227 Arduous Progression


 The Dark Forest was situated in the North. As they progressed further northwards, the colder the climate became.

Although it was already late spring, the Dark Forest still felt as though it was stuck in the harsh northern winter. The sky was permanently shrouded in dark clouds and snow would float down from the sky ever so often. There was a thick layer of snow on the ground as the chilling wind howled, piercing and cutting the faces of everyone who dared to brave this unforgiving climate.

This was already the third day into the mission. They had gone 186 miles deeper into the Dark Forest and had infiltrated into the heart of the Dark Elves Pralync Kingdom.

The scouts trudged on in the thick snow. The snow was knee deep, and every step was extremely tedious. It took a great deal of effort to pull out their feet from the thick snow.

Under the terrible conditions, the scouts still had to cover their footprints with a branch every step of the way, causing their progress to be extremely slow.

Fortunately, the messenger ghoul was not traveling at a fast speed as well. He also did not attempt to hide his footprints in the snow. Coupled with the fact that Link had locked onto his scent, they didn't have to worry about getting lost.

As they walked, a scout suddenly let out a low rumble. He had stepped on an empty plot of land and was about to be fall into the thick layer of snow.

"Levitation!"

With a small gesture, a levitation spell was enchanted onto this falling scout, stabilizing his body. The people around then carefully walked towards him and threw him a rope to grab hold of. They then pulled him out from the thick snow.

The sloshing sounds became painfully audible as piles of accumulated snow fell into the pothole the scout had fallen into. Quickly, a hole four feet in radius and 21 feet deep could be seen. The bottom of the pothole was filled with rocks while its sides and top were infested with overgrowth. This vegetation was what held up the thick layer of snow previously, forming a natural trap.

This scout heaved a sigh of relief after reaching solid ground and said with gratitude, "Thank you, my lord."

Without that levitation spell, he would definitely have broken a bone or two. Suffering that sort of damage in this hellhole was no different from a death sentence.

Link nodded and said, "Be careful."

Following which, he stepped on top of a rock and cast an eagle eye spell to extend his vision northwards.

Link could see that right in front of them lay a few snow-capped, rugged hills. As he went further north, the trees became visibly shorter in height with half of them being submerged under the thick snow. This then slowly became an open field where vision was unobstructed.

The road in front would become even more difficult. Without the cover of the tall trees, the likelihood of their exposure would increase exponentially.

Furthermore, this was the heart of the Dark Elf Kingdom. Link could not use levitation spells to increase their traveling speed as it would leave magic traces, allowing his opponent to track them down easily. That would be akin to suicide.

After a while, Link had decided on the way forward. He said, "Head this way. Use the rope and tie it around your waist. Chain everyone together so that no one will be in danger."

"Yes, sir." The scouts hollered and immediately got to work.

Taking advantage of the time used to tie the rope, Link walked towards Annie and whispered, "Can you still hold on?"

To improve their agility, the scouts usually wore leather armor. Although their current armor had been made deliberately thicker to combat the cold climate of the North, its ability to retain heat was still average at best. Coupled with the harsh chilling wind, the scouts would not be able to last long even with the protection of their Battle Aura.

At this moment, all the scouts wore a pale and weary expression. Annie was especially affected as her petite physique had caused her to be more susceptible to the cold. Her face seemed completely drained of vitality and would shiver form time to time.

"Not a problem...I can hold on," Annie whispered. It somehow made Link feel even more uneasy.

He then took a look at the other scouts. Although they were in a better state, they still looked extremely tired. In fact, he was also starting to feel the effects of the climate and the long trek on his body. If they continued to give chase, they might even fall to the weather before they meet the Dark Elves.

Unless they were courting death, getting warmth from magic was out of the question. The only thing Link could do was to cast an Elemental Healing spell on everyone from time to time to replenish their energy.

"This is not going to work. We need to find a place to rest." Link searched the surrounding area but only saw piles of snow and towering trees around. There was no resting area in sight.

"Forget it. Let's move," Link said as he was out of options.

The group then continued northwards with several accidents along the way. Fortunately, the rope would prevent the person from falling into the pothole, ensuring their safety.

After half a day, Annie was clearly showing signs of fatigue. She staggered as she walked and seemed to be in a state of semi-consciousness. The only reason she was still moving forward was due to her strong willpower. The other scouts were also shivering uncontrollably from the cold. The person least affected was Link as his magic robe could keep him relatively warm.

At this moment, a small hill appeared in front of them. At the foot of the hill seemed to be a snow covered wooden shed. Link cast an Eagle Eye spell on himself once again to double check his observations.

It truly was a wooden shed. It looked rundown and had no windows at all. However, it should be enough for a temporary shelter.

"Let's go there and rest for the night," Link said as he helped Annie along the way towards the shed.

The scouts naturally agreed to his idea and all staggered behind Link as they made a beeline for the shelter.

The trees were getting sparser, causing the group to feel the full effects of the chilling wind. This wind hailed from the northern arctic region, freezing everything along its way.

One could risk getting frostbite if they even opened their eyes fully in this damned hellhole.

Although the wooden shed looked near enough, it still took them half an hour before they reached the shed. Every step took a great deal of energy out of the group.

The wooden shed had a typical Dark Elven architectural design. It was colored in basic dark shades and was strangely contoured. There was even a small skull carved on the door. However, this wooden shed had already been abandoned, and only half the wooden door remained. Half of the roof had also collapsed from the weight of the snow. Luckily, the other half was still holding up strong, offering some protection from the howling wind.

After entering the shed, Link pointed his wand at the corner of the shed and said, "Sanitize."

Whoosh! A curtain seemed to have flown over the corner, bringing all the dirt and dust together with it. Link then stared at the structure of the wooden shed and used the Higgs Field spell to fix some portions that he was uncomfortable with, reinforcing the stability of this rundown shelter.

The scouts did not idle around as well. There was some abandoned furniture in the wooden shed, consisting of a few tables and chairs. While most of them were already unusable, some of them were still in good shape. They then used the damaged ones as firewood and started cleaning the good ones.

After a while, a fire was started in the middle of the wooden shed. The temperature of the shed immediately rose by a few degrees, bringing much-needed warmth.

A scout even found a broken wok. Link took a look and started fixing it with magic. The scout then proceeded to fill the fixed metal wok with snow to boil a pot of water. Link saw this scene and remembered that he still had some food in his dimensional pendant given to him by Lucy. He then brought it out and split half of it with the scouts. The other half were meat-related snacks which he threw into the wok as part of his meat soup preparation.

Although Elemental Healing could replenish energy, it could not bring the joy and satisfaction that comes from real food. This was especially so when Link's food looked extremely delicious. He brought out stuff like smoked ribs and spicy lobster, causing the scouts to smile with glee. As they ate, their bodies which were on the verge of collapsing slowly recovered vitality.

Annie hid in the corner as she stretched her hands out close to the fire. Occasionally, she would eat a few snacks, and some vitality gradually returned to her face. However, she was generally still weak.

Link suddenly thought of a snow bear fur cloak in his dimensional pendant seeing her in this state. Though it would be inconvenient to wear it while traveling, it would be the perfect clothing now.

He then took out the coat and placed it gently on Annie. Annie the shot him a grateful smile, the gentleness in her eyes almost overflowing.

Link returned the smile and turned to the scouts before saying, "We are already very close to the arctic region, which lay at the end of the Dark Forest. The Skeletal Fort shouldn't be too far away now."

The scouts listened as an oppressive silence enveloped the wooden shed.

The scouts knew first-hand about the insane strength of the ghouls. The ghouls were already scary enough as they were-what would that suggest about the Skeletal Fort which was the base camp of these frightening creatures? Their leader was also residing in that cursed place! Every step closer to the Skeletal Fort was a step towards their demise.

Link continued, "It is getting late. We will rest here for the night and set off early in the morning. If we do not meet the team carrying the Dawn Swordsman along the way, we will grab a stray ghoul from around the Skeletal Fort to extort information."

"What if the Dawn Swordsman is already in the Skeletal Fort?" Annie asked.

This was a practical question. If the Dawn Swordsman was already inside the enemy's base, do they continue with their rescue mission? What if he was already demonized to the point of no return?

All of this depended on Link's decision. All the scouts stared at Link in wait for his answer. His decision would decide the fate of everyone in the wooden shed.

Link fell silent as he chewed on the spicy lobster dish. He felt that the usually delicious meal was not savory at all. In fact, it was extremely bitter and unappealing. This was a difficult decision and a heavy responsibility as it not only concerned the lives of everyone in the shed, but also the outcome of this war.

The scouts waited patiently for Link's answer.

After ten whole minutes, Link finally came to a decision. He said, "If the Dawn Swordsman has already reached the Skeletal Fort, we will also have to give it our all for the mission. My plan then would be to cast long distance spells from afar to distract the enemy while all of you infiltrate the base to find Kanorse. If he is already demonized by the time you find him, forgo the mission immediately and leave the Skeletal Fort. If he is still alive, rescue him. I will definitely delay the enemy for you."

The scouts nodded their heads in agreement.

This was an extremely dangerous plan. Both Link and the scouts would be putting their lives on the line for this mission. However, since this was Link's decision, they would give him their full support.

Annie asked, "Mirose, if the Dawn Swordsman is already demonized, is there any way to save him?"

Link shook his head and said, "If it were an ordinary demonization process, there would still be a chance. However, it is different this time around. There will be no going back. There should be a short period of weakness right after the demonization process is completed. If anyone of you has the chance, kill him using the Sacred Silver."

The demonization process this time was done using Divine Gear. How could a mortal's willpower fight against an object of the gods?

This made the atmosphere heavy and depressing.

Apart from the sightings of a few Dark Elves village, they were simply traveling on barren land this whole time. They had found no traces of the Dawn Swordsman or even the trails of the team that was in charge of bringing him back to the Skeletal Fort.

This could only mean two things. One was that they had missed the team that was holding Kanorse in custody. The other was that he had already reached the Skeletal Fort.

Both were bad news.

Everyone fell silent as they watched the crackling flames in their fireplace. After a while, the aroma of the meat soup Link had cooked earlier wafted into their noses. The mood was lifted slightly as they enjoyed the rich, savory broth. Link also drank some to warm his stomach.

Before long, the sky darkened. Link and his fellow comrades had been chasing ghouls for countless days without any rest and were all drained of energy. They leaned on the walls of the rundown wooden shed to rest.

Link felt tired as well. As he felt slightly cold, he curled his body into a ball to retain more of his body heat. However, he suddenly felt his body getting warmer through the night, as though a soft body was snuggling up on him. At the same time, a thick bear fur coat was covered over him as well.

It was Annie.

Link did not reject this act of goodwill in his semi-conscious state. The two of them huddled together and enjoyed the warmth brought about by the fur coat.

It was a silent night.

By midnight, Link suddenly felt a strange magic fluctuation and woke up in shock. His ears picked up sounds of people shuffling through the thick snowfield. The sound grew closer by the minute, seemingly heading towards the wooden shed they were residing in. There seemed to be two people talking in the Dark Elven language.

"It's freezing! Curse this damned weather." This was a raspy voice.

"Tch, if you said you were freezing to death in the past, I may have believed you. Now that you have received the blessings of the Lady of Darkness, you are simply making excuses!" Another voice teased.

"Damn you. I am the one carrying this fellow the whole time. Why don't you try carrying them instead? This damned Warrior is so heavy. I can guarantee you that the armor on their body is at least 220 pounds! Ah! I need rest."

Link was excited upon hearing those words. A Warrior who was currently being carried by a demonized Dark Elf...Armor weighing more than 220 pounds...It must be an extremely strong Warrior. Might it be the Dawn Swordsman?"

Link was ecstatic. Were they really ahead of their opponents?