Chapter 52. Forest of Denial (2)

The carriage ride came to an end after two and half days of travel from Haramark.

According to Samuel, this was where the area of relative safety ended. If they wanted to continue on carriages, then it was indeed possible to do so, but 'going back' would pose a serious problem; without the protection of the expedition team, the carriage drivers would not be able to escape from the danger zones by themselves.

The two drivers knew how precious their own lives were, so as soon as they received the balance of payment, they left the area.

“Today's goal is to get to Napal Hill! As long as we go past that, we will be at the Forest of Denial!”

….And, along with Samuel's urging, the group began their march towards their destination.

In Paradise, a Level 1 Earthling would start as a porter almost always regardless of whether one was a Contracted or an Invited. It wasn’t because they were only good for carrying luggage, but it was actually for them to participate in many different expeditions and adventures in order to learn and experience as much as possible.

That was why Seol Jihu paid utmost attention to every little thing occurring around him.

'The marching formation is arranged like a rhombus.'

There was a total of 11 people in the expedition. Excluding Seol Jihu and two other original residents serving as porters, the actual combat force was 8.

Right at the front of the pack stood Samuel and Grace. The Archer led the way while the Warrior acted as his guard.

In the middle were three porters, including Seol Jihu, Alex, and Ian. Chohong was on the left side of the formation, while Clara was on the right. It was as if these two were positioned there in order to protect the porters.

And finally, the rear position had the same arrangement as the front – an Archer and a Warrior. In other words, Dylan and Hugo were positioned there.

Honestly, Seol thought that the pairing of Dylan and Hugo being out in front made more sense, rather than that of Samuel and Grace. Of course, although he was curious about this arrangement, he didn't dare raise his voice carelessly.

'I'm sure they have their reasons.'

“Now that I think about it, first time seeing you around these parts.”

While Seol Jihu was in the middle of thinking to himself, he suddenly heard a smooth voice coming from his side. When he shifted his gaze over to look, he saw Ian with a warm smile slowly stroking his white beard next to him.

“It hasn't been long since I came to Haramark, actually.”

“I see. You were also an Earthling, huh. You came to the city to get some first-hand experience?”

“That's correct.”

“Do you have any prior experience as a porter?”

Seol wondered why someone as important as a Magician was asking him all these questions. He was inwardly nervous but still managed to answer honestly.

“This is my first time. It hasn't been too long since I left the Neutral Zone, actually.”

“Hmm? You say this will be your first time?”

“Yes.”

“Huh-uh. You just came out from the Neutral Zone, yet you’re already participating in such a dangerous expedition….”

Ian stared at the youth as if he was completely surprised by this revelation, before walking in closer to Seol Jihu. He comfortably took over the spot and leaned in closer to whisper.

“My friend, well….”

He then suddenly lowered his voice.

'Why is he doing this?'

Seol Jihu tilted his head slightly, but still met the older man's gaze.

“….By any chance….”

When Ian formed a serious expression, even Seol Jihu became serious as well. Could there be something dark and sinister with this expedition, a truth he hadn't figured out yet? Could he have been too rash by joining this expedition? All sorts of thoughts raced by in Seol's mind.

Ian studied the youth for a bit longer, before cautiously opening his mouth.

“Do you like titties?”

Seol Jihu doubted his own hearing just then. Grace sneaked a glance towards her back and began giggling softly. Seol wondered if he was being pranke, but Ian's expression was serious….

“I really like them.”

….His expression was not at all serious as he giggled rather slyly.

“I mean, that soft feeling when you're fondling them, or when you're busy rubbing your face against them, it's totally the greatest thing in the whole world. Don't you agree?”

“Seol? Let's switch our position for a sec.”

Ptooi, Chohong spat on her hands and gripped her mace tighter. Seeing this, Ian began laughing in a jovial manner.

“I made a fool of myself. Do forgive me and let me live for a while longer, would you?”

“It'd be better to match what you're saying and what your expression looks like, you hear me? At the bare minimum, say those words while looking a little bit surprised or apologetic, okay?!”

“Eii~ing. I see that the mood in Paradise has worsened lately. I only meant to joke around with a newbie so that his anxiety would be lessened.”

Ian began complaining. Chohong was about to blow her top, but then, she heard Dylan warn her with “Chohong, your temper,” from the back.

Judging from Dylan's attitude, as well as how Samuel acted earlier on as well, this Ian must have been a highly respected person in Haramark.

“Damn it, fine. Whatever, you stop bothering the kid and leave him alone. Can't you see that he's busy studying our formation?”

“Oho! Studying, is it?”

Ian lightly clapped his hands and formed a content smile.

“You were a young scholar burning the midnight oils of academic variety, I see! Instead of helping you, I was actually disturbing you, wasn't I? Alright. Do ask me what you're curious about, and I shall answer.”

Seol Jihu was slightly apprehensive about the older man spouting some other random nonsense, but there were things he was too curious about. So, while getting mentally ready to switch his position with Chohong at any given moment, Seol Jihu asked Ian.

“What criteria do you use to assign the positions at the front and at the back?”

Aha, Ian grinned softly with a slight nod. As there was a chance of offending some people, Seol did his best to beat around the bush, but the older man accurately grasped the actual meaning of the question.
“First of all, do you know that an Archer always takes the lead regardless of whether it's an expedition or a strategic assault mission?”

“Yes.”

“As the lead in an expedition, there are two important things you need to do. The first is leading your comrades down the correct path, and the second is sensing the approaching enemy in time and alerting your team. When considering these two points, Samuel is the perfect man for the job.”

That was what Seol Jihu couldn't understand at all. Dylan was also an Archer and not only that, he was a Level 5 High Ranker.

“Samuel proceeded from Level 3 Tracer to Level 4 Pathfinder. His overall combat prowess might fall a little behind those of his peers, but as far as finding the right path, he's among the very best. If we find ourselves in a maze or an area still left unexplored and therefore with no paths to follow, his true value will naturally reveal itself. If Samuel is thinking of advancing to Level 5 Grand Pathfinder, his abilities should evolve even further.”

“Master Ian, it seems that you've read my mind already.”

Samuel turned his head back and showed his astonishment.

[…When you reach Level 5 and become a High Ranker, you will be asked to choose which god you wish to serve. That is the moment when the class path you have chosen becomes critically important….]

[….Think of it this way. Your class will either evolve or become even more specialized to suit the powers of the gods you choose….]

Seol inexplicably recalled what Agnes told him a while ago.

“On the other hand, Dylan is a Level 5 Arch Shooter. Simply put, he concentrated on increasing his combat potential. So, he'd display an overwhelmingly frightening prowess during guerrilla warfare, but compared to Samuel who’s walking the path of trackers, he'd lose out somewhat in his ability to investigate his surroundings.”

Ian must have been feeling thirsty as he stopped talking there and took a gulp from a water bottle.

“Keuh. And, with Dylan behind us, he's able to give a sense of stability to the formation too. If something happens, he should be able to figure out what's going on from there and come up with a plan to deal with it pretty quickly. If my guess is correct, Dylan will be taking the lead as soon as a battle breaks out, am I wrong?”

“But, wouldn't there be a case where the rear is attacked first?”

“That's why we have Hugo there as protection. So? How about it? Has your curiosity been satisfied somewhat?”

Ian winked at Seol. The youth bowed to show his thanks as his curiosity had indeed been satisfied.

“Thank you.”

“Oho. You are a rather courteous fellow, eh.”

Ian began chuckling softly.

“If you don't find this old man's ramblings boring, then I'd like to chat with you for a while longer. By any chance, how much do you know about this Forest of Denial?”

“Actually, I don't know anything about the place.”

“It's pretty simple. Any intelligent lifeform entering the forest suddenly starts to violently deny something's existence.”

What could he even mean by that? Seol Jihu's eyes gleamed brightly with interest, causing Ian to speak up with lots more energy as well.

“No one can predict what you'll end up denying, you see. It's completely random.”

“But if it's only denying something, that can't be a big enough problem, right?”

“That's too simple a way of looking at things.”

Ian shook his head right away.

“I told you this, didn't I? No one can predict what you'll end up denying. For instance, what do you think will happen if you suddenly start denying my existence?”

Seol Jihu became speechless, then.

“I'm sure you'll try to kill me no matter the cost. Not only that…. What if, in the middle of a battle, you suddenly decide to deny the existence of your own weapon? What then?”

“….”

“Would that be all? What if you want to deny your own existence? What then?”

The continuing chain of questions succeeded in giving Seol Jihu goosebumps running down his spine.

“Did something like that really happen before?”

“The number of expeditions that got annihilated like that are far too many to mention, young man. It's to the point that the royal family almost ended up proclaiming the entire area as a forbidden zone for any type of expeditions. If it weren't for Haramark, such a decision would have been passed already.”

“It's a scary place, then.”

“It's definitely not a place to fool around, that's for sure. However, I've been researching the Forest of Denial for a long time. I've prepared some countermeasures too. If my theory is correct, then the mysteries of the Forest should be unraveled by our group soon enough.”

Although he was worried about the possibility of this countermeasure not working, Seol Jihu didn't go out of his way to voice them. He thought that he shouldn't become a wet blanket so early on in the expedition.

Perhaps sensing the youth's anxiety, Ian gently patted him on the back.

“Don't sweat it, my friend! If my countermeasure doesn't work, we simply turn around and go back to Haramark. That's all there is to it. You see, I don't want to die just yet.”

That made much sense. Thanks to Ian talking to him in an overtly friendly manner, some part of Seol Jihu's anxiety had been assuaged.

Ian might possess a lecherous side to him, but he was also a Magician with a bountiful knowledge base. For someone like Seol Jihu, who knew practically nothing about the ongoings of Paradise, every word Ian spoke had the potential to become his flesh and blood in the long run.

Also, Ian knew how to spin his tales in an entertaining way, so Seol Jihu completely forgot about the boredom of the march and focused deeply into the older man's stories. It felt like he had become a grandson listening to the tales of his grandfather.

As they marched on while chatting to one another, the sun slowly crept ever closer to the horizon and the scenery gradually changed. The Rahman River, serving as their waypoint until now, branched off into several smaller tributaries, while the earth became rougher and muddier as if it had absorbed way too much moisture.

Samuel stopped his steps just about then.

“You don't level up automatically, but gods determine it for you. You've been to the Chamber of Awakening back in the Neutral Zone, yes? You should go and visit a temple as soon as this expedition is…. Mm?”

When the march was abruptly halted, Ian stopped talking and took a look.

Seol Jihu surveyed his surroundings and his jaw fell to the floor as soon as he saw incredibly tall trees standing here and there. He briefly wondered whether they had arrived at the Forest of Denial already, but it seemed that wasn't the case.

Samuel was on his knee, busy staring straight at the ground.

“Samuel? Is something the matter?”

Dylan's uniquely dignified voice came from the back. Samuel raised his hand to signal that he needed a bit more time, before he smoothly got up with a smirk on his face.

“How interesting. We've got ourselves Cave Ettins.”

“Cave Ettins? But aren't they supposedly cave dwellers? What are they doing here?”

“Maybe they’re out to forage for food?”

Samuel shrugged his shoulders and looked to his left.

“They divided into two groups five minutes before we arrived here. Thirty of them are waiting for us up ahead, while ten of them are to my left, waiting.”

“Oh, so they see us as food, is that it? If we continue on down this path, we'd get definitely surrounded, then.”

“Well, they do possess a crazy sense of smell, after all. So, what do you want us to do?”

Dylan fell into deep thought after Samuel asked the big man.

“Since each of them has two heads, taking them by surprise isn't going to work, no?”

“Most likely, yeah. One of the heads is always used as the lookout, after all.”

“That doesn't mean we can't hit them first, though. I'll ask Hugo to accompany you, so go and cut loose for a while.”

“Okay.”

Samuel replied confidently and resumed the march.

“Seol? Now that's the real Archer. Do you understand why I went batshit crazy back then?”

Seol Jihu ended up agreeing with Hugo as the big guy whispered to him. To be able to figure out what happened five minutes ago simply by staring at the ground for a few seconds, now that sounded like a pure lie, actually.

But, Seol Jihu had to acknowledge it as real when a group of Cave Ettins broke out from the cover and rushed at them while roaring out loudly less than two minutes later. There were exactly 30 of them to boot.

Each Cave Ettin was slightly shorter than an average human male, but it still looked rather threatening from all those hardy muscles on its arms. More importantly, though, it possessed two wrinkly heads on a single neck and it looked properly bizarre, to say the least.

“They are nothing much to fret about.”

Just as Seol Jihu grasped his spear, Chohong lightly patted him on the shoulder.

“You just wait here and watch. They'll be taken care of soon.”

She pointed to the front.

Samuel was jumping into the middle of the Cave Ettin pack without hesitation.

Actually, that was incorrect.

“Hey! Hey! Over here!”

It looked as if that was his original intention, but then, he bounced up like a flying tiger as soon as his feet touched the ground and landed swiftly on a tree's branch up above. He crossed his hands and reached into his inner pockets.

“Eat this!”

The moment he extended his hands out, the Cave Ettins, now looking more like dogs that failed to catch the chicken, fell down to the ground in great agony.

Swish! Swish!!

Sharp noises split the air apart. Only after spotting small throwing daggers buried deep in the shoulder of a Cave Ettin did Seol Jihu realize what Samuel had been throwing just now.

“Yea~ho!”

When three, four of them also resorted to throwing their weapons at him, Samuel suddenly transformed into Tarzan and leaped away to land on the tree in front. Ian showed his admiration as Samuel continued to pepper the Cave Ettins below with the throwing daggers.

“Very admirable. He made sure that all thirty are focused only on him.”

The older man spoke those words after he saw Hugo and Grace rush out to seize this opportunity they had been waiting for.

Hugo pounced like a panther and swung his battle-axe in a surprise attack at the backs of the Cave Ettins, who were currently preoccupied by Samuel's antics from up above. Three pairs of heads separated from the bodies of three creatures. The monsters hastily turned around to look behind, but all they could see now was a huge, bloodied axe closing in rapidly to crack their skulls.

The group of monsters was already confused about what to do next, yet when the Level 4 Barbarian Warrior arrived in their midst and proceeded to ruthlessly step on them, they fell even deeper in confusion.

Every now and then, one or two tried to attack from the side. However, Grace stuck very close to Hugo's blindspot and protected him with her shield or lent timely support with her sword, making it impossible to get close to the duo.

Eventually, even Samuel had climbed down from the tree and along with Clara, they began firing arrows from the front and back. The group of Cave Ettins got fragmented in an instant. It happened then.

“Here they come.”

Dylan spoke with a calm voice and pulled his bowstring back as he aimed towards the rear of the formation, towards ten Cave Ettins rushing in. They were hastily rushing over here after their main force was getting annihilated in the proverbial blink of an eye.

“How many are you going to leave me with?”

“You should ask them that.”

Du-du-doom!

Dylan's shoulders quivered slightly as he let go of the string. Then, a loud explosion similar to a gun being fired could be heard. Seol Jihu felt his eardrums become numb from the shockwave and hurriedly covered his ears, and then….

Boom, boom, boom!

He became utterly flabbergasted by the sight of the ground exploding several times. It was as if landmines were going off in succession where the arrows had landed.

Cave Ettins had been mindlessly rushing forward, so when that happened, they all flew in the air, their arms flailing about quite helplessly, before crashing head first to the solid ground. They began convulsing as the shower of debris and earth covered them up.

“Uh-whew~. Cleaning up afterwards isn't my style, though.”

“I’ll leave them to you, Chohong.”

“Yeah, yeah, sure thing.”

While looking somewhat wistful, Chohong made her move while dragging the mace along.

'So this is the Arch Shooter, a High Ranker…'

It wasn't as if they were twisting the arms of unruly children, yet the supposed battle ended in such an anti-climatic fashion.

Of course, this wasn't a bad thing. Easily beating back the enemy would result in far less casualties than when fighting tooth and nail to barely grasp the victory, after all.

Indeed, Seol Jihu knew this, yet….

“So? How was it?”

“Y, yes? Pardon?”

Seol Jihu had been dazedly looking at Chohong checking and killing any survivors until then; he flinched a little and hurriedly looked to his side. Ian was there with a bright smile on his face.

“Your first impression, having witnessed the battle of an expedition team.”

Seol Jihu closed his mouth. He didn't need to be reminded of it to fully appreciate the reality with his entire being.

The impression left behind by the strength displayed by the individual combatants ran deep, of course, but…. But, the things that etched most deeply in his memory were the way they all matched each other's timing as if they had made a prior arrangement, as well as how they controlled the direction of the battle and made it go the way they wanted it to.

“This isn't their first time cooperating together. They've been through a lot together, and that's why they can trust each other wholeheartedly.”

Seol Jihu nodded his head and closed his eyes. Faces of several people he knew fleeted in and out of his head just then.

'Someday, I'll….'

…form my own expedition team.

For the first time ever since his arrival in Paradise, such a thought entered his mind.

*

As soon as the battle ended, the expedition team collected their spoils of war. Well, they were nothing more than weapons and equipment the dead Cave Ettins had dropped, but every one of them was worth something. Also, since these creatures used stuff taken from their human victims, sometimes it was possible for a pretty good windfall to show up, too.

“Seol! Seol! Look! Here's another one!”

Seol Jihu had been wordlessly stuffing his bag with items Chohong brought to him, and when he spotted Hugo walking over with his arms full of loot, the youth opened the mouth of the bag wider. Samuel was quietly observing from the side, before lightly clicking his tongue.

The bag was imbued with magic that increased the storage space as well as reducing the overall weight, so it could swallow up a lot of stuff, but there would still be a physical limit of sorts. It was already packed full of provisions, tent equipment as well as sleeping bags, so when weapons were placed in there, the bag should end up weighing a ton.

He had no complaints whatsoever about Seol Jihu who continued to accept more stuff without raising a fuss, but the real problem Samuel had was with the two local porters who only studied the mood and never once tried to carry anything until now.

'This is why the original residents are….'

As the leader of this expedition, Samuel simply couldn't overlook this transgression. Just as he was about to go over there and speak his mind, he ended up faltering in his steps after seeing Seol Jihu sling the bag over his shoulder and lightly stand back up.

“H, hey, fella.”

“?”

“Are you alright? It looks really heavy.”

“Well, I'm fine, so far.”

The youth even lightly jumped up and down on the spot. The look of suspicion crept up on Samuel's expression right away.

“….I know that I've asked you this question before, but well, are you really a Level 1?”

“See? I told you, it's not only me.”

Alex began chuckling out loud as if he had predicted this a long time ago.

“In any case. We'll be climbing up Napal Hill pretty soon. It's not too late, so how about splitting some of your luggage and handing them over to the others?”

“Oh, I'll be fine. I won't negatively affect the pace of the team.”

“If you say so. Okay.”

What could Samuel do here since the man himself said it was fine? Samuel turned around and met the gazes of the two local porters. He was telling them that they were on short notice.

And so, the march forward resumed. The bag became heavier now, and that placed greater burden on his shoulders, but Seol Jihu actually preferred this.

'I get to train as well, so it's fine.'

Compared to back when he got repeatedly beaten up by Agnes all in the name of increasing his overall endurance, this much was nothing, really.

Soon, the expedition began climbing up a hill, just as Samuel predicted earlier.

The Forest of Denial was upon them.

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