༺ Cradle (2) ༻
The orcs scattered in all directions.
It happened within less than ten minutes of their arrival at the Cradle of the Dead.
The absurd part was that even Valak, who had claimed he would accompany them, was among the orcs that had run away screaming.
Vera unwittingly chuckled at the situation and spoke to the group.
“…What will we do now?”
The orcs who were supposed to guide them had disappeared, leaving them in a truly awkward situation. As they tried thinking of a solution together, Miller, who had been scanning the Cradle the entire time, said.
“Let’s try this ‘proof’ the orcs were talking about first.”
He crossed his arms and stroked his chin.
“We could head straight to Maleus… but shouldn’t we prepare for unforeseen situations? We might have to retreat if we encounter danger before reaching Maleus.”
Upon hearing this, Vera nodded in agreement, then abruptly stopped.
We have to prove ourselves first.
As soon as he thought of that, images of those who might struggle to prove themselves came to mind.
His gaze shifted to Renee and Aisha.
’…The proof is likely to take the form of one-on-one combat.’
In other words, individual combat skills were extremely important.
Naturally, it meant that this proof was going to pose a great risk to Renee and Aisha.
A serious expression appeared on Vera’s face in response to those thoughts.
There was a series of reactions followed by silence.
Upon realizing that Vera worried about her, Renee giggled.
“Vera, are you worried about me?”
“Don’t worry. I can defeat an undead without moving from my spot using just a spell. And the selection of the opponent for the proof is ultimately based on physical ability, isn’t it? Then, naturally, my opponent will be similar in size to me.”
Anyways, how much longer are you going to see me as a child?
Chuckling at that thought, Renee lifted the cane she was holding.
“I can still use this two more times.”
She was referring to the built-in function of her cane that could detect objects through waves.
Vera, faced with Renee’s confident attitude, let out a sigh but soon agreed.
”…I will intervene if anything dangerous happens.”
Renee casually nodded.
‘She shouldn’t be so careless,’ Vera thought, not reflecting even the slightest on his own usual behavior.
Vera was unaware that it was his influence that made Renee show such self-confidence even before the fight, and also made Aisha arrogantly think ‘I will win’.
After the discussion about the schedule ended, the group set out towards the center of the Cradle, ‘proving’ themselves one by one.
If there was one thing that was laughable in the process, it was the fact that this ‘proof’ was a matter of asking the undead they met along the way for a ‘favor.’
Everyone in the group, even Miller, was surprised.
Of course, they were. Unlike the common perception that the undead were filled with resentment towards the living, the undead responded in a courteous manner, saying things like, ‘Anything for a guest’s request.’
Amidst this, Vera had such thoughts.
“Dullahan, will you duel?”
“Marek hits gently. Don’t be scared.”
[Oh, spirited fighters have come. Good. I’ll make sure to treat my guests properly!]
[Hehehe, reminds me of my living days. I was just like you when I was in my prime as a knight!]
Vera thought it would be an insult to these gentlemanly undead to pit them against opponents like the twins.
He watched the twins, each engaged in combat with the Dullahan, with an icy, cold face.
One could see their unwillingness to back down as they held their halberd and blocked the Dullahan’s attacks with their body as an admirable representation of a knight, but not to Vera.
Wasn’t it the twins who were constantly smacking their lips at food while looking after Valak’s daughter, Coco, and treated the slime as a toy?
Vera was concerned that the twins might unintentionally offend the Dullahan, who approached the duel with a serious attitude.
Then the Dullahan swung his axe.
Marek evoked an earthen-colored divinity and blocked it with his bare hands.
A heavy sound, unbelievably loud, resonated as iron clashed with flesh.
[Excellent spirit! It’s important for a knight to not back down!]
“Dullahan hits a little hard, but it hurts less than Vera.”
Marek started to swing his halberd with one hand as he spoke.
Bang! Bang! Bang!
A deafening sound rang out, and Marek’s halberd struck the severed neck of Dullahan, ending the duel.
Only after the duel had completely ended did Vera secretly let out a sigh of relief, realizing that Marek had not been disrespectful.
It was a cold-hearted response without the slightest concern. He could have said that, but he would be wrong.
The power of ‘Indomitable Will’ possessed by the Apostle of Protection showed its true worth when facing a worthy opponent.
It was a power that promised infinite vitality and revitalization as long as their will did not break.
No matter how tireless the undead was, there was no way for the Dullahan to defeat the twins who did not understand the concept of accumulated injuries, and were not smart enough to think of ‘giving up’.
[It was a good match! It makes me happy to recall my days when I was alive!]
The Dullahan dropped from his horse and said that, laughing heartily. He then rummaged through his armor and pulled out a bone necklace, handing it to Marek with the following words.
[Here, this is your proof. If you bury this at the boundary when you leave the Cradle, you will be able to exit safely.]
“Great fight, Dullahan. Been a while since Marek sweat like this.”
Marek took the necklace and put it around his neck.
Vera made a surprised face at the shape of the necklace that came into his sight.
Because the necklace looked just like the relics that had been auctioned off in the auction house he ran in the last round.
Only then could Vera realize why those who returned alive from the Cradle and sold those things had died of a disease.
’…They got greedy for something that should have been buried.’
If what Dullahan said was true, the merchants blinded by greed brought out an item that shouldn’t be taken out of the Cradle and were cursed.
Should it be called human foolishness?
Vera felt a bitter laugh rise at the thought.
The gentlemanly undead had been kind until the moment of parting, then disappeared.
They had pointed out opponents suited for the level of the group and told them their location before leaving.
For some reason, the thought ‘This doesn’t seem right’ came to mind… but isn’t it good when things turn out well?
With a much lighter atmosphere than before, the group continued towards the center of the Cradle.
After the twins, Norn and Hela finished their proof.
Their opponent was a Skeleton Knight.
True to their usual silent way of doing their job, they achieved a clean victory without a scratch.
Next, Miller faced ten specters.
As a sorcerer, he scattered a few reagents in the air, distorted the perception of the undead, and achieved victory by piercing their exposed gaps with a curse.
Vera had a rather unpleasant feeling about the method Miller used.
The sight of the rampaging curses reminded him of the end of the previous round without even realizing it.
It was an unpleasant feeling as if the pain from that moment was coming back.
Of course, he couldn’t tell now whether that pain was really due to the curse, or due to the item called the ‘Crown’, but still, it was inevitable that the pain and the curse from that time came to mind as one.
Watching Miller return from the group of specters with a beaming face and a bone necklace, Vera replied with grimace.
”…You must’ve had trouble.”
“Whew, wasn’t much trouble at all. It was a fun experience to use spells in such a combative way. The specter ladies were also kind, so I felt less guilty.”
Chuckling and putting the necklace around his neck, Miller finished his response and then looked at Aisha.
“Is it that kid’s turn next?”
“Yes, her opponent is a ghoul.”
Vera answered, turning his gaze to Aisha as well.
At the attention directed towards her, Aisha perked up her ears and spoke with an excited tone.
“Me now? Is it my turn? I get to fight too?”
As she spoke, bouncing with energy after having been silent all this time, Vera sighed deeply.
“Don’t be careless. I’ve always told you…”
“That there’s no cowardice in a fight?”
She interrupted his words.
Vera’s eyes bulged. His body stiffened, and his face turned red.
He looked like he might burst into anger at any moment.
At that, Aisha quickly hid behind Renee and poked her head out, laughing gleefully.
Renee laughed too.
Vera felt a deep sense of betrayal. His face was gradually turning dark with emotion.
“S-Sorry… Pfft! Aisha apologizes too… Hahaha!”
The sight of her shoulders shaking with laughter was very spiteful.
Someone once said, it is not the mother-in-law who beats you, but the sister-in-law who tries to stop her that is more spiteful.1T/N: An idiom, basically saying that the sister-in-law (Renee) is pretending to stop the mother-in-law (Aisha), but they’re actually on the same side, and that Renee actually has no intention of stopping Aisha at all.
It was a truly correct saying.
Vera didn’t dare curse at Renee, so he just glared at the two of them with resentment.
Could the immature Aisha really win safely against the undead?
His worries came to a ridiculous end.
[Oh my, little one…! Don’t be so cruel to this old man…!]
In a corner of the Cradle, which was a forest only in the sense that dead trees densely filled the area, Aisha was toying with the ghoul, leaping and running among the surrounding trees.
A small physique. Swift movements. And, keen senses.
She was fighting, taking full advantage of her strengths as a beastkin and a young child.
The ghoul’s speed wasn’t slow. Contrary to his sluggish complaints, the movements of the ghoul were definitely fast, and the power embedded in its long nails was stronger than an average knight’s sword.
However, as expected, fighting and martial arts were disciplines where talent became increasingly apparent as one reached a higher level.
Although Aisha was still a child, she was once hailed as a hero in the previous round.
Moreover, Aisha received daily lessons from Vera, who was at the extreme end of talent.
Her young age and still insufficient strength were not a problem for Aisha.
Aisha swung her dagger as she dropped from a tree, and sliced deep into the ghoul’s skull.
The ghoul recoiled his body in surprise, and then admitted defeat with a sulky attitude.
[This old man lost…]
Aisha replied to the ghoul, overjoyed by her own victory.
“You were a difficult opponent, Grandpa!”
[Keke…Yes little one… take this…]
The ghoul took out a bone necklace from its pocket and put it around Aisha’s neck.
Aisha giggled as she fiddled with the bone necklace, and then approached Vera to brag.
“How was I?”
Suddenly, Vera thought of giving a ‘playful’ hard smack on the lively Aisha’s head.
A truly childish thought.
Only then did Vera feel embarrassed that he even had such a thought, sighed deeply, and put his hand on Aisha’s head.
And he roughly ruffled her hair.
“You did well.”
“Of course, of course. Because Aisha is great!”
Her tail stood up straight.
Her laughter was mixed with a purring sound.
Looking at Aisha like this, Vera unknowingly recalled a thought from the fight just now.
He was sure that he was the one who devotedly taught her with all his heart and soul for the last few months, but for some reason, he had the feeling that the only techniques Aisha used seemed to be the ones taught by his past self from the previous round, who had been with her for just a day.
After Aisha’s proof was finished, what followed was Renee’s proof.
At this point, they were almost at the center of the Cradle.
In front of a small hut, in a place where a large and gloomy citadel could be seen in the distance,
Renee encountered a Lich.
- 1T/N: An idiom, basically saying that the sister-in-law (Renee) is pretending to stop the mother-in-law (Aisha), but they’re actually on the same side, and that Renee actually has no intention of stopping Aisha at all.