* * *
The handling of the monsters was left to Lydon. It was still too early to prepare for the failure, so he hastened to stabilize Van. Cadel found Van in the darkness, a single shadow that could no longer be seen as an aura. Responding to Cadel’s voice, Van stopped swinging his greatsword.
Beyond his stiffly turned head, an intense desire to kill flooded him.
Van looked at Cadel’s face and said nothing. The arm that held the greatsword twitched as if impatient to swing it again.
“No more fighting. It’s all settled. Calm down, and let’s recall the aura as usual. You can do it, right?”
There was no reply. His jet-black pupils flickered briefly, and then he turned his head away, finishing off the swing of his greatsword.
What he slashed at was the corpse of a monster that had already died and fallen. A gush of blood splashed out, staining Van’s face once more, which was now covered in blood.
“If I kill all of them…… Commander will be pleased.”
“You’ll love it, right?”
The harsh voice scratching at his throat was unfamiliar. He pressed the tip of his greatsword against the corpse’s abdomen and drew in a sharp breath. Then he groaned, his forehead pressed to his hands as a strange desire overtook his reason.
“……Don’t come near me.”
He was in a state of flux. He knew he had to get the aura off, but he couldn’t seem to get it under control.
Cadel approached cautiously, not wanting to catch Van off guard. Slowly, he reached out and placed his hand on the firmly bulging forearm, causing a small shiver to run down Van’s spine.
“Van. Look at me.”
“I said don’t come near me.”
Cadel didn’t know what to do to stop the rampage. No, was it possible to subdue it with the power of others in the first place?
Despite his doubts, Cadel tried to reverse Van’s condition somehow. The hand on Van’s arm forced him to turn, revealing a pained, contorted face. Van’s eyes met Cadel’s, revealing and concealing a ghastly murderous look.
“We were able to come this far thanks to you. You played your role perfectly. You don’t have to push yourself any further than this. So now…….”
Cadel addressed Van as calmly as he could. There was still time to reason with him, still time to persuade him. This man was always receptive to his words.
But before he could finish his sentence, Van grabbed him by the scruff of the neck. Cadel yelped, his eyes widening at the momentary obstruction.
Van’s pupils narrowed, and the black vortex that filled them didn’t even illuminate the Cadel in front of him.
“Commander wants someone strong, and I can be that person right now.”
“Va, Van……! Let go of me!”
No matter how much Cadel clawed and pushed, it was no use. The feral gaze stared at him intently, ready to chew him up and swallow him whole.
“Just a little bit, just a little bit more blood…….”
Van’s crooked gaze slowly turned downward. The face white as death, the eyes distorted in disbelief, the lips parted as if to draw in a breath of air. The crimson tongue twitched convulsively inside the gaping mouth.
All of that, stimulated Van’s nerves.
No clawing sensation on the back of his hand, no muffled groan. Ignoring the desperate struggle, Van forced his arm to lift Cadel into the air.
Floating in midair, Cadel flailed his legs, unsure of what to do. There was no oxygen to his brain. His vision blurred, and his strength drained from his body.
Van looked at Cadel’s face, which was getting redder and redder, as if appreciating it. When he lifted Cadel up like this, they were finally at eye level. Van raked his fingers greedily over the corners of Cadel’s eyes, which were damp with tears, and then suddenly jerked his head up to bite Cadel’s lower lip.
In an unexpected turn of events, Cadel widened his eyes, which couldn’t be any wider. There was a ghastly snap, and bitter pain radiated from his bitten lip.
His vision went white. Something wet and slimy pressed hard against the gaping wound, and the taste of fishy iron lingered on the tip of his tongue.
Cadel couldn’t discern what was happening to him, or what he was feeling, only that he was in agony. His breath caught in his throat, his lips ached, and his head felt like it was going to explode with the surge of blood.
The moment he thought he might die like that.
Van’s body shuddered as if in a seizure, and his grip on Cadel loosened. With a ragged gasp, Cadel clutched at his throat and glared at Van through bloodshot eyes.
Blue electric current pulsed from his other hand.
“Watch what you’re saying, you *sshole. Awakening or whatever, I can still grill you whole like barbecue.”
Van’s body shuddered in the aftermath of the electric shock. His black aura swirled wildly as he shook. Cadel still hadn’t withdrawn the current, and he eyed Van with a wary expression on his face.
‘……The aura has faded a bit.’
The black vortex that filled Van’s eyes thinned in color as well, perhaps because of the shock.
‘Should I just stun him? Then won’t the rampage stop on its own?’
His lip was still throbbing. He never thought he’d have his lips bitten off by someone in his life, and he was shocked to think of it again. He felt betrayed, like he’d been attacked out of nowhere by his beloved dog.
Cadel rubbed his stinging lips and looked away.
“Look at the person in front of you. I’m not a bone to pick, I’m your commander.”
“Com, man, der…….”
Clutching his head in agony, Van stammered. The more he tried to rebel against the power within him, the more furiously the aura around him rejected him.
‘His state is too unstable.’
It was because he ignored the signs of the rampage and continued the unreasonable battle. He did not know that the cause was himself.
‘Maybe it’s better to stun him after all.’
At this rate, going out of control was only a matter of time. As it was an Awakening Quest, Cadel hoped Van would overcome the difficulties on his own, but the risk of failing to do so was too great. Therefore, wouldn’t it be a priority to stop the rampage in any form?
When Cadel started thinking about how to subdue Van.
Snow fell from the sky.
Reflexively, Cadel looked up to see Lydon surrounded by a dark blue aura of mana. He was at the center of the blizzard. A bitter cold wave raged alongside the growing blizzard.
The temperature dropped in an instant. As he turned his gaze away from the fog in front of him, he soon noticed the strange movement of the snowflakes.
‘The snow is chasing the monsters.’
Surprisingly, the snowflakes were completely bypassing Cadel and Van. Their destination was above the scattered monsters.
Kadell drew a barrier of fire over Van and himself, just in case, and watched Lydon’s magic.
The flurry of snow, aimed precisely at the monsters, piled up on their shoulders and grew larger and larger. Curiously, there was no snow below their shoulders at all. All the snowflakes were concentrated near their heads.
The accumulated snow did not fall no matter how much the monsters shook their bodies. It was frozen. The snow did not budge even when they attacked it on their shoulders.
Delicate and fast. Snowflakes fell over their shoulders, covering their necks, ears, mouths and noses, eyes, and crowns. A perfect pile of snow swallowed their heads, each forming a circle.
There was a crunching sound as the snow was compressed. The monsters frantically punched themselves in the face, but their attacks were still unsuccessful. Soon, the solid snowdrift changed shape.
Snowflakes bloomed like lotuses with dew. The pure white snow gradually turned red.
The monsters’ screams were muffled. The snow on their heads blocked out all sound, so they could only stomp their feet and struggle, unable to utter a single groan.
Cadel swallowed hard as his eyes took in the strange beauty of the scene: the red lotus flowers that devoured the monsters’ heads, the picturesque snowfall, and the eerie silence.
‘This is the magic of a fairy whose power is sealed.’
Everything that he couldn’t care less about when dealing with Van fell down one after another under the spell of Lydon.
So this was what an S-grade knight can do. He felt more than excited, he felt uplifted. When Cadel looked up again, the blizzard was so intense that he could no longer see Lydon.
‘……I can’t let this opportunity go to waste.’
Cadel was awakened by this perfect magic spell.
There was no guarantee that stunning alone would completely eliminate the risk of going out of control. Van might not be staying still to be stunned, so here he needed to use a more reliable method to subdue his aura.
Cadel’s gaze turned to Van, who was on one knee in the barrier of fire, breathing heavily.
‘In the game, just feeding the necessary ingredients and the knights will awaken on their own. So, I don’t know what I should do here to stop Van’s rampage.’
The external shock of electric shock slightly faded the aura. If only he could give Van enough shock over and over again without making him resent Cadel.
Normally, in a situation like this, it would have been wise to say something nice or offer a heartfelt plea to wake up a knight on the verge of a rampage, but Cadel had neither the skill nor the time.
Cadel, saying truly and sincerely words right now? With the dwindling countdown, the swarming monster legion, and the core of Ergo, he just wanted to destroy everything.
‘So please come back, Van.’
Here, if Van was incapacitated, their losses were significant. Conversely, if Van succeeded in awakening, it could be a positive variable. A very hopeful variable.
Cadel bent one knee alongside Van’s and sank to the cold floor, then gingerly tugged on Van’s hand.
The stiff face slowly turned toward Cadel. As the electricity flowed through him, he felt a stinging pain and tried to pull his grip away. However, Cadel cupped his hand in both of Van’s, trying to make eye contact.
“I told you I wanted someone strong, right? That’s right, my dream is to create the best knight order, so, of course, I want the best knights.”
“That’s why I chose you.”
When he first chose the starting member, he selected the best of the best among the options given. The result was Van Herdos.
Cadel had never regretted his choice.
“Because you were the strongest warrior I could have. I wanted you first.”
“No matter what you look like, that fact doesn’t change, so you don’t have to push yourself. ……Of course, it would be a little bit of a problem if you turned into a man-eating beast.”
Don’t let too much electricity flow through him, just enough to make him aware of the stinging pain, just enough to make him feel an external jolt that brings him back to reality a little.
Cadel tightened his grip on Van’s hand, controlling his power as best he could. The black eyes staring back at him wavered slightly.
“I can…… be, stronger…….”
“I can…… protect Commander…….”
Even in this moment of barely maintaining his sanity, Van was still thinking of himself as the commander. Did Van think he has to protect Cadel because Cadel was not good enough? Or because he was just a filthy nice guy?
Though he couldn’t read his mind, Cadel vaguely suspected that Van’s outburst had something to do with him.
It was a strange feeling. That someone would cling so desperately to him, that a man who had everything, be it powers or looks, wanted to be recognized by him, to have the power to protect him.
He was thankful but also felt its heaviness.
“I’m strong enough that I don’t need to be protected by you…… Even if I told you, you wouldn’t listen. So I’ll make it clear.”
Cadel lifted a hand and cupped Van’s face. Gone was the sweet smile, replaced by a feral, menacing air. Cadel rubbed Van’s blood-stained cheek as if to wipe it away.
“If you really want to protect me, fight with your will.”
Part of him wanted to banish this unpleasant aura that had turned his subordinate into a beast, but that would be Van’s problem. He had to fight it off himself.
Cadel’s words must have gotten through, because Van’s face relaxed from its rigidity. Cadel watched wordlessly as the black vortex gradually blurred and the golden eyes beyond.
The black aura that had swelled to engulf Van was gone. His eyes, now back to their original color, reflected nothing but Cadel.
The aura had been lifted. The seeds of the rampage had stopped germinating. This eliminated the risk of that outrageous penalty.
‘I don’t see any notification that his grade has been upgraded, which means we have only avoided the worst of it, but we are still on the Awakening Quest.’
But that wasn’t Cadel’s jurisdiction. The awakening of ability was entirely up to Van.
Only then did Cadel, relieved, relax. And in front of the drooping Cadel, Van had a confused look on his face.
“Why am I here…….”
“……What? You bastard. You really don’t remember, or are you pretending you don’t?”
“Pardon? No, I…… I remember closing the barrier and going to Commander, but after that…….”
Van’s brows narrowed as if he were trying to recall somehow, but it didn’t seem to be working. The grunts and pained sounds on his face made Cadel realize that he was indeed back to his normal self.
‘Was it because he was on the verge of going out of control, all his memories were gone? Well, it was a close call.’
If the battle had continued without Lydon’s help, Van would go on a rampage in a short time. The mere imagination of it made Cadel dizzy.
Turning lightly, he shoved Van’s shoulder.
“It was very real, you. You see this?”
Cadel’s fingertips moved to his bitten lower lip. Van was stunned by the still-bloody wound, but hardened by his next words.
“You bit it off, and if you had been a little more stubborn, I could have been lipless for the rest of my life. Take responsibility, you little sh*t.”
After a long pause of disbelief, Van quickly covered his mouth. His ears turned bright red as he rolled to his feet and backed away. Clicking his tongue, he looked at Cadel as he scrambled to his feet, then with his voice stuck in his throat, he tried his best to mutter.
“I, I’ll take responsibility for it…….”