045 Exploring the Demon Woods 2 p.3

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“......?”

A strange sensation hit Sheeran.

A tremor. A faint vibration was felt from her left hand against the trunk.

She involuntarily jumped back and braced herself.

“...... Did the tree just shiver?”

"Trees that shiver?”

“Could it be a Treant, by any chance?”

Mariano was referring to tree monsters similar to the spiritual creatures, which could move according to their own wills. They were called the protectors of the forest, and although they were generally mild-mannered, they would act mercilessly towards lumberjacks and humans who threatened their habitat. By attempting to carve and damage its body, they have undoubtedly angered the Treant.

“But it’s not moving.”

“Could it be just in your head? I've never heard of Treant staying still after being stabbed.”

“......Is that so?”

Unsatisfied with the explanation. Sheeran tilted her head. Joel made a suggestion to her.

“Why don’t we try to put a fire near it. Tree spirits hate fire and would probably react to it?”

“...... No, let's not. No good can come from angering it.”

If it was Treant, it would be a bad idea to provoke it into a fight. It’s entire body was made of hardwood so Sheeran’s arrows were ineffective against it. Moreover, Mariano’s mace would likely be lacking too. Joel's sword and Rosalie's magic might work, but they would want to avoid the situation where Joel’s sword dulls and Rosalie expends too much magic. It was unheard of to attempt subjugating a tree spirit for the fun of it, especially so when they had enough power to manipulate the forest environment. They were good for hunting because their wood was of high quality, but this area was dangerous. They were deep within the Trees of Darkness. It was best to avoid combat that had no important purpose.

“......First of all, if we are wrong, it just becomes a huge torch.”

“That's true too. Let's hurry up.”

“I see. To begin with, A Treant isn't enough to dominate all the monsters in this area. Perhaps the big one is ahead?”

Having come to that conclusion, the group rushed ahead.

However, Sheeran had lingering concerns about the tree.

The sensation she felt on her fingertips were still vivid in her. The sticky sap that oozed from the trunk. It was not anything like blood. She wasn’t sure if it was because of the tension of exploring unknown territory, but she couldn't get the experience out of her head. Should she have studied the tree in more detail? No, if I did, if it was really a Treant, they would have to fight a futile battle. She was distracted by these thoughts.

At the moment she decided that this was no good and she had to be more attentive,

“"What!?”

Rosalie, who was in the middle, jumped up with a jolt.

“What's up, Rosalie?”

“No, something cold got onto my face. ......rain?”

“It shouldn’t be. I don’t hear rain.”

As Mariano had said, the Trees of Darkness was a place with tall trees high enough to cover the sky like a ceiling. If it rained here, the raindrops would hit the leaves and branches above their heads before landing on them.

“Don't surprise me like that. It’s probably just leftover morning dew falling from above--”

Joel looked up, jokingly. His face became frozen and tense.

“What, Joel. What's up there...... ahhh!”

Rosalie, too, made a small shriek. Both Mariano and Sheeran turned to look up and were equally stunned.

On a tree about three meters above their heads, there was a human-like thing lodged between the branches.

A corpse. A corpse with its intestines spilled open and its face frozen in horror. It was hanging in the air, as if it was on display.

Of course, the corpse was not human. It was still fresh and undecomposed, unlike what they would expect if these corpses were from the prospectors or adventurers from the search party. Even if somehow their bodies had been deformed, the corpse they saw was far too different from a human’s.

“...A troll.”

They were humanoid monsters that were inferior to ogres in terms of intelligence, but possessed abilities and a physique that surpassed ogres. They were powerful monsters that were assessed to be near the limits of what C rankers could take on. If the trolls grouped up, even B-ranked adventurers would have to be requested.

It was highly anomalous to find the corpse of such a strong monster hanging by the trees. In fact, there were not just one or two corpses. A quick look revealed five dead trolls hanging from the branches. The scene was so frightening that the members of the Guardian of Balance paused as if they were bound in chains. They were well aware that there was no simple existence inside the Trees of Darkness since an entire alliance of adventurers was wiped out. However, what kind of monster was lurking inside, to be able to cause trolls to end up like this?

“These trolls are hung out like a butcher hanging his chickens...”

“Does it mean that these trolls are bait? To save it, such as--”

“......Dangerous. We have to get out quickly.”

Everybody immediately agreed with Sheeran’s assertion. This place was either the monster’s home or somewhere near it. And this was definitely no ordinary monster. It would not be absurd at all for them to be attacked right now.

They could no longer continue their search for evidence and clues. They did not feel a single sign of the monster, or even a trace of it, until they had stepped into its feeding ground. There was no way they could risk fighting such a cunning and powerful monster.

There was no choice but to retreat.

But it was too late to make such a retreat.

—Crack, crack, crack.

From above, the sound of crushed and smashed trees approached. The thick branches that could even support the troll’s carcass, still screamed and broke from the something that was approaching. Something big and heavy was falling from above with tremendous force.

— Crash.

A huge body, even bigger than an ox or horse, landed with a resounding thud.

The monster that appeared had a strange body. Four of its large legs, with claws, resembled that of a tiger, and its huge coated wings looked like it was from a bat. Its long tail with countless spikes, swung up menacingly, resembling that of a scorpion, and from the tip grew thick needles that dripped venomous mucus.There was a rugged mane across its neck. It may be described similar to a lion, but the actual impression it gave was different. From the wicked glint in its eyes, the shape of its nose, the way it scorned at them from its distorted mouth...Its face was blasphemously similar to a human face.

“Manticore......”

Someone in the party uttered the name of the monster while in a daze.

Manticore. A demonic beast with combined features of multiple beasts with a human face that lurks in a forest. The name meant 'man-eater' in ancient language.

Its physical strength, intelligence, magical prowess, and traits were all dangerous to humanity. Their subjugation rank was B+, making them a target only for inhuman high rankers with great ability.

“Sacrifice......! Sacrifice......! Offer up yourself, dedicate yourself, to feed me......!”

The monster with the face of an ugly man howled, spoke in human language as though it was natural. The air trembled and the leaves rustled. The malevolent wave enveloped the four C-ranked adventurers and took away their ability to move.

In other words, they could not escape anymore.

“......There was no sign of it in the forest. ......Could it have been in the skies— ”

“This is not the time to be thinking about that, Sheeran!”

“Get ready! It's coming!”

“Yes, I know!”
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