The northern part of the Eastern continent.
There was a mountain range here that blocked the cold air that came down all year long from the tip of the northern region that was covered in ice.
The Mercenary King who was climbing the tallest mountain in that mountain range could not help but swear.
The White Star’s second secret base would appear once they climbed over this mountain.
So, why were they walking so slowly?
Bud Illis was slowly climbing the mountain at a speed that he thought was too slow.
An Elf walked up next to him and started to speak.
“Please be patient.”
“…I need to be patient, but it is frustrating.”
It was at that moment.
A light breeze brushed past him.
Both Bud and the Elf next to him stopped moving.
The breeze stopped next to the Elf.
“The thirty-first message.”
The Wind Elemental delivered a message to its contracted Elf. The Elf then immediately relayed the message to Bud.
“Squad leader Sorros in the west. No abnormalities discovered. No life forms discovered.”
The Elf raised his hand.
Leaves fluttered in the air. Bud observed what was going on.
There were still a lot of trees around them as they had not reached the snowy portions.
Numerous pairs of eyes started to appear and look at Bud.
As all pairs of eyes blinked once…
The Elf next to Bud started to speak.
“Everything seems normal.”
There were Elves surrounding the mountain from East to West as they climbed the mountain together.
They were looking for traces of the 1,001 Ranger Brigade and the enemies.
Bud subconsciously let out a sigh.
‘It’s too slow.’
He was wrong.
It was not slow at all.
They had already reached the middle of the mountain that the Ranger Brigade had climbed.
They would soon arrive at the spot that they believed the Ranger Brigade was located before they lost contact.
However, their movements just felt as slow as a turtle to Bud.
He pounded his chest in frustration.
It might take months if he tried to investigate with just the people from the Mercenaries Guild.
Of course, it would not take very long if they charged straight into Arm’s second secret base.
However, 1,001 people had instantly disappeared without a trace.
He needed to figure out what happened.
He couldn’t save them otherwise.
However, he had a bad feeling that the chances of the Ranger Brigade members being alive decreased the longer they took.
He was starting to get anxious.
‘…Glenn will soon come to the north.’
Highest-grade mage Glenn Poeff was Bud’s close friend and one of the core members of the Mercenaries Guild.
He would soon come with the core members of the Mercenaries Guild. They would wait for the Mercenary King’s orders to save their peers and get revenge.
Some people might find it weird that mercenaries were taking action for their peers, but they believed in friendship as well.
This was especially true for the guild’s core members who knew the importance of the Ranger Brigade for the Mercenaries Guild’s future.
That was why they could not just do nothing.
But the Mercenary King needed to give them some information first.
However, for some odd reason…
There was nothing there.
They had climbed up to the middle of the mountain, but there were no traces at all.
How was this possible?
“Mercenary King-nim. I will let the eastern search team know that everything is fine here.”
Bud started to speak after hearing the Elf’s statement. They needed to send their status to the east as well.
Bud responded to the thirty-first report with a tired face.
“Yes, sir. There’s nothing anyway and all we can hear are the animals-”
Bud’s eyes opened wide.
He raised his hand to cover the Elf’s mouth and looked around. It was almost afternoon but the ground was dark because of the tall trees.
Bud looked around the dark forest and slowly started to speak.
“…Have you seen any wild animals?”
“Excuse me? We’ve heard a lot of wild anim-!”
The Elf stopped mid-sentence and opened his eyes wide.
“Quietly! Please speak quietly!”
Bud whispered in a quiet but firm voice in the Elf’s ear.
The Elf responded in a quiet voice as well. He realized what Bud was trying to say.
“…We haven’t actually seen any wild animals.”
Normally, people searching like this became most anxious and wary when they didn’t hear anything.
There were bound to be forests even in a snow-covered mountain full of life forms.
Animals ranging from small herbivores to wild predators would have their homes and live with their own sets of rules.
The Elves, Bud, and the Elementals had heard many different cries that they believed belonged to the animals living on this mountain.
That was why they expected that they were somewhere on the mountain.
Bud’s gaze sank down. He mumbled very quietly.
“We made a mistake.”
Yes, they had made a mistake.
“We haven’t seen any animals.”
Bud turned around and put his hand on the Elf’s shoulder.
“Immediately. Contact the west team immediately.”
His eyes were scanning the area nonstop unlike his hand on the Elf’s shoulder.
“We are retreating.”
Bud quieted the Elf who was about to raise his voice. The Elf was looking at Bud with a gaze that was asking what he was talking about.
Wasn’t he the one who was just complaining that the search speed was too slow just now?
“Mercenary King-nim, retreating-”
Bud’s gaze sparkled.
“We haven’t seen any living life forms on this mountain. Well, other than us.”
The Elf turned pale.
They haven’t seen any life forms other than themselves.
There weren’t even any insects.
They only heard them.
They were focused on looking for the search team that they were relieved just to hear the noises.
However, seeing them was important as well.
“Immediately! I will immediately share this information with them!”
Bud quieted the Elf again.
The Elf felt a gust of wind surrounding Bud at that moment. He subconsciously started to frown. The wind by Bud’s side was not the type of wind the Elf usually felt.
It was neither the wind of an Elemental nor a natural wind.
It was an ancient power.
Bud was currently using his ancient power.
His wind attribute ancient power allowed him to tell a person’s demeanor or ability by scent or noise.
He was using that right now.
Boom. Boom. Boom.
Bud could feel his heart beating wildly.
‘Please be wrong. Please let me be wrong.’
His mind was currently full of information about the battles against the White Star until now.
“…I can smell it.”
He could not see anything.
But he could smell people, no, the smell of people’s abilities.
There were not just one or two of them.
There were a large number of people.
However, the only one he could see was the Elf.
But ancient powers did not lie.
He could not see people.
That meant that what Bud was seeing right now was fake.
‘There was more than one Illusionist?’
He released his grip on the Elf’s shoulder.
He then started to speak.
“Inform all search members.”
He looked forward and continued to speak.
“We are retreating immediately.”
A sharp sword came out of his scabbard.
Blue aura shot out at the same time.
“And prepare for enemies we cannot see that may attack us.”
The Elf next to Bud urgently gave an order to his Wind Elemental.
The numerous pairs of eyes looking at Bud opened wide or shook.
Enemies they could not see.
“There are at least a couple hundred of them.”
Familiar scents covering the entire mountain filled Bud’s nose.
People who had this type of smell were usually-
“They should be assassins.”
One of the hidden enemies moved at that moment.
Bud saw his surroundings breaking as if they were made of glass. He then saw an assassin in Arm’s uniform charging toward him.
The assassin flung his dagger at Bud. Bud swung his sword and glared at the person wearing the black outfit.
Two daggers flew away after hitting Bud’s aura as Bud raised his voice.
“You must be the bastards who chose to become the White Star’s dogs!”
Bud was familiar with the dagger attacking method used against him.
That highest-grade mage was a member of the Poeff household that used to be one of the Eastern continent’s greatest underworld households. He had seen Glenn practicing his family’s dagger techniques in the past.
He was seeing the same thing in front of him right now.
His surroundings were crumbling.
No, the illusion was breaking.
He could now see the truth.
He could see hundreds of assassins wearing black outfits in the forest.
Just like how some assassins had gathered under the revived Molan household, there were some who chose to serve the White Star in Arm.
Those people had groomed new subordinates during the past fifteen years as Arm grew its numbers.
Those people had been hiding in the illusion and waiting for them.
Bud’s eyes were full of rage.
The forest was red.
The scent of blood was gone, but many parts of the forest were red.
Whose blood would that be?
He thought about his subordinates. He held back the flame of anger inside him and started to shout.
“I said to retreat!”
The Elves finally started to retreat in shock.
“Just how many people did they station here?!”
There were hundreds of assassins in front of him and that number was continuing to increase.
This probably meant that there were a significant number of assassins throughout the mountain.
The Elves started to frown as they tried to retreat.
They saw assassins in the rear as well.
They were all Arm members.
Bud scoffed in disbelief.
He realized where they had gotten such a large number of people.
“…I guess they called over every single bastard in the Eastern continent’s branches.”
The Molan household had destroyed one of Arm’s secret bases and taken it back, but Arm still had numerous branches, albeit less than the Mercenaries Guild, throughout the Eastern continent.
This number made sense if he added the number of people at all those branches together.
“Mercenary King-nim! It’ll be difficult to retreat like this!”
He heard the Elf’s anxious voice. It could not be helped. Although there were hundreds of Elves throughout the mountain, there were at least a few thousand of enemies here as well.
It was also possible that their every movement had been seen by the enemies as well.
Bud took a deep breath.
He then blinked once.
His gaze headed toward the peak of the mountain.
He smelled it from the area that was covered in white snow.
It was an odd scent he had never smelled before that was different than the assassins.
He was certain that it was the Illusionist.
If not, it was probably at least the bastard who planned this whole thing.
“Follow me. We are charging past them.”
Bud kicked off the ground. He was moving in the front. The assassins charged toward him at the same time.
The Elves took out their weapons as well and their Elementals moved with them.
Bud shouted toward the Elf next to him.
“Please launch a signal in the sky immediately! Also-”
Launch a signal for Glenn who was at the bottom of the mountain to see.
Bud hesitated before finishing his sentence.
“We need to let Cale Henituse know about the current situation.”
His gaze headed to the mountain’s peak that was completely white.
* * *
“Hmm… It was broken earlier than I expected.”
At the mountain peak…
The individual who sat down on the snow-covered ground repeatedly threw something in his hand in the air and caught it as he looked down the mountain.
“Should I inform the liege?”
The thing in his hand that he was throwing and catching like a toy was a black heart.
It was a heart that was as black as dead mana.
“…Mm. Probably? We’ve already gathered all the seeds with those who have not been chosen by the gods.”
A thick smile appeared on the boy’s face.
The black heart was still in the boy’s hand as if it was a toy.
* * *
“…You want this thing?”
Cale confidently reached his hand out toward Pendrick.
The fake World Tree made it so that Cale could easily move his hand.
“I thought it was for me.”
“That is true, but…”
Pendrick had an awkward expression on his face as he handed the Sword of the World Tree over to Cale.
He then shared what the World Tree had told him.
“The World Tree-nim said that young master-nim’s blood is special.”
Cale and Choi Han both looked at Pendrick in confusion.
Pendrick peeked at the maze that was turning into a mess and quickly whispered.
“Yes, sir. She said that your blood has more life force and vitality than anyone else. That is why she said that Cale-nim’s blood was the perfect weapon against those with weak vigor or vitality.”
Cale recalled a thought he had in the past.
There was a power that opposed dead mana.
It was life force.
When fighting against dead mana, the stupidest and most dangerous yet easiest method was to cover your entire body with blood and charge against the dead mana.
Of course, most people were likely to die from a loss of blood first.
Boom. Boom. Boom.
Cale felt his heart beating wildly for some reason.