Episode 201. The Mother Tree (2)

It was the sound of leaves rustling in the wind, and like a whisper coming from right beside him.

“You are…”

Given the open sky in all directions, there was only one possibility.

“The Mother Tree?”

[It seems we have much to talk about. I will be waiting.]

The gentle voice, like the very incarnation of benevolence, quickly faded, and the biting winds of the sky subsided. With that, a gentle spring wind wrapped around him.

At that moment, a surprising change occurred in both mind and body.

The fatigue accumulated by fighting the persistent demonic beings faded as though it had all been a dream. A vitality he had not experienced before spread throughout his body in its place.

It was a different feeling from when he awakened, experienced class advancements, or leveled up. It was almost as though he was being born again.

“What in the world…”

Too busy observing the changes within his own body, Seon-Hyeok only belatedly saw the scene unfolding in front of him and was mesmerized.

“Ah…”

Flower petals were raining down in all directions.

“I guess the Mother intends to welcome you like a valued guest.”

Despite Najima’s fresh, lively voice, Seon-Hyeok only found himself staring blankly into the forest.

The Mother Tree’s greeting was unlike anything he had experienced before.

If there is truly a paradise in this world, would this be it? 

It was a magnificent view out of this world.

However, this was neither paradise nor heaven.

“Those…”

There were shabby tents that did not match the beautiful rain of petals. Similarly shabby and unpretentious people were looking up at the flower rain with dazed expressions.

“Refugees…”

There were tens of thousands of people who fled from the demonic energy.

“There are far more than when I left.”

Najima seemed to know of their existence from the beginning. Hearing her expressionless voice, Seon-Hyeok’s elated body immediately cooled down.

“D, demonic creature!”

“S, save me!”

When they discovered Redvern, the refugees screamed as they tried to flee. The already disorderly tent village quickly descended into chaos.

“Wah! Mommy!”

The sight of a child crying for his mother was even more pitiful from up close.

His yellowish face, scrawny body, and exposed bone structure - it was the definition of a refugee suffering from starvation.

“My child! My child!”

The child’s mother appeared from among the scrambling refugees, hugged her child, and trembled. The mother did not seem to be in any better condition.

Seon-Hyeok tightly closed his eyes upon seeing the mother and child helplessly squatting down and hoping the beast above them would pass by.

He anticipated that there would be more survivors. Although he did not expect to meet them here, there was no reason to be surprised.

But his heart felt heavier than ever at this moment.

Seon-Hyeok thought he witnessed the horrors of the west from much closer up than anyone else, and he thought he experienced it all.

He was mistaken.

The true image of the hellish west was not a city in ruins, or the vast territory blackened with demonic energy. It was not even a terrible field swarming with shrieking demonic beasts where humans once stood.

Despite this, it was natural that he overlooked many factors.

This was because the survivors he had encountered up to this point were all fighters. Though they were cornered, they were capable of fighting to protect themselves.

As a result, he had forgotten.

He had forgotten the existence of the ordinary people who would have been the first victims of the ongoing chaos.

Seon-Hyeok finally saw the horrors of the west the moment he saw these hopeless humans and recalled their plight.

And he realized.

He realized that there was no place for these helpless commoners anywhere in his ideals of the rescue efforts of the western survivors.

“Where the hell did…”

Where the hell did I go wrong?

Have I grown accustomed to killing and death? Or am I blinded by my own lofty position, unable to peer into the sorrows of common people?

It was impossible to tell. All that was certain was that his own mindset was now horrifyingly similar to those of the nobles he loathed for hiding in safety during war and trying to weigh the values of individual lives.

“Damn it…”

His body, energized by the Mother Tree, suddenly felt heavier than ever.

“The Mother did not keep them outside of the forest at first. However, there were far too many people at once, and they did not know how to live with the forest.”

Najima offered an excuse when she saw Seon-Hyeok’s distorted face as he looked at the pitiful refugees. It was clear she misunderstood the reason behind his anger and thought it was because her kind and the Mother Tree did not take proper care of them.

“There was terrible destruction, and the Mother had no choice but to send them to the outskirts of the forest.”

At her words, Seon-Hyeok looked at the remnants of the forest adjacent to the tent village.

He was able to envision the situation at a single glance.

The refugees, forced to flee from the demonic energy without any preparation, would have become greedy upon seeing the abundant forest. They would not have known the love the Qeishas had for their territory, as they cut down the trees for firewood and hunted its animals.

There was bound to be friction between the sides.

In the end, the Mother Tree and the Qeisha tribe were the owners of this forest, and it was natural to follow their rules in their territory.

“So I hope you don’t misunderstand. We Qeishas are not inherently hostile to humans.”

Perhaps she was worried that he would change his mind after coming all this way, or maybe she did not want him to hate her. Either way, Seon-Hyeok could tell that her reason was genuine.

“I understand.”

Unlike Najima’s voice, which remained refreshing even while offering an excuse, Seon-Hyeok’s voice was completely dry.

“You…”

Najima gave a worried look at the sudden change.

“I’m not upset with your kind.”

“Then why do you seem so angry?”

He did not respond to her question. He could not tell what kind of expression he had.

“Phew.”

Seon-Hyeok took a deep breath and tried to regain his composure.

The shame and self-loathing he felt was incredibly intense, but he was no longer the weak soldier of the past who felt pressured by the eyes of the people looking up at him like a hero.

The Seon-Hyeok of today had the ability to clearly distinguish what he had and could do, and the current matter was one he could resolve.

“Najima.”

His voice changed once again.

His dry voice became firm, and light returned to his gloomy eyes.

“Please feed them well, even if it’s just for today.”

Najima did not respond right away.

“Will that be difficult?”

“Not if it’s just for today, but that won’t be enough to restore their weakened bodies.”

Seon-Hyeok spoke more forcefully when she wondered if this request even had a point.

“I’ll try to convince the Mother Tree.”

Even after passing through the outskirts of the forest, it took a while longer before Seon-Hyeok was able to reach the home of the Qeisha tribe at the center of the forest.

Whoosh.

The trees densely filling the forest without a single gap folded their branches as though they were opening up a path, and they formed a space for Redvern to land.

“Let’s go over there.”

Seon-Hyeok unhesitatingly guided Redvern down to the empty area, and soon after, countless Qeishas surrounded them.

Unlike the Qeishas he saw outside of the forest, the fairies here were dressed rather lightly, exposing their bare skin, including their arms and legs. Were it not for the stuffy masks covering their faces, the Qeishas guarding the Mother Tree could be mistaken as completely different beings.

If Najima’s party, which Seon-Hyeok met near Astoria, gave the impression of barren trees in the middle of autumn, the Qeishas in front of him had the atmosphere of flowers full of spring and summer life.

“Welcome to the Mother’s forest.”

The old Qeisha stepping up as their representative seemed particularly special.

As he approached and offered his greetings, Seon-Hyeok noticed the strange, almost bark-like wrinkles on his old skin. It almost felt like he was talking to a tree.

However, he was not here to appreciate the appearance of these Qeishas.

“Najima, explain.”

He told Najima to explain their situation, and Najima quickly fulfilled his request.

“Oh! Najima! Don’t tell me…”

But for some reason, the Qeishas watching the scene suddenly made a fuss.

“Yes. I decided to dedicate my life to him.”

Najima proudly explained what had happened between the two of them. Seon-Hyeok tilted his head in confusion as he sensed her almost bragging tone.

“Oh! Congratulations, Najima.”

“It’s a great event!”

Even stranger was the Qeishas’ attitude.

They joyfully congratulated her as though this was a tremendous occasion. Their eyes contained far too many emotions to think that this was simply the result of someone finding her partner.

“Najima?”

Unable to understand, Seon-Hyeok asked Najima about their reaction, but she just gave him a vague smile.

“Later. Later.”

He could not bring himself to push Najima any further. In any case, he trusted she would tell him if it was important.

After exchanging congratulations for a while, the Qeishas’ expressions quickly became serious. It was right after Najima mentioned the dealings with the demonkin.

“I think we should think about this a little more.”

As expected, the elder Qeisha was not quick to accept a deal with the demonkin. He withheld his answer, saying it was necessary for the tribe to reach a consensus.

“Anyways, we’ve been holding onto the Mother’s valued guest for far too long.”

With that, the elder opened the path, and Najima grabbed Seon-Hyeok’s hand and guided him towards the Mother Tree.

The path to the Mother Tree was not anything special. However, this did not mean that the Mother Tree herself was normal.

The Mother Tree was waiting for Seon-Hyeok at the center of the spacious, vacant area they reached after crossing through the densely packed trees.

[First, I cannot help but thank the visitor who came all this way to accept our request.]

The benevolent voice he previously heard while riding Redvern once again spoke directly in his head.

“Hm.”

Seon-Hyeok had met many different entities before, but he could not decide how to respond to the tree. As such, he simply shut his mouth and listened to what she said.

[There is so much for us to talk about, but there is something to be done before that…]

“Atiya?”

As soon as the Mother Tree finished speaking, the wind spirit suddenly appeared without being summoned. For some reason, instead of looking at her master like always, she was facing elsewhere.

“Atiya, why all of a sudden…”

Before he could even get over his confusion over Atiya’s sudden appearance, the other spirits began to appear one after another from the ground and in the air.

[It’s time to return those left for safekeeping while they missed their owners.]

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