Chapter 147. A Disputed Area (2)
Like Mimi told him, the rescue team was already gathered outside of the castle walls. There were 252 people in total, which was the size of most large companies.
“h.e.l.lo, I’m Ru Amuh. I have been tasked to rescue and a.s.sist the eighth recruits like you all. Pleased to meet you.” Ru Amuh ended his self-introduction simply. The response he got was lukewarm, but at least it was on the positive side. After all, Ru Amuh was at least a well-known figure. He had solved a star cl.u.s.ter crisis and made a name for himself in the Celestial Realm before. He was also an active member of the seventh recruits who had made a huge breakthrough on Liber. Thus, the general mood of the team seemed to be in favor of him.
“Then, from now on…” Before he left, Ru Amuh reorganized the team. He first divided people according to their cla.s.s and formed squads of roughly ten people each. Then the 25 squads were put into three platoons. The first platoon would be at the forefront, while the second would be at the center, and lastly, the third platoon would be at the rear end. Ru Amuh was going to be in charge of the central platoon himself, and he picked the commanders for the first and third platoons; both were people Chi-Woo already knew.
“Fufu. Our rescue team leader has a keen eye. You won’t be disappointed!”
“I would’ve liked to stand at the forefront if possible…but I guess it can’t be helped.”
Nangnang jumped up and down in excitement, while Allen Leonard appeared disappointed. Chi-Woo then moved to where he was a.s.signed, which was the central platoon. He was tasked to lead the first squad.
‘It makes me think of the old times.’ To think he would also be a squad leader here too. Chi-Woo smiled wryly.
—It’s nice that he divided the team neatly …
Philip was discontent. They weren’t going out of town or going on an adventure and might clash against a large-scale enemy army. Thus, Philip agreed that they needed a strict order of command in preparation for war. However, this group had a clear weakness: a lack of subordination and loyalty to their superiors that made a hierarchical system. The understanding and mentality that should be guaranteed for a military group were very lacking and almost non-existent.
—Well, I’m sure they will do well since they’re all used to fighting, but…
Philip murmured. The phrase ‘too many cooks in the kitchen’ was an apt description for this situation.
—This order won’t mean much. Haa—
Philip brought forth his hand to his mouth, and Chi-Woo glanced at him.
‘What’s the problem now?’ Chi-Woo asked.
—No, no. I was just curious.
Philip licked his mouth. Then, while watching Ru Amuh talking to Nangnang and Allen Leonard, he continued.
—One’s personal skills have nothing to do with their ability to deal with other people, but it’s not really something you need to concern yourself with. The leader of this rescue team had already been decided, and this is a matter for that guy to figure out by himself.
Philip glanced down at Chi-Woo.
—You will know what I mean by this later on~
Chi-Woo was about to ask more questions when he heard a voice coming from the front, telling them to start moving. Chi-Woo turned to face forward and followed Ru Amuh. The marching began.
A couple of days pa.s.sed. Ru Amuh urged the team to move faster and marched during the day, and sometimes even the night. They could do so because they hadn’t encountered any enemy. The effect of the growth system was definite, and it appeared there was no enemy left within the range of a few days’ travel from the capital. And like that, as they walked day by day, their surroundings began to gradually change.
The former Salem capital was located on an open plain, while they were now marching through the tall gra.s.s that reached their palms. The gra.s.ses continued to increase in size, and by the time night fell, they found themselves among thick bushes. With the dim light of the night, the forest looked black rather than green. Ru Amuh ordered the team to stop and prepare to camp. It was the eighth day since they left camp.
They were already in unknown territory. Although they had been going as fast as possible for the sake of the eighth recruits, they needed to be warier from now on. Chi-Woo had been gloomy ever since they entered the forest. It reminded him of the one he had stayed in for a while after arriving at Liber. He didn’t feel evil energy like he did at the time, but a different kind of unpleasant silence circled around the forest. It seemed Chi-Woo wasn’t the only one who felt this, and the conversation between the heroes was cut short.
Each and every one of their faces looked stiff except for one person: the mysterious girl Chi-Woo brought. For some reason, she appeared excited. From time to time, she would stare at one side desperately and make sounds like, “Mm, mm?” She tugged at the hems of his clothes with sparkling eyes, like she was asking why he wasn’t going further.
“No,” Chi-Woo shook his head and said, “We are going to turn in for the day before going further.”
The girl looked disappointed as she pulled her hand back. She seemed pretty good-natured, and she went to sleep without complaints.
The next day, after the rescue team organized their camping site at sunrise, they began their marching again. They took a short break when the sun was high in the sky before resuming their march. Then in less than ten minutes, the group came to a halt again at Nangnang’s instruction.
“There are traces of multiple people,” he said.
The rescue team was currently following the traces of the eighth recruit who had reached the vicinity of the capital. They had been seeing only traces left by one person, but where Nangnang was pointing at, there were significantly more traces.
“One, two, three, four…at the very least, there were ten of them.” Nangnang very carefully walked around the spot. “Judging from the footsteps, they seemed to be in a great rush. It seemed they were running away from something.”
After a pause, Nangnang continued, “Then they stopped walking… Did they give up on escaping and stand their ground here? No, it’s faint, but there’s still the smell of blood. Yes, one of them fell here. It seemed like they were shot or something.”
Nangnang murmured to himself for a while until he raised his head and spoke aloud again, “The traces in this area can be divided into two groups: the group getting chased and the group chasing after them.”
“The group chasing after them?”
“Yes. There are traces that suggest they had returned to where they came from after finis.h.i.+ng their work.”
“Are they perhaps the mutants?”
“No, they must be something completely different. There’s an order to the traces they left. They appear to be a well-trained troop—or more precisely, an experienced team of a.s.sa.s.sins.” Nangnang frowned. “On the other hand, most of the traces left by the ones getting chased end here. It seems they had tried to resist somehow but were all slaughtered…except for one person.” Nangnang turned to the path they had come from. He walked around the surroundings and carefully surveyed the traces.
“Besides one of them, the other members stopped here and turned around—as if they were trying to block those chasing after them.” That ruled out them being a group of deserters at least, or else the other members wouldn’t have risked their lives to help one of them escape, and they must have had a reason for acting this way.
Nangnang looked up again and asked, “Why didn’t they make their final stand together, but instead let one of them escape?”
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Likewise, the eighth recruits were not fools. Even though they had lost their power, their experience as a hero still remained. Therefore, once they realized the difference in their strength between them and their enemies, they should have made the decision to escape or run away.
“Mr. Nangnang?” Ru Amuh called out to him.
“Wait, wait a bit. Let me think for a bit.” Nangnang quickly blinked. “Since the city is in such a state, it means that they’re still fighting. And since they’re still fighting, it means that there are at least two opposing sides. Yeah, the crumbling city should’ve turned quiet by now if the situation has already been sorted out, but…” Nangnang went on and on before muttering suddenly in a daze, “…Why?”
The eighth recruits must have been in a hopeless situation in which they all had a high possibility of dying, and rather than sitting still and accepting their fate, they should have given up on their mission and run away. Or they could work together to forge a path of escape like the seventh recruits had done. However, on their way here, they hadn’t found traces of any other group except the one they were tracking. In other words, the eighth recruits had decided to continue with their mission rather than flee. Even though the power difference between their enemies and them was stark, they didn't back down. They had decided to send out a small group of people to inform the other recruits of their situation and hold out in the city until the reinforcements arrived.
“Why on earth…”
Boom! A loud explosion rang out from far away. Flames erupted into the air, and a building collapsed. A short time later, there was another explosion, and another building collapsed. The two buildings were on opposite sides of the city.
Nangnang stared at the city from a thousand miles away and muttered, “…Two.” Another possibility finally flashed through his mind. “Yeah, it would all make sense if there’s not one but two hostile factions…and if there is a confrontation between two major powers in this city…!” This meant that the eighth recruits were not facing enemies on their own, but were stuck between two opposing forces and hiding in the eye of the storm. It all made sense now.
A battle inside a city was far more advantageous for those who occupied it; the buildings scattered around could serve as watchtowers. Therefore, neither side would let the other take over the city. Every time one side tried to enter the city and occupy it, the other side furiously fought back. As a result, the two forces have been fighting a war of attrition both inside and outside the city.
“It’s not a siege,” said Nangnang. “That means there’s a high chance that the city had been unoccupied in the beginning.”
Ru Amuh asked, “Ms. Hawa, could you please take a look at the map?”
Hawa immediately opened up the map. It was a new one they created based on the map Noel Freya had provided, which gave them a rough overview of their current surroundings. Soon, Hawa looked up. “It’s at the border of two territories.”
Ru Amuh groaned. He didn’t even need to ask which those territories were because there were only two main forces in this area—the Demon Empire and the Alliance of Indigenous Monsters.
“I think that…the prophecy is pus.h.i.+ng things a little too far this time.” Nangnang looked at the city roaring with nonstop explosions with distaste and said, “They might have all died. No, it would make more sense for them to be completely annihilated.”
But there was a chance that there were still survivors. Nangnang continued, “If some recruits are still alive, there’s a good chance that they’re hiding in the center of the city.” If the two forces were about evenly-matched, and they had been fighting in a gridlock every day, there might be a DMZ in the middle. There was a good chance that was where the eighth recruits were hiding—if they were still alive.
—Oh~ This is making me curious. Was the city unoccupied at first? Then why are the two factions suddenly fighting each other so fiercely? It’s making me wonder what’s inside.
Philip spoke as if he was enjoying a fire show from across the river.
Nangnang asked, “What are you going to do, team leader?”
Ru Amuh tightly shut his eyes. Suddenly, a gust of wind swept through them, carrying a mixture of scents. It was a pungent and metallic smell.
“…” Chi-Woo helplessly stared at the city. The heavy energy that he had been feeling since he entered the forest turned out to be the looming war clouds.
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