Right at that moment….
The light within the ant queen’s chamber suddenly dimmed and brightened back up over and over again, as if it was being illuminated by a dying fluorescent light bulb.
Jin-Woo raised his head. The large ball of light that Choi Jong-In floated up on the ceiling to help with the ant queen raid was flickering noticeably now.
‘Is the magic about to come undone?’
At first, he absentmindedly thought like that.
However, it hadn’t even an hour since the Korean Hunters stepped foot inside this chamber. So, how could the spell be dissipating already? Not only that, wasn’t it a spell cast by a rank S Mage so he and his colleagues could safely carry out this potentially deadly raid?
There was no way such a thing could be true. In that case….
‘…..Could it be?’
Could the Shadow Extraction he performed on the mutated ant be the cause? Just as this thought entered his mind….
The surroundings became completely dark.
He’d still be able to see around him thanks to his Perception Stat if there had been a sliver, a trace of light coming in from somewhere. But this all-encompassing darkness didn’t even permit that.
It must’ve been a second or two later.
The darkness lingered on only for a briefest of brief moments before receding away – to reveal the mutated ant standing right in front of his eyes.
Jin-Woo flinched grandly and took a step back.
If it weren’t for the System message saying “Shadow Extraction was a success” appearing almost at the same time, he might have lashed out while thinking that the ant had come back to life or some such.
“Whew…. That surprised me.”
Jin-Woo spat out a sigh of relief.
Now that he calmly took another look at the creature from a step away, it sure did look a bit different from when it was still alive. From its body, streams of black smoke were continuously rising up.
‘So, this is that ant monster’s shadow….’
He couldn’t tell just how much of its original Stats had changed, but at least, the ominous aura it gave off seemed to have gone up a few levels. Jin-Woo stood before the ant’s shadow. He could clearly feel its enormous magic energy reserve.
The mutated ant becoming his soldier finally felt real to him now that he could stand right before the creature and sense its magical energy like this.
He wanted to remain calm, but the corners of his lips continued to curl upwards.
Ba-dump, ba-dump, ba-dump!
His heart was pounding away madly like a child who got his hands on a toy he so badly wished to own.
Soon, the shadow’s information popped up in his view. Jin-Woo’s eyes narrowed to a slit as he read the info floating above the shadow’s head.
Jin-Woo began clenching his fists tightly after confirming its grade. A new one just made its appearance. Which could only mean this guy possessed the kind of power that was on another realm compared to his other soldiers.
‘Well, that’s obvious when considering its original abilities while it was still alive….’
Just the name of the new grade alone implied that this soldier was not your average, common soldier. This was the fruit of his labour for having worked so hard to own this shadow. It was then.
The shadow knelt down after meeting his gaze with Jin-Woo’s. Without a doubt, the ‘absolute loyalty’ that affected all the other Shadow Soldiers also applied to this guy, as well.
Next stop, the ant queen.
Jin-Woo formed a satisfied smile and turned around. But, then….
“Oh, my king….”
Jin-Woo’s steps came to an abrupt halt after he heard that voice coming from behind him. He never thought that he’d got scared that easily, but at least in this moment, he did feel like his heart had taken a nasty tumble down to the pit of his stomach.
….Could it have been auditory hallucination?
Jin-Woo looked behind him. Even without doing that, he could tell with his acute senses that there was nothing there besides the ant’s shadow. That shadow was still kneeling on the ground, his head deeply bowed.
Jin-Woo studied the shadow as he slowly turned around.
“Was it you?”
The shadow opened its mouth as if he was waiting for this moment.
“Please grant me… a name…..”
Although it sounded a little inarticulate, the ant’s shadow was definitely speaking back to him.
The helicopter containing the Hunters headed straight back to the city of Seoul.
The Association President Goh Gun-Hui had been anxiously waiting for their arrival, so when the helicopter landed on the landing pad located on the Hunters Association, he quickly went over personally and opened the vehicle’s door.
“How is Cha Hae-In Hunter-nim’s condition?”
The gazes of the Hunters all shifted towards where Cha Hae-In was. She still hadn’t recovered her consciousness yet, and was lying on top of a blanket laid out on the helicopter’s floor.
“Hurry! This way!”
Two rank A Healers, waiting just outside the landing pad, hurriedly sprinted forward as soon as Goh Gun-Hui issued his order. But, when they began checking out her condition,
They exchanged puzzled glances with each other.
“What’s going on?”
When Goh Gun-Hui asked them, they answered almost at the same time, making it hard to tell who was the first to open his mouth.
“She’s not injured anywhere.”
“She’s perfectly normal.”
“Are you saying that there’s no need to treat Hunter Cha now?”
The Healers nodded their heads. They also explained themselves a bit further.
“Not sure who did it, but truly incredible healing magic was cast on her. Because of that, we don’t need to do anything here, sir.”
Goh Gun-Hui was feeling genuinely flustered now.
When he last confirmed Cha Hae-In’s condition through the live broadcast, her injuries looked quite severe. And also from a report he received, her condition was so bad that she failed to regain her consciousness until now.
That was why he had urgently searched for and found a couple of rank A Healers, and had them on standby here. But now…
‘There’s no need to heal her?’
Goh Gun-Hui swept his gaze all over the unmoving Cha Hae-In. For sure, her complexion didn’t look so bad. It was almost as if she was fast asleep.
Just what transpired after the camera was turned off?
Goh Gun-Hui tilted his head in confusion.
‘They didn’t have a Healer over there, too….’
After all, their sole Healer, Min Byung-Gu, met with a grisly fate, didn’t he?
Goh Gun-Hui asked the team leader, Mah Dong-Wook.
“Just what happened back there, Hunter Mah?”
As Mah Dong-Wook fell into a dilemma, wondering how he should go about explain this situation, one of the Healers hurriedly shouted out.
“She’s waking up!”
Everyone’s attention was focused on her in an instant. Goh Gun-Hui carefully sat down near her head and asked her.
“Cha Hunter-nim, can you hear me?”
Cha Hae-In slowly opened her eyes.
“You’re inside the helicopter. Currently, it’s landed on the Hunters Association, and we are planning to escort you to the hospital very soon.”
Cha Hae-In briefly looked around her, before taking a deep breath. The scent of Hunter Seong Jin-Woo had permeated throughout her body. She stared at Goh Gun-Hui with unfocused eyes.
“….Did Seong Jin-Woo Hunter-nim show up there?”
She was supposed to be unconscious all this time, so when she mentioned Seong Jin-Woo’s name, other Hunters were all inwardly taken by surprise. Instead of a verbal answer, Goh Gun-Hui slowly nodded his head.
A thin smile formed on Cha Hae-In’s face.
‘I knew it… it wasn’t a dream.’
Cha Hae-In had briefly woken up, but she fell back into a deep slumber again. After confirming that her breathing was stable, Goh Gun-Hui ordered his subordinates to take her to the hospital, so she could get some much-needed rest.
Only then did he notice that Hunter Seong Jin-Woo wasn’t in the helicopter. He shifted his gaze back to Mah Dong-Wook.
“By the way, where is Seong Jin-Woo Hunter-nim?”
Having heard that question from the side, Baek Yun-Ho quickly butted in to provide an answer.
“Hunter Seong Jin-Woo, he… chose to stay behind.”
“What do you mean, stay behind?”
Goh Gun-Hui formed an expression of someone who couldn’t understand. As far as he knew, this helicopter fitted with the magic energy engine flew non-stop from Jeju Island to get to this place.
It didn’t make any pitstops in the middle of the trip, so exactly where did that man chose to stay behind? Goh Gun-Hui asked again.
“Where did he choose to stay behind?”
“He told me that he still had business to take care of on Jeju Island.”
“….Are you saying that he didn’t even get on the helicopter in the first place?”
While Goh Gun-Hui asked, sounding quite flustered, Baek Yun-Ho smiled sheepishly and nodded his head.
“How is it that you’re able to talk?”
“I just…. can.”
The ant’s shadow kept answering Jin-Woo’s questions, but regretfully, none of them were much of a help.
The ant monster could talk as a shadow because it knew how to talk when it was still alive – could that be it?
Jin-Woo shook his head.
Before he was turned into the now-trustworthy knight ‘Iron’, the former Hunter Kim Cheol not only knew how to speak, but he was actually a human being in the first place. Even then, having a conversation with Iron was still impossible.
It was the same story with Min Byung-Gu. He was unable to say a single word before he returned to the void. And then, Fangs also shut his mouth for good after becoming a Shadow Soldier, even though he used to be such a chatty monster while still alive.
So, how come…
How come only this guy could talk?
There was only one obvious difference between this guy and those who couldn’t talk.
Unlike his other soldiers with grades of ‘Elite Knight’ or simply ‘Knight’, this guy came with a new grade called ‘Commander’.
It was possible that one would be able to talk after reaching a certain grade. As he didn’t have any solid proof yet, this was the most plausible explanation he could think of.
‘That means, my boys will all start talking as soon as they level up high enough….’
It seemed that yet another reason was added to the list of ‘why the levels of soldiers must be raised up higher’. Jin-Woo thought for a little while, before throwing that one question to the ant’s shadow, the one he always wanted to ask his soldiers before.
“I’m the one who killed you.”
“Yet, you still wish to serve me?”
A completely unexpected reply came from the ant’s shadow.
“I didn’t die, but… through the power of my liege… I am reborn.”
The shadow then raised his head. And while meeting Jin-Woo’s gaze, it continued on.
“Within me… elation… overflows. I shall follow my liege… for eternity.”
Why did it happen? Was it because he felt the shadow’s true feelings?
Jin-Woo’s heart pounded powerfully right at that moment when the ant’s shadow swore his eternal loyalty. He placed his hand on his chest to somehow calm his wildly beating heart. It quickly regained its usual calmness.
It was then, the ant’s shadow lowered his head again and pleaded with Jin-Woo once more.
“Oh, my king….. Please, grant me… a name….”
The talk had reverted back to the beginning.
This sure came across as a rather different experience to Jin-Woo, now that he was hearing the plea of the subject directly from itself, rather than from some prompts of the System.
A name, a name…..
From the get-go, he didn’t pay all that much attention to the naming of his soldiers, but….
‘But even then, it’s a bit too much to call it ant this and ant that, right?’
There were already hundreds of similar ants like him now in Jin-Woo’s army, so it wouldn’t do for a Knight Commander to be saddled with a name like ‘Ant’, now would it?
That was why…..
Jin-Woo pondered for a little while, before a smirk formed on his face.
He recalled the name of an author who became famous through the novel called ‘Ants’. (TL note at the end)
He readily made up his mind after only thinking about it for a very short time.
“You name will now be Beru.”
After Jin-Woo granted him the new name, Beru lowered his already lowered head even further to the ground as if he was truly moved by the gesture.
“I am grateful… my liege.”
The information floating above Beru’s head had already been amended by then.
Feeling genuinely pleased with his choice of the name, Jin-Woo turned towards the queen’s corpse. Now, it really was the turn of the queen to get her shadow extracted.
Maybe he got a confidence boost from successfully transforming Beru into his Shadow Soldier – because, the queen’s Shadow Extraction turned out to be a rather painless affair.
Accompanied by the scream that sounded like the death throes, the Beast Soldier resembling the ant queen emerged out from the shadow.
Jin-Woo expressed his delight at the continuous successful extractions, but then, began tilting his head after discovering something rather odd.
His connections to the Shadow Soldiers who were originally ant monsters suddenly grew fainter after the queen’s shadow materialised. It almost felt as if a pale grey fog was covering up the threads connecting them.
Even before he finished calling it, Beru had already approached Jin-Woo’s side.
If it weren’t for his Perception Stat that had climbed past the 200 mark, Jin-Woo would never have followed that movement properly with his naked eyes alone. Such a creature was one of his loyal soldiers now. Jin-Woo felt his confidence soaring up even higher from that realisation.
“You know what’s going on here?”
Jin-Woo asked while pointing at the queen’s shadow with his chin. Beru knew everything there was to know when it came to the inner workings of the ant army so it made sense to ask him.
He politely made his reply.
“The ruling of the ant army… it’s the queen’s innate ability.”
So, did that mean the authority to control the army of ant shadows would automatically be handed over to the queen?
‘But, that is a bit….’
Even though the queen was subservient to him, he thought that it wasn’t okay to entrust the control of all of his ant soldiers. Because, he’d have to issue orders through the queen every single time.
Jin-Woo scratched his chin for a bit, before asking Beru again.
“Okay, what about the reason for the decrease in the queen’s magic energy?”
“Most of the queen’s magic energy… is for propagation. Propagation is impossible…. without a body, that is why…”
Jin-Woo cut him off there.
“That’s why it only has half of its original magic power?”
“That is correct… my liege.”
By piecing together what Beru had said, the queen didn’t seem to have much of a use for Jin-Woo. After a short deliberation later, he decided to cancel the summoning altogether. He didn’t have any reason whatsoever to keep around a subordinate who had no use but only continued to drain his limited resources, now did he?
The queen’s shadow instantly became smoke and scattered in the air.
[Number of stored shadows: 570/570]
His shadow was now packed to the brim with soldiers, so….
‘….So, the only things remaining here are the magic crystals.’
Jin-Woo took a look around him. Top grade magic crystals only seen within rank S Gates were rolling on the floor like common pebbles.
Since there was no one watching here, and he was the one who killed the majority of them, he could have swept them all up if he wanted to do so. However, Jin-Woo gave up on that idea.
He heard that these crystals would be used to compensate the victims, as well as to rebuild the Jeju Island to its former glory. Jin-Woo wasn’t exactly hurting for cash, so he wouldn’t covet after other people’s stuff.
‘Still, I’m sure no one will mind me taking this one.’
Jin-Woo took out the magic crystal from Beru’s original body. It was a beautiful pitch-black magic crystal that resembled a gemstone. After pocketing the magic crystal, Jin-Woo summoned out Kaisel.
Kaisel flapped its wings and finished getting ready to fly in an instant. Jin-Woo lightly jumped on his back and took one last look at the queen’s chamber.
The place once filled with unbridled chaos was now enveloped in this eerie silence.
The Jeju Island expedition was now over.
Jin-Woo’s gaze shifted away from the interior of the chamber and towards the exit.
And then, Kaisel powerfully flew up in the air.