“Commander, don’t push yourself too hard. You’ve only just woken up. I’ll do the searching…….”
“If I rested now, I wouldn’t even be able to relax.”
“Are you going to stay up all night like this?”
“One night without sleep won’t kill me.”
Fireballs lit up his dark vision. Cadel was hurrying through the deserted forest, searching for any signs of Ergo.
Beside him, Van let out a low sigh. He fully understood Cadel’s obligation to save his subordinate caught by the demon, but he was also worried about his physical condition. Van had no choice but to do so because he had witnessed him collapsing with his own two eyes.
But he knew how great Cadel’s stubbornness was. For that reason, Van stopped persuading and instead chose to somehow find traces of the demon and shouldered Cadel’s trouble.
“It’s too dark. There are many clouds, and the moonlight is weak. I think any further search is meaningless, Leader.”
Lumen, on the other hand, disagreed, skeptical of navigating an unfamiliar area in the middle of the night with only a few meager fireballs. In his opinion, Cadel was doing something pointless out of guilt for failing to protect his subordinate. There was no point in catering to Cadel’s stubbornness, then.
“Don’t waste your time and let’s go back.”
While their conclusions were different, Van and Lumen were on the same page. For now, they decided to reorganize rather than search.
However, Cadel said.
“I’m the one who hates wasting time right now, Lumen
“But I have to do it. I have no choice.”
Even though Cadel knew this was a task that would put his body through the wringer for no result, he couldn’t stop.
「Time remaining 13 : 41 : 48」
If he decided to retreat here and take a rest, he would be able to stock up on his stamina. However, the remaining time would be greatly reduced. Even with the shortest of breaks, he would have about 6 hours left.
In that remaining time, they must resume the search and find the demon that left no trace. Even if they found the demon, it was unclear whether or not they could defeat him in time. There was also the possibility that the demon would take Lydon hostage to stall for time.
If the countdown ended in vain like that.
“The monsterization of the villagers is underway.”
He hadn’t shared this information with Van and Lumen yet. They each had their own favors to ask, and since the end goal of getting rid of the demon was the same, he figured it didn’t matter when he told them.
Cadel looked back at his two subordinates who were in bewilderment.
“That’s what Lydon told me last night. The demon has been poisoning the villagers to gain power. Human healing technique can’t detoxify it, and the only solution is to kill the demon before the monsterization is completed.”
There was a brief silence. As if it were difficult to accept the sudden information, both were unable to speak easily.
Lumen was the first to speak up.
“Why are you talking about such an important thing now? If you told me right away last night, I could have asked for more reinforcements. And it would have saved us time if we had broadened the search significantly from the start.”
He frowned slightly. His tone was sharp as if he could not understand why Cadel was only now bringing it up.
“The source of the information is Lydon. Human monsterization is a phenomenon that has never been revealed. To explain it, you’ll inevitably have to bring out the fairies, but Lydon should not be known to the public yet. The goal was to wipe out the demon. If I let you know first, things might get messed up, so…….”
“So Leader withheld information from even those who trusted and followed you? What a wise man. By your own judgment, you and Lydon were defeated by the demon. Was it all Leader’s calculation?”
“I was going to hold out until reinforcements arrived, and while it was certainly out of the question that I fell down before then, I wasn’t going to hide it until the end―”
“It was important information. If it had to be hidden because of Lydon’s identity, the least Leader could do was to inform the members who already knew Lydon’s identity.”
Lumen’s gaze grew harsh. When Cadel flinched at the unexpected fierce reaction, Van stood in front of him. His gaze toward Lumen was grim.
“Watch your tongue, Lumen.”
“Get out of the way.”
“Don’t approach Commander anymore.”
As Van furiously pushed Lumen’s shoulder as he approached, Lumen nervously shook off the touch. His blue eyes were filled with a mix of complicated emotions that could not be described in words.
“You are so benevolent and generous, huh. You’ve been next to him for so long, and he hasn’t shared any important information with you. You must be used to relationships without trust?”
“I thought I told you not to talk down to me.”
Staring at the broad back that blocked his way, Cadel pursed his lips.
‘……I made a mistake.’
The moment he met Lumen’s icy gaze upon him, he realized the obvious mistake in hindsight.
He didn’t even know what was wrong until Lumen got angry. Because this information, which should have been given to them, was the ‘penalty’ of the quest.
Penalties were always the worst prediction he had to bear alone. A special secret, known only to him, the only stranger in the world. Of course, he didn’t revel in it. However, he thought the burden of the penalty was his alone. Unless, like Lydon, who already knew, but the rest of his subordinates…… He thought it didn’t matter if they didn’t know.
It was up to him to plan and fight to avoid the penalty. He had the most dangerous conceit that a leader who leads a group should not have.
‘Was I pretending to be the protagonist because I transmigrated into the protagonist? I’ve been getting help so far.’
Somewhere in the back of his mind, he still viewed this world as a ‘made-up story’. He could gather his knights, build up their favorability, harness their power, and that would be the end of it. He saw his trusted subordinates as mere tools.
It was a self-destructive conclusion. But if not, why was he sitting on the sidelines, monopolizing information and planning for failure?
‘It’s the worst.’
The two men in front of him were the only ones Cadel could trust in this world that had become another reality. It was painful to disappoint them.
“It’s a moment to be a fool. How pathetic must they have looked to retreat and go to sleep when the villagers might turn into monsters any minute?”
“If a punch is what it needs to shut you up, then I’ll gladly do it.”
The murderous Van raised his hand to the hilt of his greatsword. There was a hideous atmosphere between the two that it wouldn’t be strange if they attacked each other immediately.
And Cadel carefully clutched Van’s shoulder.
“That’s enough, Van. This is because I made a mistake.”
When he smiled lightly, Van stepped back as if he couldn’t help it. Cadel stood between the two subordinates and took a small breath. Lumen’s approaching gaze stung.
“I’m sorry. I should have told you first, as you said. I was out of my mind, I was gonna tell you later…… I won’t make such lame excuses. But…….”
Cadel looked alternately at Lumen and Van.
“It’s not that I didn’t tell you because I didn’t trust you. It’s just…… It’s my problem. It’s my fault.”
“You don’t have to apologize, Commander. You didn’t mean to hide it until the end―”
“Let me apologize. I said I was entrusting you with the care of the villagers because I trusted you, but I didn’t tell you that they might turn into monsters. You can be mad at me, Van.”
Van fidgeted in front of Cadel, who apologized earnestly. His hands hovered in the air, unable to reach him.
“I’m sorry, Lumen. You must have had a hard time bringing in the Twilight Knight Order. If I had informed you in advance, I could have done a better job.”
“I’m not looking for an apology, but rather…….”
Lumen, who blurred the end of his speech, ruffled his hair irritably. He stared into space for a moment, as if trying to cool off, then slowly opened his mouth.
“Maybe I’m not that dependable.”
“You know that’s not true.”
“I don’t know that.”
The gaze that came back was just hot, unlike the first time. A maelstrom of intense emotion flashed across his once impassive face.
It was only for a moment that the emotions that seemed like boiling lava disappeared. Lumen quickly calmed his eyes and said.
“Knowing enough that time is running out, you two continue the search. I’ll pass this information on to the Knight Order. They won’t stand still when the villagers are turning into monsters.”
“You’re gonna tell the Knight Order?”
“Don’t worry. I won’t bring up Lydon. I’ll just say it was something Leader had heard when you fought the demon, and it came back to you afterward.”
Lumen turned his back resolutely. Cadel stared after him as he walked away without hesitation, then ran after Lumen, terrified by the stark shadow as he disappeared into the darkness.
Lumen stopped in his tracks at the urgent call. Cadel tugged on his arm.
“……What is it?”
Cadel rummaged in his arms and placed something on Lumen’s hand.
It was a ring. He squeezed Lumen’s wrist as he stared down at the ring.
“You’ll need it to come back.”
There was no answer. The silence hung heavy, and Cadel felt a sudden sense of unease. The moment he tried to part his lips again to say something, Lumen pulled his wrist free and slipped the ring on his middle finger.
The cold, emotionless face slowly turned. Into Cadel’s ears, a quiet voice penetrated.
“I’m not leaving, so don’t make that face.”
Lumen turned and headed back toward Baskin Village. Staring at the spot where he had disappeared, Cadel sighed and swept a hand over his face.