the experimentation area, and not to forget, the hatchery itself was huge, and there were just too many victims in here.
“So, we gotta….”
Was he trying to say that they needed to retreat now?
“…Gotta think about this.”
What he said next was somewhat out of Seol Jihu’s expectation.
“Both Dylan and Ali were infected, their limbs cut off. What the bastards were trying to do to them was clear – sap away their stamina, infect them, and create more mutated Orcs. Use some parts of the bodies as sustenance, use the rest to create more soldiers, and also use them as breeding stocks, too.”
‘….Use as sustenance?’
For a moment then, Seol Jihu recalled the door Chohong stopped him from entering earlier.
“However, the same thing didn’t happen to Erica Lawrence. Her limbs might have been broken, but she wasn’t infected. No, she was just left inside the pot of aphrodisiac…. It probably means that they were trying to break her down mentally. They probably knew that no one would be able to survive the horrors of the hatchery outside for long.”
Kazuki’s mutterings sounded more like him trying to organize his thoughts rather than talking to someone else.
“Meaning, captives have been separated by their sex.”
“Does that mean the chances of the remaining two not being infected are….”
“No, hang on. That’s not it.”
Kazuki shook his head.
“It’s not that they are uninfected, it’s simply that there’s no need. Being violated by the mutated Orcs will infect them naturally, anyway.”
Kazuki continued on.
“Erica Lawrence has been fighting back. Just like Hugo.”
If that assertion was flipped around, then the two captives not being here meant that they couldn’t endure. It was then, Kazuki’s eyes burned brightly.
“It’s the trace of someone being dragged away. Looks like it’s comparatively recent, too.”
“Are there two people?”
“No, just one.”
Kazuki seemed confused as well.
“If my theory is right, then there should be two, but… Ayase Yui, Teresa Hussey…. I don’t know who it could be between the two, but I can only see one.”
“Let’s go and take a look regardless.”
The two men quickly left the building. But Kazuki’s steps gradually slowed down.
“Damn it…. Why are there so many traces now?”
That was inevitable, though. It wasn’t as if this place had little to no foot traffic; anyone could tell without looking too hard that the old traces would be covered up by fresh new ones being laid on top every single day, as this whole area was chock-a-full with all sorts of races and beings. Even if he was a Grand Pathfinder, he’d be rendered helpless here.
“Tell me any distinguishing features of your sister.”
“There’s a mole near her left eye. Her hair color is pitch-black, and her physique is petite. And she’s cute.”
Seol Jihu diligently searched his surroundings. No matter how many times he looked, this whole place simply was a series of unbearable sights one after another. Countless females were either tied and bound to various pillars and walls with chains and ropes. And a similar number of mutated Orcs were standing around in several spots within the hatchery or sticking uncomfortably close to those tied-up females.
The problem here had to do with the fact that the females weren’t just from the human race. He paid closer attention to a certain figure because she seemed to be a human at a casual glance, but as it turned out, her ears were too pointy; animal-like four-legged beings resembling a wolf; even plant-based beings, and monsters that he had never seen before, had been captured in droves. Meaning, the Parasites didn’t care what they captured as long as the victims possessed the ability to give birth.
Seeing this wretched sight, he could acutely feel how the Parasites, supposed to be an alien race, thought of humans as well as other races living on this planet. With that realization, powerful rage boiled deep within his heart.
‘Sons of bitches.’
To Parasites, males were only good for food or as disposable meat shields. As for females, they were no different than livestock. Seol Jihu chewed on his lower lip almost to the point of drawing blood and grasped his spear tightly. He relied on the single strand of icy cold energy from the weapon to suppress his heart ready to explode in anger. It happened then.
Kazuki abruptly pounced forward like a bolt of lightning. Seol Jihu hurriedly chased after him, but his steps came to a stop soon after. He found the Archer standing still like a stone statue, his expression one of pure stupefaction.
There was a female squatting on the ground, both of her wrists tied to the pillar behind her. There was this vacant smile on her face, too. Just as Kazuki had said earlier, she was a cute young girl. And her entire body bore the evidence of all the violence done to her.
Even though her brother was standing before her very eyes, she maintained that aimless, creepy smile. He wordlessly stared at his sibling. Sniff. He sniffled noisily and with a clenched fist, wiped his eyes. He then knelt down on one knee and pressed his forehead to hers.
The goodbye was kept short. Kazuki stood back up and grasped his longsword. Seol Jihu gasped out in surprise.
“It’s too late.”
“Too late?! But…??”
“She only looks fine on the outside. There’s no need to even look deeper. Her insides would have changed by now.”
Kazuki looked back at Seol Jihu with sorrowful eyes.
“Are you going to step in this time, too?”
“You’re free to intervene, but remember this – you doing that will decrease the amount of time we have to find the Princess.”
Seol Jihu was unable to say anything.
Eventually, Ayase Yui’s neck was cleanly separated from her body. Kazuki proceeded to incinerate her body and pulled at the youth standing there in a daze.
“Let’s go. We still have one more person to find.”
Seol Jihu stared at the older man with a great deal of awe. As befitting an Archer acknowledged by Dylan, he was able to control his emotions to such an extreme degree and focused on his duties first. This calmness helped to cool down Seol Jihu’s anger that continued to play havoc with his mind ever since he climbed down to the second floor. He then promptly felt ashamed of his disgraceful conduct earlier.
‘I need to concentrate on the mission.’
Thanks to finding the two ladies quicker than the initial expectation, the time wasted upstairs had been replenished by just a tiny bit.
More determined than ever before, he looked at every nook and cranny to find Teresa Hussey. However, he couldn’t spot anyone even remotely resembling her. Which was weird, because her unique features certainly stood out from the crowd. The time continued to tick on, but that unique rose-colored hair couldn’t be seen from anywhere.
He even resorted to using more of the valuable rudium just in case, but that also didn’t work. He ordered the mutated Orcs nearby to guide him to a human brought in recently and even added Teresa Hussey’s distinguishing features for good measure but the damn things didn’t even want to budge.
“Did you spot any trace of Princess yet?”
“I wouldn’t be standing around here if I did.”
Kazuki chewed on his lips before cupping his ear. The communication crystal hanging near his earlobe was emitting a soft, pure glow.
The voice belonged to Chohong.
“He’s with me, still searching. What about your side?”
—Traps have been laid down, and everyone made it back safe. You haven’t found the other two yet?
“Ayase Yui was infected and I dealt with her. Haven’t found Teresa Hussey yet.”
—You have less than ten minutes left. Don’t push your luck and come back. If all else fails, we can try again in 72 hours, right?
“Got it. Don’t worry.”
The glow from the crystal disappeared. The two men didn’t say anything else afterwards and spent another minute searching their vicinity, but again, there was nothing to show for their efforts. Eventually, Kazuki sighed out in exasperation.
“Go back first.”
Kazuki quickly continued on.
“I can’t be certain, yet. But, there’s still some time left, so I’ll try to search by myself.”
Kazuki was a High Ranker Archer. His running speed was really fast, so even if he used up a bit more of time, he’d still be able to make it – that’s what he meant. Seol Jihu knew that he was being considerate, of course. But the Korean youth rejected the offer regardless.
“No way. I’ll also help. I’m pretty confident when it comes to running, you see.”
“I have this guy, remember?”
Seol Jihu pointed to his left ear. Kazuki saw the Festina Earring and began pondering something. The rescue team members had shared as much information as they were willing to before the mission commenced, so he knew what that earring was.
“Didn’t you say you can’t control it properly yet?”
“Running in a straight line is fine. Well, I even led the Parasites back in that dangerous canyon, so running the length of the first floor shouldn’t be that difficult.”
That made some sense. Considering that the first underground floor was basically a straight line, his confidence was not unwarranted. Besides, if the effect was stacked three times, he’d be able to run 100 meters in 3, maybe 4 seconds. The speed he’d be able to exhibit during that one minute would be double that of Kazuki’s maximum sprinting speed.
“Fine. We’ll do it this way.”
Kazuki nodded his head and handed over another communication crystal attached to an earring.
“You also take one. We’ll go our separate ways to search. If and when the contact is made, we return, no questions asked.”
“I’ll be sticking around for four minutes and 25 seconds before heading back. You shouldn’t be going past six minutes and 40 seconds mark. Don’t try to cut it too close and return at least before the final minute mark. Understand?”
He then added that he’d contact Seol Jihu before going back, and the two men went their separate ways.
Seol Jihu inwardly began counting as he crossed the hatchery. He still couldn’t locate Teresa Hussey, though.
Seol Jihu had been walking in deeper and deeper before he abruptly realized that the surroundings had changed somewhat. He couldn’t see any pillars or chains here. What replaced them now were several structures that resembled ranches.
Seol Jihu began frowning. He was wondering why there was progressively lesser and lesser number of mutated Orcs, but now he could see why; he spotted several smaller-sized mutated Orcs roaming around these ‘ranches’. They looked to be cubs and not fully-grown adults.
Females from various species were laying on top of dried grasses, moaning out and panting laboriously. Disgusting, acrid odors of blood and all sorts of filth wafted in the air.
Out of the blue, his steps came to a halt. As he attentively scanned the area, he finally caught the distinct color he’d been hoping to see. Although dirty, there was little doubt he was seeing pink hair.
The female was lying still as if she was dead, her belly swollen up so much that it now resembled a ball. Her broken, soulless blurry eyes flinched sporadically, soft gasps of “Ah, ah…” leaving her mouth. His heart nearly tumbled to the pit of his stomach.
Seol Jihu hurriedly ran over there and was about to grab her shoulder, but his actions came to a sudden halt. It wasn’t Teresa Hussey. Their hair color was the same but this woman belonged to another race. He saw the carelessly-unfurled black wings sprouting from her back and was sure of his findings.
He felt relieved, but at the same time, he couldn’t help but sigh. Time to go back was rapidly approaching.
‘Should I go back?’
In reality, he was not duty-bound to find her at all cost. However, Teresa Hussey was a Paradisian. If she died now, that would be it for her. No, even if he set aside that point, he still remembered that powerful attraction he felt when meeting her for the first time.
‘It’s like, I’ve met her from somewhere before.’
He could have been mistaken about that. But, he knew that, if he gave up here and go back, he’d be beset with regret for the rest of his life. Indeed, he had to do his very best right until the very end so his regret wouldn’t be as bad later.
It’s not like he didn’t have any time left, did it? Seol Jihu shook his head. Right, it was still too early.
‘This isn’t going to work.’
Walking around like this with no plan was not a solution. He needed to think like Kazuki.
‘Maybe she wasn’t even in the hatchery to begin with?’
Up until now, he had been roaming around the hatchery because of the header’s theory. But since she was nowhere to be found, that theory might not be applicable to Teresa Hussey. Seol Jihu quickly changed his thought process.
‘What’s the difference between Princess and other captives?’
She was a Paradisian, while others were Earthlings. Seol Jihu pondered deeply until suddenly, a brand new possibility popped into his head. He only tested it out on three, four targets before so the sample pool was small, but still, his idea stemmed from the fact that the mutated Orcs didn’t know of Teresa Hussey’s whereabouts.
‘Maybe, Princess’s worth as a captive is different from the others?’
Meaning, she had another purpose other than being used as breeding stock. The biggest fighting force of humanity was Earthlings, but in reality, one could argue that the true foundation was none other than the seven gods. The first person these gods contacted was a Paradisian. Not only that, a royal.
‘The Royal Oath!’
Considering that point, could it be possible that the princess of the Haramark Royal Family received different treatment from the others? For example, could she be taken to elsewhere so the Parasites could learn the secrets of the seven gods?
Unless he was talking about the Parasite Queen who even devoured a god – the command structure of the Parasites could only ‘control’, but it was not an omnipotent network. Besides, a human would instantly turn into a mindless puppet the moment he or she was infected. So, Princess holding valuable information would not be so carelessly turned into a host.
He wasn’t sure, of course. But his theory sounded plausible. There was a chance that he was being too optimistic about this, but he didn’t mind grasping at straws in the current situation if it’d help him out somehow.
In any case, the conclusion was that there was a good chance of her not being in the hatchery at all.
‘In that case….’
He had entered pretty deeply into the second basement floor. Maybe that was the reason why there weren’t all that many mutated Orcs. On the far side to his left, he could see the experimentation area.
If she was taken above ground, then there was nothing he could do, but then again, she could be in that experimentation area.
‘Which one should I enter first?’
It wasn’t just one or two buildings there. He figured that he might have to search every single one if he failed to think of a good way, but then, decided to activate Nine Eyes first, just in case. Everywhere transformed into a sea of yellow – with the sole exception of one structure.
‘Is that orange?’
It was ‘Do Not Approach’. Besides the fact that it was built using bricks, it kind of resembled a container-like structure with only a single small window.
He had no time to worry. Seol Jihu quickly made his way and pressed against the structure’s wall. The door was closed, so he couldn’t see the inside. He pressed his ear to the wall next, but it was all very quiet. There didn’t seem to be any signs of movement.
But there must have been a reason it was ‘Do Not Approach’. Now originally, he shouldn’t even be thinking about entering, but there was a chance that he’d find her here.
‘Just in case.’
He grasped the rudium. He had a way to go around the danger, so there’s no reason to take the risk.
‘Open the door as quietly as possible. If you see beings of the same race as you moving inside, pretend that you made a mistake and get out immediately.’
He used the rudium to control a mutated Orc nearby and sent it ahead of him. Creak… The door opened and a portion of the interior was revealed.
‘Looks like a torture chamber.’
Seol Jihu remained pressing against the wall as he sent out another command.
‘Nod if there is a human woman inside.’
The mutated Orc nodded its head. Seol Jihu opened his eyes wider. He forgot to breathe for a moment then. The monster didn’t come out of the structure, which meant that, at the least, there were no moving Parasite-infected creatures inside.
Seol Jihu didn’t hesitate and entered the structure immediately. And when he took a good look at the interior, he had to squeeze his eyes shut out of the sheer elation. His fists automatically clenched by themselves. He got to confirm that using up the valuable rudium was not a waste of his time.
He opened his eyes again and quickly strode forward. A certain woman was tied to an X-shaped wooden frame, held by ropes binding her wrists and ankles. Her face was obscured by her lowered head. However, her cascading waterfall of rose-colored hair was definitely a familiar sight to him.
Seol Jihu placed the ice spear by his armpit and slowly extended his hand out. He brushed past her hair and touched her still-soft cheek. His palm sensed her flinching greatly.
Her deer-like neck began trembling. He even heard her gnash her teeth.
What a familiar voice that was, too. Instead of answering her, though, he placed his hand on the communication crystal attached to his ear. It glowed softly when he injected his mana.
“I will never submit to….”
—What’s going on?
Kazuki’s voice prompted the pink-haired woman to stop her yammering.
Her head swiveled up. She spotted a certain young man speaking in a calm voice, with his hand pressed to his ear.
“I found Princess Teresa Hussey. I’ll return as soon as I free her.”
The eyes of Teresa Hussey grew dazed as she stared at Seol Jihu.
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