TNG Vol. 18 Chapter 3 Part 2
After a while, Gelganger’s main body came down from the sky. It landed close by and changed to human form.
“I apologize for the wait. I have scanned the area again while descending, but could not see any buildings of note, after all.”
“We’ve got nothing better than your detection abilities then. We’re going to stand guard, so please focus on that.”
“Very well. Never would I have dreamed to have the honor of being escorted by a High Human, though.”
Gelganger finished its words with a smile.
Its expression looked perfectly human: Shin had the feeling that after meeting them, Gelganger was resembling a normal human being more and more. Its expressions and gestures were completely natural.
“Shall I start right now?”
“Yeah, but today we’re only going as far as we can while being able to come back here before nightfall. I want to see how this forest changes during the night before we set out for real.”
What the group was facing was not any normal forest, but one created by a Boundary Guardian in a Sacred Place.
Tsuki no Hokora was protected by powerful barriers, but Shin was not so overconfident as to leisurely spend the night in a place with so many unknowns.
Like before, he scouted the surroundings with Schnee, then they made a formation with Gelganger in the center.
Shibaid walked in front, while Filma took up the rear. Tiera and Milt stood on the left and right sides. Finally, Sety was next to Gelganger.
“Schnee, have you ever seen these plants before?”
Shin had never paid much attention to plants in the game era, so he couldn’t identify the vegetation around them.
He could more or less figure out if they could be used as crafting materials, but did not know anything about their habitat.
The reason why he asked Schnee such a question was that the plants he saw looked fairly different from what he expected to find in a tropical forest or a jungle — as far as he knew from TV documentaries.
“Yes, these plants grow on the continent too. However, there are plants growing in the south mixed in with vegetation from the north…please look at that.”
Schnee pointed at a thicket of trees with zig-zagged leaves glazed by a light sheen.
“Those trees normally grow in temperate areas. They cannot grow in any other environment. It is bizarre to see plants of many different habitats growing together like this.”
“I see, I did feel something was off…the flora is all over the place, huh.”
Even if Shin was not knowledgeable about plants, the difference from the vegetation he saw on TV was clear enough for him to notice.
“You know, even if we’re right next to the sand sea, this place is really humid. Is this also because of the Guardian? We’re still supposed to be inside the Sacred Place, though.”
The forest was dimly lit, as the tall trees populating the surroundings blocked most of the sunlight.
The roots poking out of the ground could easily snag feet, while the carpet of dead leaves treacherously concealed sharp and pointy rocks: all in all, just walking in the forest was a draining task.
“Even just walking straight is a pain here.”
“We can manage only because it’s us, really. The fact that you can’t detect monsters normally is pretty annoying too.”
As before, the map was mostly occupied by the Guardian’s icon.
More than a Sacred Place, the forest was more aptly described as being its own body. The party’s detection skills started functioning a bit more after the party entered the forest, however, so they didn’t risk coming face to face with monsters without warning.
They could never be too sure, though: many monsters had the ability to conceal their presence or appearance, especially in an environment like the forest.
“The spell I sent forward caught something. Three coming from the right.”
Sety spoke up. In addition to Shin and the others’ detection abilities, she had conjured magic decoys to scout the surroundings and attract the monsters’ attention.
The group thoroughly scanned the surroundings. Shin detected 3 presences as well: he glanced at Schnee and she nodded.
“Keep your guard up, guys, I’ll go take care of these.”
Shin placed his hand on the katana’s hilt and sprinted. The monsters apparently noticed, as they were coming straight for him.
He could see them through the trees: black and brown fur with red streaks, large, powerful limbs, and will-o’ wisp-like flames floating around the neck.
They were Warhunds, four-legged beasts with bodies spanning about 4 mel. Their levels were respectively 533, 510 and 739.
The last of the group, unlike the others, had six will-o’wisps around its neck and a body twice their size. Its level was 200 higher too.
Shin thought that even if it was the leader, its level was too far removed.
“They’re not being manipulated?”
Shin could not detect the parasitic plants that controlled the monsters that attacked Eleven’s Sacred Place. They seemed to be moving and acting on their own will.
The three Warhunds were charging straight at Shin, as if they couldn’t feel the difference in fighting power between them and him.
“What’s this now?”
Eventually the three monsters slowed down: when they appeared before Shin, they had dropped to a walking pace. They quietly looked down at him, standing on a ruined building.
From their momentum, Shin expected them to attack like that, so he was rather perplexed.
For about a minute, nothing happened between them, bizarrely so. Suddenly, the Warhund leader raised its head and howled.
It was clearly a signal: the other two beasts quickly jumped down and attacked Shin by pincering him from the left and right side.
One targeted his shoulder, the other his legs: even if Shin dodged at the last second, they weren’t going to crash into each other.
The leader, on the other hand, was keeping its distance: it was apparently observing both Shin and the rest of the party.
Shin felt something was off about the Warhunds’ movements and sheathed his katana. He swung his left arm, striking the Warhund targeting his shoulder with the scabbard.
“What are you going to do now?”
The other Warhund took advantage of the opening to try to bite Shin’s leg, but he switched the scabbard to his right hand and pointed it at the monster.
The Warhund, its fangs bared and ready to pierce Shin’s leg guards, stopped dead in its tracks. Despite the grinding sounds of teeth against metal, Shin’s leg guards were unscathed.
It then tried pulling to knock Shin on the ground, to no avail: Shin didn’t budge.
The monster seemed to realize that it wasn’t doing any damage: it stopped after Shin’s question, then moved away from him.
The Warhund sent flying by the scabbard stood back on its feet and rejoined its brethren. Shin had held back, so it still had enough energy to move.
“You guys are acting way too suspiciously…hmm, Warhunds are canine monsters, so…Yuzuha, come here!”
The Warhunds simply looked at Shin, without attacking. He decided to call for Yuzuha’s help.
Their species was relatively close to Kagerou and Yuzuha: Shin hoped she would be able to interpret and find out some information from them.
“You won’t fight them?”
The Warhunds heard Yuzuha’s words and stepped backwards.
She was currently in her 1 mel-sized fox form, as it was easier to move in, which was much smaller than the monsters. Even so, their eyes were all fixated on her.
Their reaction was different to when they faced Shin: he thought that there might be a sort of pressure that only monsters close in species could sense.
“These guys aren’t fighting seriously, you see. It feels like they charged forward to test our strength.”
When Warhunds fight with all their might, the will-o’wisps around their neck disappear and their whole body is enveloped in bluish flames. This would help them sustain less physical damage and inflict flame damage with their attacks.
The Warhunds, however, did not exhibit these changes and fought like any canine monster could.
It did not look like they were weakened or lacked the strength to do it.
Despite this, they very clearly didn’t fight seriously. There was more than enough proof to suspect that something was up with them.
The Warhund leader stepped forward, as if it could understand Shin and Yuzuha’s words. Yuzuha too approached it and talked.
“…kuu? We came here over the sand sea. We don’t know anything about that.”
Yuzuha and the Warhund leader exchanged some more “kuus” and “growls”. Yuzuha suddenly voiced a sentence in human language, which was apparently understood by the leader, then they returned to animal-like cries.
“The Guardian of the Sacred Place next to this is attacking them, apparently. Their master is expanding its territory to protect its subordinates.”
It was an unexpected piece of information. Eleven had said that the Guardians of two cities were attacking him, but the Warhund leader painted a very different picture.
“We were attacked by monsters controlled by plant parasites on the way here. What about those?”
Shin and his party thought that the plants manipulating monsters to attack Eleven’s Sacred Place originated from one of the Vanwood Guardian’s abilities.
The Warhund leader, however, stated that none of them ever crossed the sand sea to attack other cities.
It could say so with certainty because the Warhund leader had a position similar to Gelganger.
That explained its high level: while it couldn’t speak human language, it seemed possessed relatively high intellect.
According to Yuzuha’s translations, in the recent months they had been occupied with defending from the attacks coming from the neighboring Sacred Place, so they had no time or leeway to attack elsewhere.
Just like Eleven, their master had been cut off from the Guardians’ information network.
They were being attacked now too: they had noticed the arrival of Shin’s party, so the Warhunds came to scout their intentions.
They correctly guessed that Shin’s party had come on behalf of Eleven.
“This is weird…”
Shin furrowed his brow. Eleven’s side of the story was very different from what the Warhund leader said.
According to Eleven, the Guardians were cooperating and exchanging information to a degree, for the sake of investigating the events concerning Reforgerer.
The groups of monsters that invaded the empire were also three, each coming from one of the Sacred Places. Or at least, that’s how it was supposed to be.
“You really can’t communicate with the other Guardians?”
Shin asked again to confirm and the Warhund leader nodded.
“The Guardian that attacked Eleven pretended to be this Sacred Place’s Guardian?”
“I think so. Judging from the situation, the culprit should be the Guardian of the third Sacred Place, the one next to this…still, there’s something weird about all this.”
The Guardians of the Sacred Place Shin’s party was currently in and the one next to it — according to Eleven — “only thought of accomplishing their functions”.
“I’d like to talk with my comrades, can you wait here?”
The Warhund leader nodded, so Shin and Yuzuha rejoined the others.
He told them what he learned from the Warhunds, then looked at Gelganger.
“How could such a thing be…?”
If Gelganger already knew about the situation, they would have to think again about how to move. Its wide-eyed surprise, however, suggested that it was all new information for it too.
Schnee and the others agreed that it couldn’t be all an act.
“Is it possible to pretend to be a different Guardian in the network?”
“I do not know. Only Guardians can access the network, that is everything we know.”
“So Eleven didn’t realize what was going on and focused on strengthening his defenses, thinking that two Guardians were attacking at the same time…?”
Or he realized the truth, but neglected to address it…Shin considered this possibility, but concluded that Eleven would have explained things in a different way in that case.
Once the party arrived in the Sacred Place, they would quickly realize that the circumstances were different. If the Guardians that were supposed to be allies were actually fighting each other, Shin’s party was highly likely to return, in order to gather more information.
If Eleven really planned to use Shin’s party to take over the Sacred Places, he would have given them an explanation that justified what they just learned.
“It could be trying to buy time in order to take over this Sacred Place.”
“It’s possible. The more cores a Guardian has, the more powerful it becomes, right?”
“…yes, that is correct.”
Shin added his thoughts to Schnee’s comment, then turned towards Gelganger. After a brief pause, the latter nodded in agreement. Shin expected it to, so he was not particularly surprised.
“I guess you want to exchange some more information with the subordinates of the Guardian here, right?”
“This situation is completely unexpected for me as well. If possible, I would very much like to do so.”
Guardian subordinates could communicate without the need for interpreters: Gelganger approached the Warhund leader, who seemed to share the same intentions.
Shin hoped that this would lead to a clear understanding of the situation…when a tremor shook the ground.