ANNOUNCEMENT: CHE SERIES IS DROPPED!

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    Martha was originally from a small village in Rohan, known for producing high-quality grapes.

    Her beauty was quite renowned in the area, with the villagers whispering that she would soon become the lord’s concubine and live a luxurious life. That is, until a group of bandits turned the village into ashes.

    Martha became the woman of Jerome, the bandit leader.

    It was an unexpected forced marriage, but she quickly adapted to her new life. There was little difference in the hardship between toiling under the scorching sun in the lord’s vineyard and being the wife of a bandit leader.

    Moreover, although Jerome occasionally lost his temper and raised his hand roughly, he generally cherished the beautiful Martha.

    However, another misfortune soon befell her. When her pregnancy was well advanced, she was punched in the abdomen by a drunk Jerome, causing her to collapse and bleed.

    She regained consciousness a full day later, but she had already miscarried the child.

    As she sat blankly in the hut, her soul seemingly departed, Jerome gazed at her with a pained expression. Not long after, he brought a baby wrapped in a small swaddling cloth and tossed it in front of Martha’s eyes.

    It was a pretty baby boy with soft red hair and jet-black eyes like obsidian.

    Martha could never forget the first moment their eyes met.

    The little one in the swaddling cloth stared at her intently without crying. The child’s pitch-black eyes were so deep and dark, seeming to reflect no light, as if they would devour her image and even suck in her soul.

    It was terrifying. This was far too frightening.

    Martha felt an urge to throw the swaddling cloth away, but she couldn’t do anything due to a vague fear that it would swallow her whole if she did.

    “It’s a… lovely child.”

    Seeing her smile while shedding tears, Jerome was pleased. He never realized that those tears were from fear, not joy.

    Baby Kaien grew up fast and strong.

    The few women in the village envied Martha as they caressed the child’s face, pretty as a porcelain doll. Jerome was also satisfied with the quiet baby who rarely cried.

    Martha was the only one who always felt uncomfortable around the child.

    Every time she failed to feed him on time or catch him before he fell while playing, she felt an overwhelming terror in her heart when confronted with those expressionless dark eyes staring at her intently.

    Occasionally, when a drunken Jerome tried to raise his hand against the child, Martha had to throw her entire body to block his violence. She did this due to an unfounded anxiety that something terrible would happen to her the moment she failed to be a proper shield for the child.

    Ah, had she gone mad? Sometimes, when she saw the innocent face of the sleeping child, she doubted her own sanity.

    Perhaps it was because Kaien wasn’t her biological son, and she couldn’t love him enough. Maybe there was still a place in her heart for her own baby who died before being born, causing her to resent and unfairly suspect the quick-witted and intelligent Kaien who took that place.

    However, her anxiety soon became reality.

    One day, when she returned from the riverside after doing laundry with other women, Jerome, who had come home early with a clear mind for once, suddenly laid hands on the child for some unknown reason. That day, Kaien was thrown against the wall of the hut, severely twisting his left knee.

    The child, who had suffered a severe injury and would never walk properly again, stared at Martha silently with an expressionless face as soon as he opened his eyes. It was a gaze that sent chills down her spine.

    And the next day, Jerome, who was drinking mindlessly, returned home and began to brutally assault Martha. It was an unprecedented level of violence.

    By the time the subordinates and neighboring women, alerted by the commotion, managed to pull him off, Martha’s left elbow was completely shattered that day.

    It could have been a coincidence. But when Martha opened her eyes, her appearance in tatters, she was confronted with Kaien’s face, smiling brightly at her for the first time.

    ***

    “How much has he figured out, huh? Mom.”

    Martha was vacantly echoing Kaien’s words in her mind.

    “I thought if I sent a cumbersome tumor along, he would definitely roam around familiar places first, but what did I miss? Should I have just let Dad kill him yesterday after all?”

    Stumbling. Her footsteps ascending the cliff were precarious.

    “But if he dies too soon, suspicious Dad might unnecessarily stir up other places again, right? It’s also annoying to let that Aslan kid die too easily. So I wanted to buy one more day, but I guess I was too greedy.”

    Tears flowed uncontrollably. However, regardless of Martha’s will, her feet were steadily heading towards the edge of the cliff.

    “That’s why I need you, Mom. If you just do well, everything will be resolved.”

    She had thought that this arduous life would end someday, but at least not like this…

    “Still, it’s fortunate that you’re useful for once, Mom.”

    With the last thought of Kaien’s face, smiling brightly at her for the second time, Martha’s foot kicked the edge of the cliff.

    ***

    Slam!

    As the bandits barged in with the door swinging open violently, Aslan, who had been dozing off leaning against the wall, woke up with a start. Bart was already standing, observing them.

    Before he could even ask what was going on, one of the men commanded with a stiff face.

    “Get ready. Someone fell from the cliff.”

    Fell from the cliff? The high cliff to the west?

    Then isn’t it already too late?

    Aslan thought so, but the bandits barging in seemed gravely serious. The injured person must be someone quite important.

    He roughly grabbed a few external medicine pouches, painkillers, and bandages, and was dragged out of the hut with Bart.

    By the time they arrived at the base of the cliff, quite a crowd had already gathered around.

    Even before reaching the patient, Aslan realized their fate was already sealed. The patient, with limbs twisted every which way, lay in a pool of their own blood, head submerged. The stench of blood permeated the air.

    Only when he got closer did he realize that person was Martha. Jerome, his face stiff, was silently looking down at her wretched state.

    Feeling that quiet pressure, Aslan hurriedly approached Martha and knelt beside her.

    However, no matter how much he racked his brain, there was nothing he could really do for her. Though she was still breathing faintly, her skull crushed as if the back of her head had been smashed, it didn’t seem like it would last long. Her eyes, already losing focus, were rolling back and forth.

    Bart, who had quietly approached, selected a small pouch from among the herbs they had brought and handed it over.

    Aslan glanced at his face once, then took the pouch and struck a flint. Soon, the herb pouch caught fire, releasing a pungent medicinal scent as it slowly burned.

    “…What’s that?”

    At Jerome’s hoarse voice, Aslan replied.

    “It’s an herb with analgesic effects. It will ease her pain.”

    “……”

    And they silently kept vigil by her side.

    How much time passed? Eventually, her breathing ceased completely, and her pupils dilated wide. Jerome personally closed her eyes and kept his hand on them for a while without a word.

    After a moment, he finally opened his mouth, his voice low and hoarse.

    “…Who found her?”

    “It was Hans from the search party. He said he went to gather wood since it was his day off…”

    “Lock him up in the shed.”

    Gasp. The bandits let out a breath of shock. The man named Hans, his face deathly pale, stumbled forward and knelt before Jerome, trembling.

    “B-Boss! I reported it immediately after finding her! Why me…?”

    “Then tell me who pushed Martha off the cliff.”

    “…What?”

    Jerome said coldly, not even looking at the dumbfounded Hans.

    “If no one pushed her, then you’re the culprit.”

    “That’s…!”

    “What are you all doing?”

    He slowly rose from his spot and swept his gaze over his subordinates. His expression looked as if he would kill someone at any moment, causing a few men who had been observing the situation to grab the still-dazed Hans and back away, faltering.

    After glaring at them for a moment, Jerome then looked down at Aslan, who was sitting beside Martha. That gaze was so murderous that Aslan froze as if he were a mouse before a snake.

    “Herbalists are utterly useless.”

    Spitting out those words, Jerome turned and left.

    Everyone left at the base of the cliff could only look at each other, at a loss for what to do. Putting aside the truth of the incident, now they could no longer predict where the foul-tempered leader’s anger would be directed.

    Aslan was also slowly mulling over Jerome’s last words when suddenly, someone heavily slumped to the ground with a thud. It was Kaien.

    The boy was trembling all over with a face as pale as if he had seen a ghost.

    Even in front of his mother’s death, seeing him in this state, that degenerate human was still human after all—Aslan simply thought. However, he soon realized that wasn’t the case. Kaien’s gaze was not directed at Martha but somewhere else entirely.

    In other words, precisely at…

    ‘Bart?’

    Bart and Kaien were staring at each other.

    Looking up at him unintentionally, Aslan was so shocked that he stopped breathing for a moment. Though his expression was usually cold, Bart’s face now looked terribly mechanical.

    Nevertheless, an eerie sense of anger was vividly conveyed from him. It was a spine-chilling pressure that Jerome’s aura couldn’t even compare to.

    Perhaps it was because of his frigid eyes. Those eyes, reflecting the early afternoon sunlight with a strange silver gleam, held a frosty chill that seemed to freeze one over just by looking from the side. It was no wonder Kaien reacted like that while receiving that gaze head-on.

    Bart glared at Kaien like that for a while with eyes as sharp as a blade, then finally opened his mouth. Anger, extremely restrained, was felt from his calm voice, causing Aslan to feel a chill down his spine without realizing it.

    “Was it all your doing that the spirits on the mountain ended up in that state?”

    “Y-You… who the hell are…”

    “I watched for a bit to see what kind of wicked thing had intervened to cause this mess, but it’s absurd. What have you been devouring? Do you even know what that means?”

    Devouring? What?

    Aslan was puzzled by the incomprehensible words, but Kaien seemed to know something. His eyes widened, making the conspicuous whites of his eyes stand out, almost appearing entirely white.

    “W-What… How do you know that…!”

    Kaien, sweating profusely, scooted back while sitting.

    Only then did a few bandits, noticing their strange atmosphere, intervene between them. They were the men from the raiding party who had been watching Aslan since morning.

    Rolling up their sleeves, they slowly narrowed the encirclement with grim expressions.

    However, with most of the bandits having left following Jerome, the remaining bandits, except for a few from the raiding party, seemed confused about how to handle Aslan and Bart’s situation.

    In the meantime, Kaien, who had staggered to his feet, turned and began to limp away.

    Now was the only chance, Aslan thought.

    Judging from Jerome’s demeanor when they last saw him, he didn’t seem to have any intention of keeping Aslan and Bart alive in the future.

    And it seemed Bart had the same thought.

    “Prepare yourself, Aslan. We must leave this place now.”

    Bam! In an instant, Bart swung his arm and drove his fist into the head of the man standing at the forefront. No, not his fist, but… the man’s forehead caved in the shape of the shackles.

    “…!”

    “That bastard!”

    “Kill him!”

    The surrounding bandits pounced all at once. And in the blink of an eye, they were all knocked to the ground by Bart.

    Bam, thump.

    It was truly an exquisite strike.

    The man, who had appeared so shabby without any aura, was effortlessly knocking down the bandits with a single blow using some unknown technique. He simply grazed past the barrage of punches raining down on him, finding the most concise path to strike the bandits’ vital points with his fist… No, with the shackles.

    What was remarkable was that, even so, no activation of aura could be felt from Bart. He was literally just efficiently swinging the heavy shackles and chains, bashing the men’s heads.

    Soon, there were no bandits left standing at the base of the cliff. Afterwards, each of their heads bore the imprint of shackles like a stamp.

    The power of the shackles, which would mangle his wrists at the slightest attempt to use his hands, was indeed tremendous. Even Bart himself, the one wielding them, seemed surprised by their destructive force.

    He stared at his wrists for a moment, then muttered in admiration.

    “I thought he had just played a nasty prank, but this guy was more prepared than I expected.”

    No, I don’t know what you’re thinking, but I don’t think that’s it, Bart.

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