After their sudden encounter with a monster in human skin, the expedition team decided to retreat to the second floor for Snowy Mountain’s injury even though the situation was hectic. With one hand amputated, his injury appeared quite serious. Chi-Woo looked worriedly at him, but Snowy Mountain and even Hawa appeared calm about his injury.
“Didn’t we see a lab earlier? Why don’t we go there first?” Shadia spoke up, superseding the guide’s authority, but Nangnang didn’t disagree and led them to the place. He knew Shadia intended to treat Snowy Mountain there. The role Shadia played in the team was the mage as well as the healer, and for all matters relevant to her role, the guide had to follow her suggestions.
Soon afterward, the team returned to what looked like a lab with Nangnang’s guidance. They had already searched the room before, and Shadia quickly began her preparations. Although the whole place was in a mess, she managed to find a cauldron. She took out a tree branch from her bag and started a fire before making a rod to hang the cauldron above it.
“It would have been nice if you had prepared beforehand.”
“I finished the preparations. I just have to do the finishing touches.”
Shadia responded to Nangnang by pouring a greenish liquid into the cauldron.
“The medicine is most effective when I make it on the spot. Then…”
Shadia looked around and asked for a clean cloth. Hawa handed her one. Shadia spoke while rolling it, “I need to use this, or else it will get quite loud.”
“Thank you for the consideration, but it’s not necessary,” Snowy Mountain firmly said. “I’m used to pain.”
“What are you talking about? I don’t mean to have you use it. It’s for me.”
Snowy Mountain’s eyes widened. True to her words, Shadia crumpled a piece of cloth and stuffed it into her own mouth. And as if that wasn’t enough, she rolled the edges of the cloth in so that none of its parts would peek out. Chi-Woo stared blankly while wondering what she was doing. Then his eyes widened as well in shock.
After a few deep breaths, Shadia placed both of her hands on top of her head and clutched onto the ginseng in the shape of a human. Then she pulled on it with all her might.
“Urgh, buuuuugh!” While letting out a repressed scream, Shadia gradually extracted the ginseng from the top of her head. Her eyes widened and became bloodshot.
“Muuuuuuugh!” Even though she had thoroughly muffled herself, part of her scream still escaped her mouth. It was a trickle at first. Then the scream poured out before coming to a sudden halt, and Shadia’s eyes returned to normal.
“Buuugh—” Shadia let out the breath she had been holding in and loosened the cloth she had been tightly biting down on. The cloth was soaked in her salvia after she spat it out.
“What are you all staring at me for? Is it your first time seeing someone pull out a mandragora?” she asked. Then, as if nothing had happened, she dropped the mandragora she extracted into the boiling cauldron. Chi-Woo was still visibly reeling from the severe culture shock. Then he realized his reaction could be disrespectful to Shadia, and her action might not be a big deal to heroes. However, that didn’t seem to solely be the case. Nangnang looked completely speechless, Snowy Mountains’ face hardened, and Hawa was on her toes, seemingly curious about the state of the top of Shadia’s head.
“…The universe sure is big,” Nangnang said in amazement. And while everyone was dazed, Shadia hummed as she stirred the pot. The ingredients she had put inside boiled and create thick steam before turning a light neon green. Then Shadia cooled it off, and the medicine was done.
“Although I’m only regenerating a hand, I made a lot since your body is big,” Shadia said while pouring a good amount of thick liquid into a large basin. In Snowy Mountain’s large hands, the basin appeared like a normal-sized cup. He fumbled with the cup and hesitated, but when Shadia egged him to quickly drink up, he closed his eyes tightly shut and drank it all in one gulp.
“It’s all good now. Just wait a bit. The medicine will take effect soon,” Shadia told him.
Chi-Woo looked at Snowy Mountain pitifully, as the giant looked like he had an upset stomach.
Crunch! Like Shadia said, they soon got a signal in the form of a cracking sound coming from Snowy Mountain’s wrist. His severed bones seemed to be growing like a tree branch. White sprouts emerged and became larger. Soon, it took the form of bones, and boiling foams began to form around the surface. Sometime later, skin and muscle grew and enveloped the bones before taking the shape of a hand, and soon enough a dense layer of white fur grew to cover it. It was a miracle that couldn’t be explained with modern technology.
“How is it?” Shadia placed both hands on her waist and tipped her chin to prompt a response.
Snowy Mountain clenched and unclenched his fist repeatedly with an awkward expression and nodded. “It’s much better than a priest’s treatment.”
“Fu, fu. You should consider yourself lucky,” Shadia said proudly while rubbing her now empty head. “I had kept this one for a pretty long time.”
“Does that grow again?”
“Of course. Since it grows through the nutrients of my mana, in my current condition, well, it might take a bit of time to regrow it.”
“Oh…” It seemed Nangnang had changed his opinion of her after witnessing the effects of the treatment. He looked quite interested.
“I’m going to store the remaining liquid in a bottle, but I can’t guarantee that it will have the same medicinal effect as time passes. You all should try not to get injured as much as possible.” After cleaning up the area, Shadia asked, “Well then, what are we going to do now?”
Nangnang crossed his arms. He seemed to be deeply in thought. “A monster in the form of a human… Although I have some guesses…”
At first, they had thought the girl was connected to the Salem Academy. After all, according to Shadia’s theory, it wasn’t unbelievable that there would still be survivors. However, the girl was actually a monster in human skin. They could only guess what the monster was. According to the records, Salem Academy had become the realm of another world. It stood to reason that there would be creatures from that world as well. Perhaps they were the ones who had eaten the Salem Academy’s survivors. That would make sense of everything, but it was too soon to draw conclusions.
“Looking from the outside, this building has a total of four floors,” Nangnang said while licking his paws where sharp claws had sprouted. “I think more information will help cement our speculations. We already healed Snowy Mountain’s injury and know how to react now. I suggest that we go back to the third floor and recommence our investigation.” Nangnang turned to Chi-Woo for his opinion. Chi-Woo quietly nodded, and thus, the expedition team left the lab.
—You guys are doing well. Let’s just go this time.
—It seems that guy, Eval picked your teammates well. And them being heroes might have made them easier to deal with.
—This is the reason why you recruited companions in the first place. You shouldn’t try to do anything. Since it’s your first time doing something like this, stay your hand and watch and learn until your group needs your power.
They would need Chi-Woo in situations where they had to fight an evil entity. Chi-Woo had the ability to exert absolute superiority over all evil. It was obvious that there was no guarantee Chi-Woo’s authority would work on a mysterious creature. Chi-Woo murmured to himself, wondering if his powers would ever become necessary, before looking back up. They began ascending the stairs to return to the third floor.
* * *
As planned, they started exploring the third floor at a noticeably slower rate than when they investigated the first and second floors. Since they had made first contact with an unknown monster, Nangnang’s guard was at its peak. However, their efforts were in vain, as nothing appeared on the third floor or the fourth floor, which was the top floor. The building was quiet to the point of eeriness.
“…This is strange.” Nangnang didn’t look pleased. They had gained some information while coming to the fourth floor and made several reasonable conjectures with what they had learned so far; however, none of them matched their current situation. If they had discovered a couple of monster corpses, they wouldn’t be as suspicious as they were now.
“I think…” Halfway into the hallway, Nangnang turned to look at Shadia and softly said, “A variable must have appeared.”
“What? A variable?” Shadia looked at Nangnang with a quizzical expression, wondering why he was specifically looking at her. “Ah.” Something came to her mind, and she fell deep into thought. She recalled what she had said previously, or to be more precise, when Eshnunna first opened the barrier. “Yeah. There was a part of the barrier with weird mana flow…”
“The current situation may be related to that, or it may not be relevant at all. What we can say for sure is that the variable is something we don’t know about.” Nangnang continued, “I have no idea how we can use this variable to our advantage.”
A variable was not always bad; there were definitely times when a variable turned out beneficial to the person using it. “Hmmm. No matter how I look at it, the current situation doesn’t match the information we have. That means a variable has changed the relationship between these two…”
Nangnang suddenly stopped murmuring, and his eyes narrowed as he looked at the end of the hallway. The structure of the building that they were investigating was very simple. Each floor had a staircase that went to the upper floor in the center, and on each side of the staircase was a passageway. From the outside, there seemed to be a total of four floors in the building, and the floor that the expedition team was on was the fourth. Thus, there should be no going further up, and the staircase indeed stopped on the fourth floor. However, there were steps leading upwards at the end of the hallway.
This could mean only one thing.
“It’s the rooftop.” The fact that there was a path leading to the rooftop wasn’t a problem. However, there was something seriously off-putting about it. Nangnang continued, “…The smell.” A strong, metallic odor had wafted down from the top of the stairs and settled. In fact, they could smell the change at some point after reaching the fourth floor.
“It reeks of blood. It’s much stronger than what I smelled at the entrance.” Nangnang twitched his nose and turned back to ask for Chi-Woo’s opinion. There was definitely something ominous on the building’s rooftop.
Chi-Woo’s expression stiffened as he curtly replied, “Let’s climb up.”
Nangnang immediately turned around and climbed up. Ascending the stairs, they made a 90-degree turn and saw an iron gate. Their expressions darkened as an extremely pungent smell that was hard to endure wafted to their nose.
“It reached all the way here.” The steps were covered in blood, and there was so much blood that it even seeped under the iron gate. “I’m going to open it.” Snowy Mountain stood in the front, and Nangnang opened the door.
Everyone looked forward with their guards up, visibly tense. It didn’t take long for them to see what was on the other side.
None of them said anything, but their brows were all furrowed into a deep frown. What they saw matched their expectations. The spacious rooftop was bright red against the black, open sky. There were corpses sprawled everywhere, not only of humans, but monsters who used to be in human form as well. They had been eaten by a foreign creature, and only their shells had been left behind. It wasn’t an exaggeration to call the macabre scene before them a feast of blood. Moreover, the bodies were not scattered randomly, but arranged at set intervals. A geometric pattern had been drawn on the roof floor with the now coagulated blood. It was way too grotesque for it to be a simple act of malice.
“…I can’t believe it…” Nangnang gaped with a blank expression. Not only were there human corpses, but corpses of the unknown monsters as well. All of them had been horrendously killed. Who in the world did this? For what purpose? The answer to these questions was in the center of the rooftop.
There was a creature that looked too bizarre to be a human. He sat on top of an enormous pile of corpses with his chin propped up on one hand, as if he was deep in contemplation like Rodin’s ‘The Thinker’.
“…I don’t know.”
From the neck down, the naked creature looked definitely human, but he had a tawny owl head, like a man wearing the head of a stuffed animal. Moreover, he had wings like angels.
“I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.” The mysterious owl-headed creature blinked and endlessly muttered. “What I should do—” He looked over his shoulder at the entrance, meeting the eyes of those in the expedition team.
Chi-Woo heard Philip’s voice.
–…Why is that bast…guy here?
Chi-Woo glanced at the now deeply frowning Philip. It sounded like he knew who that owl monster was. A short silence followed their meet of gaze before the monster spoke up again, breaking the silence.
“…It’s really a unique combination,” said the tawny owl monster. “An union between humankind and the indigenous monsters. Did they form an alliance? No. Humankind is already walking towards extinction. But…” The owl monster tilted his head for a while and sighed. “Whatever happened, it’s pointless to keep thinking about it in this situation.”
He got up and walked down the pile of corpses. He looked extremely lethargic and bored to the extent that he looked weary. “Given the situation, I’ll put personal matters to the side.” Judging by his tone, it sounded as if he was doing a great favor for the expedition team.
The owl monster came up to them and asked, “Tell me, how did you get here?”
The expedition team was silent. They wondered how they should reply. Even though the being before them was certainly a monster, he was trying to talk to them. Should they just start fighting, or should they respond to the offer of a conversation? The decision lay with the leader of this expedition.
Thus, Chi-Woo first raised his voice and asked, “Who are you?”
“…Me?” The owl monster blinked. “Hmm…now that I think about it, I haven’t introduced myself.” He fixed his posture and put one hand on his chest. “Let everything be decided by a fight. I’m the Marquis of the Great Demon Empire, and....” He revealed his identity with extreme politeness. “I’m the 63rd demon of the 66 chosen demons, High Demon Andras.”