“Is it here”
“Yes, over there, past the bushes.”
Following Diana’s directions, Rosetta arrived at her destination.
With Diana still on her back, she headed towards the tall bushes and dense thicket that Diana was pointing at.
It was a great hiding place to hide someone from the eyes of both people and beasts.
Rosetta approached that spot, calling Alicia’s name.
Then, she slowly leaned down to clear out the bushes carefully.
No one’s there.
Rosetta and Diana’s expressions stiffened at the same moment, both at a loss for words.
The more surprised of the two was Diana.
“But surely… this is the right place…”
She stuttered in surprise, struggling to speak through her bruised throat.
And when she heard Diana’s flustered words by her ear, Rosetta’s brows became furrowed.
Behind the dense thicket, the people who were supposed to be here were not.
Then, something caught Rosetta’s eye amidst the shadows.
Rosetta reached out and touched it with one finger.
The wet texture reminiscent of rainwater was on her fingertip.
But as she retracted her hand and brought it to her eyes, a distinctly metallic scent reached her nose.
The liquid that was on her hand was red.
Rosetta stared at her hand with cold eyes, but soon, she rubbed her fingertips and stood up straight once more.
Above her tightly closed mouth, her sharp gaze looked around.
The forest surrounding the two young women was tranquil.
Trees swaying in the occasional breeze, the rain drizzling as it was.
The only ones making a slight noise were them.
Other than that, she couldn’t feel any signs or movements from a monster or a person.
Clenching her bloodstained hand, Rosetta again spoke through her tense lips.
Yet again, no one answered.
* * *
Around the time that the hunting festival began—
The emperor and the three dukes went back to the imperial palace first through their carriages.
It’s one of the long-standing traditions of the hunting festival for the emperor and the dukes to leave the hunting grounds once they had finished doing their roles here.
Rain had begun to fall some time ago, and so their travels had slowed down.
Even so, if their carriages continued trudging on, they would arrive at the imperial palace before sundown.
However, the lined-up carriages eventually failed to reach the imperial palace.
They had to stop in the middle.
A carrier bird with an urgent letter reached their procession, flying from the northern forest where the hunting festival was being held.
“HALT!” the emperor shouted.
The knight who first noticed the carrier bird immediately informed the emperor, and in turn, the emperor stopped all the carriages at once.
At the sudden disturbance, the three dukes hurriedly left their carriages and went to the emperor’s side.
Nervous energy could be felt all around as the situation had turned strange.
The pouring rain did nothing to alleviate the ominous tension in the air.
Upon receiving the letter from the knight, the emperor quickly read it.
At that moment, lightning struck.
Beneath the sudden outpour of light, the emperor’s violet eyes flashed dimly.
And in his tight grip, the soaked correspondence was crumpled helplessly.
The emperor turned to face the three dukes, then he spoke with a low voice.
“We need to go back.
There seems to be a problem at the hunting festival.”
That one word was too brief of a summary of what was happening, but what’s clear was this: something’s wrong.
There had never been a ‘problem’ at the hunting festival before.
“Is it an attack, sire” Duke Valentine asked, his tone of voice uncharacteristically stiff.
As the emperor agonized for a moment, he soon nodded gravely.
“Unidentified demonic beasts have appeared.
They’re calling in for reinforcements.”
“Are there many of them” inquired Duke Carter.
“That seems to be the case.
It’s said in the letter that there are already some casualties.”
“Goodness,” Duke Freesia exclaimed as he heard the emperor’s reply.
The emperor looked at the three dukes one after another, then he shouted out the window of the carriage.
“There is an attack at the hunting festival! Send a carrier bird right away—tell the Imperial Knights to convene and send reinforcements immediately. As for us, turn the carriages around and head back to the northern forest!”
The emperor’s fiery command rang out solemnly, and the knights and the coachmen began to move quickly.
The three dukes also bowed to the emperor and returned to their respective carriages in haste.
The carriages all turned around and, in perfect order, went back down the path they had treaded just before.
With the imperial carriage in front, House Carter and House Freesia’s carriages followed behind.
The only one that had yet to leave was House Valentine’s carriage, because the owner of the carriage was still not inside.
Duke Valentine stood beside the carriage, completely still beneath the rain’s downpour.
His clear, golden eyes stared at the path that he had just passed.
And at the end of his gaze was the northern forest.
All his children were there.
Their faces flashed through his mind one by one.
“Your Grace, you must get on!”
One of House Valentine’s knights, who was waiting on horseback, spoke to the duke in a hurry.
Inwardly, he wanted to ask why the duke was just watching the other carriages moving away.
Then, the duke’s eyes turned to the knight.
When the intense, golden eyes met with his, the knight couldn’t help but gulp.
The duke’s surrounding atmosphere was incredibly severe.
As if the knight had been thrown in front of an enraged beast, no weapons at all.
The duke did not answer and instead tapped the empty carriage that was waiting for him.
The knights of House Valentine, as they were waiting around the carriage, looked at him in unison.
“Everyone, head for the northern forest as fast as you possibly can.”
He spoke not in a loud voice, but the pressure they all felt was enormous.
That was all that the duke said.
After saying so, he did not get into the carriage.
He started walking forward.
A golden energy rose around his body.
The knights stood there and stared for a moment, taking in the rare sight.
As their gazes hurriedly followed, the duke’s steps gradually accelerated.
Quite literally, he looked like he was walking rather than running to the naked eye, but his speed did not match this.
It only took ten steps for him to overtake the imperial knights at the vanguard.
Everyone was shellshocked by this astounding speed.
Behind the rapidly moving man’s back, the afterimage of his aura left a golden trajectory.
It shone clearly even after the duke had already gone farther ahead.
The knights and the coachmen urged their horses to gallop along this trail.
The strong downpour made it difficult for everyone to see what lay ahead, but the trail of gold served as their clear guide.
‘Indeed, a swordmaster is truly different.’
Running along this golden trajectory, the knights admired the duke’s abilities.
As they were fellow knights who grasped swords in their hands, Duke Valentine was a remarkable object of respect.
The sight of an extraordinary man’s aura in person moved them, but at the same time, they clenched their teeth hard.
The situation was dire enough that they all felt it in their bones.
The cold-hearted Duke Valentine was acting this way now.
This meant that the situation was more serious than ever.
Even so, they didn’t know what actually was going on in the duke’s mind.
He did not run forward while thinking about how the hunting festival had taken a turn for the worse.
His determination was not for the sake of dealing with the monsters, and nor did he intend to organize the situation posthaste.
Because he wanted to make sure that his children were unharmed.
“Everyone… Please be safe.”
The silent plea was washed away by the drumming rain.
Only a golden afterimage was left where he ran.
* * *
Meanwhile, there was another man who was running.
In the middle of the forest, where the blue monsters, who would not die, were prowling around.
One man ran across them.
For a moment, a huge sound reverberated throughout the forest.
The sound came not from his spot now, but from the direction where he was headed.
Cursing briefly under his breath, Damian swept away his silver hair, which was stained with blue blood.
His golden eyes glanced at the enormous lizard, soaring high above the tall trees.
About ten minutes prior, while he was a group of nobles and knights, fighting together against the monsters they had encountered in the woods—
He met a young nobleman who introduced himself as Walter.
He knew how to defeat the monsters.
After declaring this, he demanded, please protect me.
“A method to defeat the monsters”
When Damian asked him, Walter answered with a vigorous nod.
“Yes! So please protect me.
If you can promise me that, I’ll tell you how you can defeat the monsters once and for all!”
It was a request that didn’t make sense.
They met each other like this, so it was only natural to protect the other person from danger.
But this man.
It’s absurd how he was trying to bargain right here and now.
This was a crisis where each second mattered.
The utmost priority was to take down the monsters straight away, yet he was doing this.
Damian wasn’t very pleased with the man, but for now, he nodded.
The method he had spoken of would be used for saving lives anyway.
The young nobleman’s face brightened immediately.
“The monsters’ weakness is their heart.
And inside the hearts, there are… beads… Yeah, beads! That’s what I heard!”
Casting his gaze downwards, Damian caught onto the young nobleman’s words.
That’s what he heard.
In other words, this meant that Walter only just heard it from someone else.
“Who did you hear it from”
When Damian pressed Walter, he hurriedly added.
“You can trust this information.
The person who taught me the monsters’ weakness is someone who you know very well, Your Lordship.”
“Someone I know well”
“Yes! It’s Ducal Lady Rosetta—she told me.”
The name came out of nowhere, and Damian couldn’t help but be perplexed.
Why was her name mentioned in this situation
No, besides that.
The man in front of him was a participant in the hunting festival.
Rosetta should have been in the barracks.
So how in the world did they meet
“Where did you meet Ro—”
Damian’s eyebrows were crumpled as he was about to ask another question, but right at that same moment…
A massive noise reverberated throughout the entire forest.
The roar was tremendous enough that even the ground on which he stood shook.
Everyone in the group, including Damian, turned in unison.
Towards the barracks, in the direction where that sound came from.
Under the rising fog-like dust, something gradually emerged.
The eyes of all who saw this grew wide.
The barracks were supposed to be difficult to see from this spot.
The distance between this side of the forest and the barracks was quite wide, and their vantage point would have been obscured by the dense and tall trees all around them.
Nevertheless, they saw it clearly.
Rising above the towering trees, there.
The head of a blue reptile.