The mutated ants discovered the helicopter's presence in the air and began flying up one by one.
Maybe the number of specimens that could fly was low, because the Hunters could only see seven flying up to meet them.
"Let me take care of them."
The sole Mage-type Hunter among the team, Choi Jong-In, stepped forward. His skill, 'Flame Spear', was called into action.
As soon as he was done casting his magic, seven bodies of floating flames drew long lines in the air to resemble burning spears and slammed accurately into the airborne ants.
It was difficult to kill a single ant monster with scattered firepower, but it was more than enough to burn away their wings.
With their wings burnt off, the ants fell freely back to the earth. Choi Jung-In tightly clenched his fist while witnessing the result of his hard work. However, now wasn't the time to bask in the glow of his victory.
Choi Jong-In turned around and asked Mah Dong-Wook.
"What's happening with the Japanese side?"
The ants had noticed their approach and began moving now. Meaning, there was no more time for them to take it easy.
Mah Dong-Wook paid attention to the radio receiver stuck in his ear. As a Tanker, he was named as the leader of the Korean side of the raid team.
"They say they have landed on the island now...."
Just as he was done speaking up, there was a loud explosion from afar.
As if that was the signal, several more explosion began ringing up from all parts of the island as thick, choking smoke plumes rose up. The fourth subjugation operation was now officially underway.
The Master the Reapers Guild, Im Tae-Gyu, looked out of the helicopter's window, and at the ground far below, a deep frown forming on his forehead.
Thousands of ants were pouring out of the ant tunnel, before splitting up into four smaller swarms to rush towards the four cardinal directions.
"That's some creepy and disgusting thing to look at. Seriously, man."
"Doesn't it look like most of them have left the tunnel now?"
"....It does, doesn't it?"
The once-lengthy lines of ants soon came to an end, leaving behind a massive gaping hole in the ground. That was the entrance to the ant tunnel.
The scale of the ant tunnel must've been rather incredible, because the entrance itself was as big as the mouth of a tunnel one would see commonly on the national highway.
And in the deepest past of the ant tunnel, the ant queen was waiting for their arrival.
This raid team only had one goal – to eliminate the ant queen.
Before they set off to invade the ant tunnel, Mah Dong-Wook gestured and gathered the raid team members around him. He even gestured towards the hesitant cameraman, too.
Everyone participating in this operation pressed their heads together.
"During hundreds of simulation runs, Japanese were only able to buy us one hour, tops. Which means, we need to kill the ant queen within that hour, no matter what."
He didn't bother to speak about the possibility of 'if we fail'. Unlike the first three subjugation raids, there was no escape path this time around for them. They would be utterly cut off inside the ant tunnel.
Mah Dong-Wook studied the faces of each raid members, and they returned a nod, a look of grim determination clearly etched on each one.
'These are the best individual team members imaginable.'
Unless there was another tragedy similar to Jeju Island happening in the future, one would never come across an opportunity to hunt together with members this capable ever again.
Mah Dong-Wook was deeply honoured to be the leader of this team.
They soon finished reconfirming their resolve, and then...
From the helicopter, seven people, the six members of the raid team and the lone cameraman, jumped out.
"How long has it been since the Koreans went inside?"
Goto Ryuji threw out a question.
Now originally, it was Goto Ryuji's job to communicate with the mission control centre. But, as he didn't enjoy carrying around bothersome things, another Hunter was tasked with doing so. It was precisely this person that provided the answer.
"They say it has been less than 10 minutes."
"Ten minutes, is it...."
Time to start the escape procedure, then.
Before they started withdrawing from Jeju Island, though, Goto Ryuji briefly scanned his vicinity. The corpses of the massacred ants were piled up on high.
The role of the Japanese in this raid, on the surface, of course, was to attract the attention of the ants. They didn't even focus on killing the ants and concentrated on retreating in order to buy as much time as possible, yet they still managed to achieve such a feat.
'The Koreans might find these ants as tough opponents, but they are nothing to us, the Japanese.'
The unbridled confidence caused the corner of Goto Ryuji's lips to arc up. He kicked away an ant corpse hampering his steps to a far away distance and immediately issued the order to withdraw.
Finally, it was time for them to start moving towards the true goal of the Japanese team.
"Excuse me, Goto-san."
The Hunter in charge of the communication formed a worried expression.
"I can't get in touch with Team 3 from a while ago."
'Is it equipment malfunction...?'
The instances of equipment, that had gone through multiple meticulous checks, malfunctioning right before an important part of the mission, or during the important part itself, did happen occasionally.
The landing point of Team 3 was in the southern part of the island. Goto Ryuji's Team 1 landed on the western part and they had been constantly moving south, so their distance shouldn't be that great.
"What is the estimated distance between our current position and the last known position of Team 3 before the communication failure?"
"With our current speed, we should be able to get there within ten minutes."
As expected, it wasn't far. At this rate, Team 3 would never get to hear the order to withdraw and get left behind in the island, eventually meeting a very bad end for themselves.
When he thought about the next subjugation operation that would take place involving only the Japanese personnel, he simply couldn't afford to have five rank S Hunters as KIAs.
Also, because Team 3 was planned to be deployed on the southern part of the island, which was the closest to the ant tunnel, the whole team was made up of the best of the best among Japan's elite.
Losing them here meant that Japan would greatly suffer as well.
'Well, I'm sure nothing bad has happened over there....'
Indeed, it must've been a minor error. Nothing to worry about.
After a short deliberation, Goto Ryuji decided on the next course of action.
"We shall head over there and take a look."
The moment Jin-Woo stopped his usual daily run, the familiar mechanical beep rang out in his ear.
[Total distance ran: 10 km.]
[You've completed Running, 10 km.]
Completely the opposite to when he started doing the Daily Quests, Jin-Woo wasn't even out of breath. He had repeated these Daily Quests for so long, it simply felt like the part of his daily routine now.
Soon, along with the completion message, his rewards figuratively landed on his lap.
Out of the three Stat bonus points he gained as a reward, Jin-Woo spent two on his Agility, while the remaining point was spent on his Strength.
(Available points to distribute: 0)
Reduction in the physical damage: 46%
Seeing that almost all of his Stats were now ending with a '0', a satisfied smile crept up on his face.
'If only I had one more point....'
Although it was regretful, he couldn't manufacture a point out of thin air, so there was no helping it. Still, looking at his Stat value that had risen up evenly like this, a smile automatically bloomed on his lips.
After he raised Intelligence Stat to 250, he began maintaining a balance of sorts and made sure that not one Stat was left behind.
'All five Stats are indispensable to me.'
That was his final assessment after levelling up and raising his Stats for a long time. Regardless of which Stat it was, with their numerical values continuing to soar higher, he hadn't been disappointed once so far by their usefulness.
He was planning to continue with this Stat balancing act for the foreseeable future – as long as there weren't any unexpected circumstances forcing him to change, of course.
Jin-Woo dismissed the Stat Window with a satisfied grin still etched on his face. He then took a look around him. His neighbourhood had always been on the quieter side, but today, he failed to spot a single soul so far. He could easily guess the reason why, though.
Jin-Woo pulled his phone out and confirmed the current time.
'I knew it.'
The Korea-Japan united team's raid would be in full swing by now. And pretty much every single citizen should be glued to their TV screens, too.
Jin-Woo turned around. His Daily Quest was already over, but the steps leading him back home were far more urgent than usual.
The operation was unfolding smoothly so far.
Just as the Japanese had predicted, Mah Dong-Wook's team didn't encounter any obstructions as they entered the deeper parts of the ant tunnel.
The inside of the tunnel resembled the cave-type dungeons in its layout. However, if there was one clear difference to note, then that would be the lack of illuminating stones. The Hunters had to provide light themselves to see where they were going.
The cameraman thought that he had plenty of experience exploring dungeons before, but today, he just had to nervously swallow his saliva.
His current position was right at the back of the group. The team maintained a formation of Choi Jong-In standing right at the front to light their way using magic, while the other Hunters were sticking very close to him.
The cameraman also had a flashlight attached to his headgear for the purpose of filming.
Unfortunately, this darkness was infused with a heavy amount of magical energy. The flashlight didn't provide as much help as the magic from a rank S Mage, and it could just barely illuminate a bit of space in front of his eyes.
"It's really quiet in here."
Choi Jong-In voiced his opinion without giving it too much thought, and Mah Dong-Wook next to him nodded his head to express his agreement.
As a leader and a Tanker, he was duty-bound to protect the Mage, Choi Jong-In, who should originally be stationed at the far back.
Was that the reason why? Mah Dong-Wook continued to glare at the surroundings with a pair of sharp, focused eyes. His usual, out-going demeanour was nowhere to be seen now.
It was the same story with Baek Yun-Ho, as well. He activated the 'Eyes of the Beast' even before entering the ant tunnel. He hadn't spoken a single word and did his absolute hardest to latch on to any slight movement or deviation in the flow of the magic energy.
Both Min Byung-Gu and the cameraman also carried deeply tense expressions.
Only Cha Hae-In maintained that expressionless face of hers, silently walking forward while her hand rested on the hilt of her sword.
It was then.
"Look, over there...."
He must've found something in the distance, because Choi Jong-In raised his voice.
The Hunters all gasped out in nasty shock.
Countless ant eggs were attached to the walls and the ceiling of this huge chamber with nary an empty space between them.
They could see dark-coloured larva wiggling inside the semi-transparent shell of each egg. There could only ever be one emotion they felt when facing this nursery area filled with gloomy, dreary atmosphere and a seriously terrible stench.
That would be 'sheer disgust'.
"Don't you think we should just burn all these away?"
Choi Jong-In spoke, his expression crumpling greatly.
For the first time since he entered this ant tunnel, Mah Dong-Wook formed a smile.
"I'd like nothing more than to do exactly that, but since we don't have much time, let us not."
Even if all of these creatures hatched, they would only live for no more than one year, at most. As long as they could kill the mother, they didn't have to worry about these critters anymore.
"....Here they come."
Baek Yun-Ho pointed towards the distant darkness and warned the rest of the team. Even before he made his warning, though, Cha Hae-In had unsheathed her sword already.
Mah Dong-Wook pulled the shield as large as his body right up to his chin and glared at his front.
A group of around ten ants appeared at the same time. As if they were born on Jeju Island and had gone through some sort of a mutation, all of them didn't have eyes.
"Are they the queen's guards?" Asked Mah Dong-Wook.
Choi Jong-In shook his head.
"No, they are not. Looks like they are here to guard the nursery area."
"In that case, this shouldn't be difficult."
If they were regular monsters, not the guards of the boss creature, then there was just no way these critters could withstand the combined firepower of a raid team consisting entirely of rank S Hunters!
Knowing better than anyone else that there wasn't a lot of time, Mah Dong-Wook jumped into the fray first.
Hunters followed after him. Right behind them, flames flared out brightly from Choi Jong-In's hands, and arrows fired by Im Tae-Gyu sliced up the air as they flew to their targets.
Just as Mah Dong-Woo predicted, the battle was concluded pretty quickly.
The head of the last ant fell to the ground. Cha Hae-In wordlessly shook off the bodily fluids clinging onto her sword. Meanwhile, Mah Dong-Wook spoke up.
"Since the nursery area is right here, that means...."
Choi Jong-In provided the follow-up.
"....The queen's lair is nearby."
As the Hunters began checking their equipment before they rushed into the decisive showdown against the ant queen, the cameraman began looking here and there to capture more footage. But then, he gasped out in pure shock.
The gazes of the Hunters were immediately focused on him.
"I-I'm really sorry."
Momentarily forgetting that the camera attached to his head was actually broadcasting to the rest of the nation, the cameraman hurriedly bowed towards the Hunters. Sensing something was afoot, Baek Yun-Ho approached the cameraman.
"Did you find something?"
"Ah, well, it's just that.... Over there."
The cameraman sheepishly smiled and pointed to the corner of the chamber.
"There's a pile of empty eggshells over there, but like, one of them happens to be really, really big, you see."
Baek Yun-Ho's eyes grew larger.
It was as the cameraman said. Most of the eggs containing regular ants were only about the size of a bicycle wheel, yet the one pointed out was as big as a grown man....
The lengthy and ovoid shape of the egg was large enough to say that a fully-grown ant specimen must've emerged from it.
'That's also an ant egg??'
"....Just what the hell came out of that egg?"
Min Byung-Gu had walked closer before anyone had noticed it; there was a look of huge shock on his face as well. Baek Yun-Ho's expression was stiff for a brief moment, but he quickly changed it to a grin as he lightly slapped Min Byung-Gu's back.
"We're here to kill the queen. Let's not worry about anything else."
Min Myung-Gu carried an uneasy expression as he turned around to walk over to where the rest of the Hunters were. Before he joined the others, Baek Yun-Ho took one last look at that egg.
'That's just crazy....'
'This is just crazy....'
Goto Ryuji had to doubt whether his own eyes were working properly or not.
Other Japanese Hunters either convulsed in shock or muttered lowly under their breaths.
Goto Ryuji frowned deeply as he scanned his surroundings. The Hunters of Team 3 were found in the exact location where their communication had been cut off. All five of them were here, but without their heads.
The sight of their headless colleagues lying on the ground as corpses left a shocking mental imprint on the other Hunters.
Goto Ryuji wordlessly massaged his temples, before approaching the bodies to check out their wounds.
'This wasn't done by a blade.'
The necks of the dead Hunters were all roughly bitten off.
'Just how much of a biting force was it for their necks to end up like this?'
While Goto Ryuji was stewing in his astonishment, one of his fellow Hunters walked in closer and angrily spat out.
"How dare these d*mn ants....!!"
Goto quickly shook his head.
"It's not 'ants'."
"Whether this was the handiwork of an ant or not, there was only one enemy."
"B-but, how can that be?!"
Goto Ryuji swallowed his saliva.
No matter how hard he searched, he couldn't see any hint of a battle taking place here. If ants pushed on with sheer numbers to annihilate Team 3, then he should've found corpses of dead ants or some other traces around this area. However, he couldn't find anything.
Also, the wounds on the dead Hunters – judging from the location of the attack, it was more than likely that they were killed by a single assailant.
'How could a team of the best Hunters from Japan fall to a single monster....?'
If his guess was correct, then only a rank S dungeon's boss could do something like this.
Goto Ryuji quickly snatched the communication device from the Hunter next to him and spoke up.
- "Yes, please speak."
"Where is the ant queen? Did it come out of the tunnel?"
- "Let me confirm."
The magic energy detection camera mounted on the spy satellite. Only America, Japan and China possessed such technology in the entire world.
In reality, China had to hack the Americans to copy the camera system, so one could argue that only the USA and Japan truly possessed this technology.
The location of the ant queen, as monitored by the technology Japan so proudly boasted to the rest of the world, soon came out of the receiver.
- "No, Goto-san. The queen is still inside its chamber. Ah, the Korean Hunters are entering the queen's chamber as we speak."
"What was that?!"
Goto Ryuji stood right up.
He felt his heart nearly leap out of his mouth just then.
'The queen didn't do this?!'
His breathing quickened. He realised that something was going terribly wrong here. Goto Ryuji hurriedly issued a new order.
"Issue the withdrawal.... Tell every single Japanese Hunter to escape from this island immediately."
- "Yes, sir. Understood."
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