Chapter 42: Infernal Tiger
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Chapter 42: Infernal Tiger

With Ain’s instructions, Nox eagerly circled around the Creeping Serpents. Using Haunt, it suddenly vanished from sight and moved behind the disguised snakes. Then, it manifested Phantom Claws to silently slash at the credulous ambushers! The three Creeping Snakes were dismembered in just one attack! A spray of blood erupted as their severed bodies fell, raising some dust which soon settled.

“That was… a nasty kill,” Hugo said, wincing at the dreadful assassination.

“I guess it was overkill for some Rank-0 Creeping Serpents…” Ain replied in reconsideration. In fact, a spell from either of them would have sufficed.

“Wooo…!” Nox didn’t share their sentiments. It returned triumphantly with some nonsensical bragging. These were its first solo kills! It was naturally excited! Ain placated his spirit pet with some praise before stowing away the Creeping Snakes. Their corpses could still net a profit.

With the path now cleared, their journey also continued. Just five minutes later, Hugo turned to Ain eagerly. “Ace can see the first moon. We’re almost there!”

Ain smiled in response. They hastened their pace. Soon, a large boulder was visible past the dense trees. The spherical boulder, reaching tens of meters high, situated in an even clearing, served as a thriving bed for vibrant moss and colorful lichen, exuding a heavy and ancient aura.

“This is the first moon. The Sun Poppies and Infernal Tiger should be north of here. Let’s take a break. I’ll have Ace search for them in the meantime,” Hugo said, wiping the sweat on his face. The blistering summer was giving way to a deciduous autumn, yet the afternoon heatwave was still unbearable.

“Sure. Let’s take a break. Nox will keep a lookout,” Ain readily agreed. The first moon’s vicinity was said to be relatively safe. As their spirit pets performed their respective tasks, Ain and Hugo took out some food and water. Curiously, Hugo didn’t display his storage ring on his fingers either. With a simple sturdy chain, he’d turned it into a necklace hidden beneath his shirt.

Under the first moon’s ample shade, a conversation enriched their meal. “Have you looked into the recruitment tests yet?” Hugo asked with a mouthful.

“Yeah, I researched a little. There are two tests, right? The first one’s a specialized test and the second one is a comprehensive one,” Ain recollected after finishing his bite.

“That’s right. Have you decided on a topic for the specialized test?”

“Intelligence,” Ain answered directly.

“Intelligence? Oh right, your innate talent is Deep Insight which increases your cognitive abilities. The Intelligence test might work out for you,” Hugo expounded while nodding his head. The first test assessed any one outstanding characteristic chosen by the participant. These characteristics were pre-established, encompassing combat strength, intelligence, and skill in craftsman professions. Arcane Heart University, a dominant entity in Dawnstar Federation, naturally disregarded the mediocre. This specialized test alone was said to eliminate most participants.

“What about you? Have you decided on your specialized test?” Ain inquired. He was curious about Hugo's choice.

“Me? I’m not taking the first test,” Hugo answered with a mysterious smirk.

Ain paused before continuing unsurely, “You have an enrollment token?”

Elric Hyfner, the Arcane Enforcer who rescued him, had mentioned enrollment tokens. Ain had specifically searched for them on Cyberspace afterward. Arcane Heart University distributed enrollment tokens, allowing for direct admission into the university, bypassing the entire recruitment process. These tokens were extremely rare, obtainable only through undisclosed channels.

“Ah, so you know about them,” Hugo chuckled, dropping the enigmatic façade. He added, “You’re right. I’m gonna use my enrollment token to bypass the first test.”

“Just the first test? What about the comprehensive test?” Ain asked.

“I’m going to participate in that. There’s actually an open secret to it,” Hugo said. He leaned in before continuing, “I only discovered it accidentally while talking to someone who joined last year. Apparently, if you participate in the second test, you’ll get Arcane Credits after admission.”

“Arcane Credits? What are those?” Ain’s revealed a confused expression. Despite its utility, not everything was available on Cyberspace. At least not with his 2-star access. Moreover, certain information required an exclusive search. How could he search for something he wasn’t even aware of?

Hugo pondered Ain’s question before answering, “From what I found, Arcane Credits are like currency in Arcane Heart University. They can be exchanged for resources and knowledge. I heard that meditation techniques, spells, and martial arts are only obtainable through Arcane Credits.”

“I see…” Ain was enlightened. From the four essentials – resources, knowledge, companions, and location; his concern, and interest, largely lay in knowledge. It seemed Arcane Credits were integral to his future. He silently contemplated for a while before changing the topic. “So, where did you get the enrollment token?” He asked curiously.

“I-uh, I…” The question whisked away Hugo’s smile as he suddenly stammered in response. He stared down at the grass blankly, the food in his hand pausing midair, his lips struggling to articulate his thoughts.

Ain immediately noted the unusualness. Just as he was about to speak, Hugo’s shoulders slumped as he sighed, “It’s from my dad.”

“Oh.” Ain feigned understanding. He believed Hugo wasn’t inclined to answer but he thought incorrectly. With a rueful expression, Hugo added, “I’m from Duskfield City. You probably haven’t heard of it since it’s pretty far from here.”

“My parents were part of the local Law Enforcement Agency, serving as Law Enforcers. A few years ago, my mom accidentally discovered a secret plot of some demons who’d infiltrated the city. She managed to send out the news but didn’t survive until the reinforcements arrived.”

“Later, in his anger, my dad single-handedly uncovered their secrets before eliminating them all. He gained a lot of merit for his actions. A lot of the details were confidential, but his merits were enough for three promotions. In the end, he declined the promotions and decided to retire. His merits were left unredeemed.”

“Fortunately, when I awakened a few months ago, he decided to exchange his merits for an enrollment token. That’s how I got it.” Hugo concluded his tale wistfully.

“I see.” Ain said, falling silent. He didn’t know what else to say. His emotional intelligence definitely necessitated enhancements. Just when the stillness was becoming awkward, Ace returned with its findings.

“Ace found the Sun Poppies. The Infernal Tiger is resting nearby,” Hugo informed after a deep breath, his exhale seemingly expelling the unpleasant emotions.

“Alright. Let’s finish up.” Ain said in response. They hurried to conclude their meal and promptly set off. Soon, the first moon was shrouded by the overlapping branches once again. Within just minutes, the duo neared their targets, concealing themselves at a distance.

“What’s the plan?” Hugo whispered. His belief in Ain’s judgment was almost instinctual, influenced by the knowledge of Ain’s innate talent.

“Let me try an assassination. Find a suitable position and prepare to attack.” Ain replied softly. They hadn’t seen the Infernal Tiger yet. Ace had confirmed its presence tens of meters away. Receiving Hugo’s silent nod of approval, Ain commenced the plan.

Upon activating Nox’s Possession, he concurrently cast Haunt, vanishing before Hugo’s astounded gaze. With great prudence, Ain crept closer to the Infernal Tiger’s reported location. His footsteps were deliberate, largely avoiding the decaying carpet of flora until he saw a ferocious tiger resting beside a cluster of orange flowers. The reclining beast, exuding feral savagery, featured a midnight black coat patterned with fiery stripes of yellow, orange, and red. Its hefty claws were massive, gleaming in the sparse sunrays avoiding the ancient trees. This was the Infernal Tiger. It was lounging beside a bed of Sun Poppies.

An unexpected wind blew across the jungle, lightly rustling the branches as the undergrowth shuffled hypnotically. Ain’s faint tracks were further concealed as he approached the Infernal Tiger. Just five meters away, a pungent beastly odor, propelled by the wind, drowned his olfactory senses. He also sensed the rising air temperature against his skin.

"Good. The wind’s blowing in my direction," Ain thought. This was nature’s timely intervention. With his careful operation, he stepped within three meters of the Infernal Tiger. At this moment, the resting Infernal Tiger’s ears suddenly twitched!

Ain’s eyes widened vigorously. Disregarding the stealth, he immediately bolted towards the Infernal Tiger with his vicious white claws! He aimed for the neck!

Clash!

A powerful force surged into his white claws like a meteoric impact, almost blasting him away. Ain stared at the Infernal Tiger incredulously. With unexpected agility, the crouching Infernal Tiger had countered with its own massive claws!

The Infernal Tiger faced him with menacing red eyes. Then, it furiously roared!

“ROAR!!!”

Ain’s vision trembled as his body froze, drowned by the threatening soundwave. Haunt was uncontrollably canceled. His stunned form appeared before the enraged Infernal Tiger! Just as it pounced at him, a powerful blast of wind struck its side, forcefully diverting its descent! A swift Wind Slash followed the Aero Blast, compelling the Infernal Tiger to retreat. At this point, Ain recovered his bearings and shouted, “Be careful! It’s reached Branded Rank-1 already!”

“What!?” Hugo exclaimed. This Infernal Tiger was reported to be at Initiated Rank-1!

Ain's first battle against a stronger, Branded Rank-1 Spirit Beast! Let's see how this plays out in the next chapter!

Remember to leave your comments!

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