236 The Alternate Black Forest


 In the alternate Black Forest of the Soul Realm, the light was dim, yet the trees were glowing faintly. When one stared into the distance, everything merged into a muddled haze, and there was no way to discern anything clearly at all.

After hearing what Felina had to say, everyone stopped in their tracks and looked around suspiciously.

Just as the crowd was on alert, the strangest noise emerged out of nowhere.

"Caw caw...Caw caw caw...Hahahaha..."

It sounded like someone was laughing...and it sounded as if the monster that was laughing was standing right behind them.

Everyone was shocked. Link was no exception.

Swoosh! Clang!

Everyone pulled out their weapons and held them tightly in their hands. They stood in a circle with their backs against each other and their eyes facing the source of this bizarre laughing noise.

Link cast an Illumination spell, although its effect was very weak in the Soul Realm. The brightness of the spell was less than one-tenth of its original and wasn't much brighter than a firefly.

Link tried to improve things by focusing all his attention onto the spell.

Get brighter! Get brighter! Get brighter! he chanted in his mind.

Then, a strange thing happened. The light seemed to hear Link's thoughts and quickly got brighter. Soon, the magic light was bright enough to illuminate an area with the radius of about 20 feet. Further in the distance, it looked as if a thick fog blanketed over everything, turning the surroundings into a single blurry picture.

"Do you see anything?" asked Link. He was looking left and right trying to catch anything out of the ordinary. Still, he couldn't find anything.

"No."

"I don't either."

"That's strange," said Felina. "I clearly saw it just now. It was about seven feet tall, it had a large head, and it moved at lightning speed."

"Are you sure you didn't just imagine it?" asked Annie.

"Are you doubting a Dragon Warrior's eyes?" retorted Felina coldly, displeased with Annie's question.

Link believed that Felina saw what she thought she saw.

"Which direction did you see it?" he asked. If it had been other people who saw the dark shadow, Link would probably suspect that they'd made a mistake. But Felina was a Level-7 Warrior; there was no way that she would make such a silly mistake.

Felina pointed to a bush nearby that was more than three feet high.

"Over there," she said. "I saw it stand by the edge of the bush watching me in the corner of my eye. But the moment I turned to face it, it ran away."

Link directed the ball of light towards the bush that Felina had just pointed to. The area around the bush then became illuminated, and everyone's eyes turned to its direction to observe its surroundings.

"I don't see any signs of anyone passing through here," said Annie a few minutes later. "What about you guys?"

"Me neither," answered the scouts, all shaking their heads.

Things seemed to get stranger now. Based on Felina's descriptions, the shadowy monster had a large head and moved at a fast speed. It was impossible for someone like that to leave absolutely no trace behind."

"But that's impossible," said Felina, flummoxed. "I did see it very clearly. How could this be?"

Link sensed that something was not quite right.

He couldn't find any explanations for what was happening. He'd entered the alternate realm before in the game to complete some missions, but each time the journey was brief and uneventful. Simply said, he'd never experienced anything quite so odd as the situation they were currently in before.

He just didn't know what to expect here anymore. What creatures dwelled in this realm? What would happen to them? He just didn't know. He had a vague feeling that they were being watched by some creature, but he had no idea how to deal with it.

If they continued this way, Link feared that something bad would happen.

Link looked up at the sky again through the gaps between the branches and leaves. It was dark and gray, and he could feel a certain pressure which indicated that the Dark Serpent still followed them; it was not that far behind.

This completely crushed their decision to use this path to return to the physical realm from here.

"Let's move closer together," he said after considering it for a while. "Make sure none of us get separated. Felina, you walk in front, I'll walk in the back, and Annie, you and the rest walk in the middle."

The Soul Realm might contain some kind of power that affects the mind. Among them, he and Felina possessed the strongest souls, so they would be the most resistant to that kind of influence. It was wisest to let the scouts walk in the middle.

Everyone nodded silently and adjusted their formation, then continued their journey.

As they went deeper into the Black Forest, the trees got denser, and the forest got darker and darker. If it wasn't for the faint glow that the trees emitted, the wouldn't be able to see their own fingers stretched out in front of them.

Hahaha...Hahahahaha...

Just when they least expected it, the laughter was heard again, and it almost gave them a heart attack.

Soon after, in the middle of the party, a scout called Eric suddenly turned around and stared into the dense forest then smiled.

"Oh, Ally, my dear daughter..." he murmured. "You're still alive! Ally..."

He was about to walk away from the rest of the group and into the depths of the forest.

The other scouts hurried forward and pulled him back while shouting his name.

"Eric! Wake up!" they yelled. "Eric! Eric! Get it together!"

They slapped his face as they shouted his name, but the scout didn't respond to them at all. The eerie smile remained on his face; it was as if he was in a state of bliss.

After a while, his body no longer moved, then a faint shadow slipped out of his body which then flew quickly into the forest, vanishing from their view. When they looked at Eric again, they found that he'd stopped breathing.

"He's dead," said Larson. He looked at Link with eyes full of horror.

The expressions on the other scouts were no different.

The whole forest turned dead silent for a while. This realm had now gotten even scarier than they'd expected.

"That's what it looked like!" Felina shouted suddenly. "The dark shadow I saw earlier moved with the same speed as the shadow that came out of Eric's body!"

Felina's voice helped Annie regain her senses. She then carefully inspected the direction the shadow moved earlier.

"There's no sign on the ground at all," said Annie.

"Was it Eric's soul just now?"

"He was murmuring the name Ally just now," said Felina. "Who's Ally?"

"Ally is the name of his dead daughter," answered a scout who was Eric's friend. "She'd fallen into the river and drowned because of Eric's negligence. He'd always blamed himself for her death."

"Then was it Ally's voice just now?" asked Felina. "Or was it something else that pretended to be Ally to lure Eric?"

The scouts all stared at each other, each imagining scarier things in their heads.

"I've got a bad feeling about this," said Felina to Link. "What should we do now?"

Link frowned deeply now. He looked up into the sky and saw that it had become dark and heavy with clouds. Nonetheless, the pressure he felt from the Dark Serpent was much relieved from what he felt before. They must be quite far away from the Dark Serpent now. This made Link decide to take out the Dimensional Scroll again.

"I don't think we should stay long in the Soul Realm," said Link.

He then directed his Mana into the scroll, and a mysterious aura emanated from the scroll and spread out into the surroundings. Then, just as a drop of ink spread in a glass of water, the world gradually turned brighter, and the colors became more vivid. The white snow appeared, and the frigid wind began to whistle through the air.

Even though they knew that they were still in the Dark Elves' territory and were still chased by someone with a god-level device, the sight of this familiar realm made everyone heave a sigh of relief.

"God of Light!" shouted one of the scouts suddenly, "we've entered the Dark Elves' mass grave!"

Because of the ongoing war, the Dark Elves' graveyard had a large number of corpses that were just dumped here to rot. Some of them were humans, and some were Dark Elves, while hanging from the trees were many executed human soldiers.

A gust of wind blew through, and it brought with it the unbearably rancid stench of decaying corpses.

"This is a cursed site!" exclaimed Felina with a scowl. "Let's get out of here now!"

Naturally, there was no reason to stay in this place for long. After identifying the right direction, they then continued to journey south. However, not long afterwards, Felina suddenly began to tilt her head as if to listen more carefully to a sound in the air.

"Link, listen!" she whispered. "Someone is chasing us. They're very fast, and judging from the footsteps, I think there must be about 30 of them."

Link cast the spell Civet's Ear on himself and tilted his head to listen as well. Seconds later, he turned back to Felina and the rest and frowned.

"This is bad," he said. "By the sound of their footsteps, they must all be ghouls. There's one demon Battle Mage with them as well. They must've discovered us. I think the mistress of Skeletal Fort must be among them too."

Link's outstanding memory meant that he could recognize the same person again after only hearing their footsteps once. That was how he knew that the demon was the one who had previously retreated on the fields near the Skeletal Fort. Even though he wasn't the most courageous fighter, the demon was still at Level-7, so he mustn't be underestimated.

"We are about three miles away from them," said Felina. "With the ghouls' speed, I'm afraid it's too late for us to run."

There were seven of them. Link didn't have much Mana left, and although Felina was a Level-7 Warrior, she was still outnumbered. The four scouts were all Level-4 Assassins, so they were no match for the ghouls. Karnose, on the other hand, was on the verge of transforming into a demon. Not only was he unable to fight, he was dead weight at the moment.

It seemed that they were cornered into a dead end in this realm!

"We'll enter the Soul Realm again," said Link after some contemplation. "Once we've evaded them, we'll come back. That's the only choice we have."

Everyone looked at each other and nodded silently, resigned to their fate.

Link once again took out the scroll, triggered it with his Mana, then the world's color faded again and transformed into the dark, gray and creepy alternate Black Forest.

"Let's move as fast as we can to get as far away from the ghouls as possible!"

...

In the Black Forest of the normal realm.

Auselia who was chasing Link and the rest at full speed suddenly sensed something. She stretched out her hand to stop the ghoul beside her from moving.

"Those mice have run into a hole again," she said. "This isn't fun anymore."

"What should we do then, Messenger of Darkness?" asked Bruttan.

Auselia went silent for a while before answering.

"I need a Magician who can enter the alternate realm," she finally said. "We're only about 50 miles away from the Black Lake. Why don't you go back to Horton Tower and fetch me Master Aymons? I need his wisdom."

"I'll be on my way immediately!" answered Bruttan eagerly. He knew that Auselia was unhappy with him, so he must show his enthusiasm now. After receiving the order, he quickly turned around and rushed towards the Black Lake.

Auselia stared at the Black Forest in front of her and pursed her lips. She seemed to have gotten into a gloomy mood.

"My precious," she whispered as she gently caressed the whip in her hand, "I'm very sorry, darling. I haven't gotten you a fresh soul yet. But don't worry, it won't be long now. Yes, it will soon come to pass."

...

At the same time, a solitary young lady walked along the southern border of the Black Forest. She had a pair of pure and bright eyes, and her facial features were exquisite. She wore a lovely sleek blue dress, and she had a small sword on her waist. She stood at the edge of the Black Forest and looked up at the tall spruce of the forest. Suddenly, she stopped moving completely.

"Master's information is lost, re-testing...Testing failed..."

The expression on her face was dull and emotionless. Soon her crisp and toneless voice emerged again, "Enable probability analysis...Start fuzzy tracking..."

After a pause, the young woman rushed into a direction in the depths of the Black Forest.

She was very fast, and after moving only about 10 feet, there was an explosion in the air. Then, the young woman disappeared into the forest. Wherever she passed, the birds flew away, and the small creatures hid in their burrows and nests as if a ferocious beast had just crawled past.