The expedition team smoothly climbed over the hill.
Samuel was leading the group with great haste, saying that they needed to go past the hill before the end of the day. However, he suddenly came to an abrupt halt. Seol Jihu immediately went on alert, wondering if they were being attacked again, but he soon realized that they had arrived at the hill's summit.
Standing in the front of the group, Samuel pointed to the other side.
“The Forest of Denial.”
Seol Jihu also arrived at the summit and dazedly cast his gaze down below.
The dense forest below him boasted a colorful cacophony of many different shades of green as it spanned across a massive area that went as far as eyes could see. It was so big that the sea of green seemed to stretch on forever and ever, well beyond the horizon.
'We're going in there?'
Something certainly set the Forest of Denial apart from every other forest they've been through until now. Could this be down to the fact that no humans set foot inside there in ages? The forest that did not permit anyone to set foot inside for many years possessed this indescribable pressure than caused the onlookers to feel just a bit nervous.
Ian caught up, his breathing in total disarray. He wiped the sweat away and tried to regulate his breaths.
“Apparently, as long as we go past this forest, we can go anywhere we want. That’s including the Federation and the Parasites’ territories.”
“Now that you mention it, I hear that the conflict between those two are intensifying lately.”
Seol Jihu chimed in off-handedly while nodding his head before he sensed the gazes focusing on him and blinked his eyes in confusion. Ian's eyes opened wider still, while Samuel was staring at him with a face that said, ‘Just what the hell could be this guy's real identity?’ Even Dylan was displaying a similar type of reaction too.
Well, he only muttered out what he heard from Kim Hannah, that was all.
A bit of awkward silence later, Ian began guffawing out.
“Well, I'll be! You continue to surprise me, young friend. You're right! Not too long ago, the Federation announced that they were getting in bed with the Cave Fairies. Without a doubt, they now have one more ally with a great deal of power. With five races combining their resources, even the Parasite Queen will be unable to overlook this matter at all.”
Even though he was flustered, questions still arose in his head. Just how strong was the race of Parasites that five different races had to combine their powers? Thanks to his 'dream', he was more or less aware of the truth, but it was a blurred memory now, and he couldn't be too sure of it.
“Seriously, man. I've never seen a guy hiding his level to become a porter before. I've seen the opposite plenty of times before, though.”
It was as if Samuel became even more sure of his thoughts being correct now. Seol Jihu found it too much of a hard job to correct his misunderstandings and simply issued a long sigh as a reply instead.
Shortly afterwards, the expedition climbed down the hill.
“Isn't it surprising? They might share a common ancestry, but for the two hostile races of Sky Fairies and Cave Fairies to become partners?”
“That just goes to show how desperate they've become. And it's not just the Fairies, either. They only managed to survive until now because 'that' species started this Federation thing. Otherwise, they'd have been thoroughly destroyed already.”
“Whatever the case might be, at the end of the day, it's not all bad news for the humans, no?”
“If you're thinking of pitting the two sides against each other, then I should tell you that you're being too pragmatic. Sooner or later, the time for humans to make that important decision will arrive.”
Seol Jihu watched Dylan and Ian chat with each other and got next to Alex.
“Alex? Did I make a mistake just now?”
“Mm? No, you didn't. It's not a secret, anyways.”
“Ah~, that. The information on the ongoings of other races are something only shared among High Rankers. Well, you might hear a wind of it if you’re Level 4. I mean, it's something meaningless for a lower leveled person to learn anyway, right?”
Seol Jihu displayed an expression that seemed to ask “Why?” so Alex hurriedly continued on.
“Think about it for a sec. A newbie freshly ejected from the Neutral Zone is going around saying, this is what's happening with the politics~, the current situation with war is like this~, and even relays accurate information, then how would you feel?”
“He's showing off?”
“Gimme a break. No, it'd be more like amazement. Also, they’ll be curious who his backer is.”
Alex glanced at the youth with a meaningful gaze, before he lightly tapped on Seol Jihu's side in a joking manner.
“That's why you should start telling us the truth, you know? Just what is your level, really? Why did you decide to participate in this expedition? Why don't you just show us your Status Window?”
Seol Jihu turned his head upwards and glared at the heavens above. The sun was gradually sinking lower to the western horizon and the dying light of the sunset colored the world orange.
“Actually, I’m Level 10.”
“As I thought. I knew it. So, what's your class title?”
“The Spear God.”
“Keuh. A god, is it? I'm no longer scared of the Parasite Queen now.”
Alex's raucous laughter reverberated around the hill.
The expedition stopped their march just short of Napal Hill's end – in other words, right in front of the Forest of Denial. Before they set foot inside, Ian requested some time to investigate the forest first.
Now that their march had come to a stop, the group prepared to spend the night here. While Ian went around the perimeters of the forest accompanied by Dylan and Chohong, Seol Jihu got around to performing small tasks such as setting up tents and getting the sleeping bags ready.
Of course, it wasn't as if other members of the expedition were taking it easy. For instance, Samuel was walking around the outer perimeter of the campsite and busy planting something that looked like black stones on the ground.
Seol Jihu had finished with his work by then, so he stood there and observed, prompting Samuel to break out in a chuckle. He beckoned the youth to come closer.
“This is a mana stone. You can think of it as a rock that has properties of preserving mana.”
Seol Jihu received the smooth black stone Samuel handed over and toyed around with it.
“It's one of the must-have items when you're planning to camp outdoors. If you leave it lying around here and there, then these can prevent the monsters that hate mana from approaching the campsite. Since it emits a strange aura, monsters should not poke their noses in unless they are really desperate.”
“It must be expensive.”
“Of course. Well, it's still cheaper than your life, though….”
The ends of Samuel's sentence blurred as he stared at the Forest of Denial.
“But, if I think about all the expeditions that failed halfway up until now, then I do think it's a bit of waste using this thing, really. Ahh, keep what I said just now a secret, okay?”
“I do understand where you're coming from, though. The cost of an expedition must be really enormous, I'd imagine.”
“It's not just the cost alone, you know? Don't forget the time invested, as well as all the effort put in – you calculate all that, then the actual expense at the end of the day would be astronomical.”
“Not every expedition proves to be a success, you see. Many times I returned with nothing to show for all our near-death experience, and I lost count the number of times I had to give up near the end because we weren't strong enough.”
Seol Jihu then realized that Samuel was really anxious at the moment. They may have arrived at their destination just fine, but it was now up to Ian if they wanted to continue on. If Ian said it'd be difficult, then they would have to head back to Haramark the first thing tomorrow.
“You should remember this, if you wish to form your own expedition someday. You should go on one only when you have the financial leeway. An expedition isn't something on which you bet everything you have.”
Samuel spoke with a bitter tone of voice and went back to the job of setting up the mana stones.
….Plan an expedition only if you had the financial wherewithal to survive the potential failure of one.
Seol Jihu engraved those words to his heart.
Ian and company returned around the time dinner was coming to an end. Samuel stopped eating and ran towards the elder Sorcerer, and they chatted for a really long time.
Ian's complexion wasn't so good, and even Samuel formed a grave expression, so Seol Jihu assumed that the expedition would come to an end here.
If there was one distinct advantage to being a porter, then that would be him not needing to stay as the nightwatch. He was told that it was not practical to entrust a level 1 with the most crucial job of guarding the camp, which would become even more important when camping near a high-danger zone like the Forest of Denial.
He did experience being a nightwatch while walking to Haramark, but Seol Jihu was still glad that he didn't need to do it again. He entered his tent and climbed inside the sleeping bag.
The night deepened, but sleep didn't come to visit him. He found it hard to close his eyes as there were many things filling up his head. He squeezed his eyes shut and tried to force himself to sleep, but then, someone suddenly entered his tent while muttering out lots of complaints.
It was Chohong. She chucked a pillow and a blanket on the floor and plopped down right next to him.
“That goddamn old man! And he was speaking in such a serious voice too when trying to cop a feel…. I should've broken his wrist right there and then.”
“…..What about your sleeping bag?”
“I don't use one. I can't sleep if I'm feeling stuffy and the like.”
When Chohong laid down next to him, Seol Jihu couldn't help but get this weird feeling, but he decided not to mind her presence. The frequent 'sleeping together' with the opposite sex was one of the things he had to get used to in Paradise, after all.
The stillness continued on for some time before Chohong suddenly lied down on her side and faced Seol Jihu. Her eyes gleamed slightly in the darkness.
“Looks like we might continue on.”
Her words sobered him up instantly.
“The geezer's guesses were on the money. The Forest of Denial isn't about curses, but magic.”
“Really? But, I thought the mood back then was pretty serious.”
“Right. He said that a really powerful ancient spell is cast here.”
“An ancient spell, is it?”
“It's a type of magic only a few were capable of using even back in the days of the Empire. It's all lost now after the Parasites swallowed them up, though.”
Although he was inwardly surprised by the scope of Chohong's knowledge, he still continued on with his questions regardless.
“So, what did Master Ian say?”
“Nothing much, really. It's just that, this magic will interfere with a human's thought process and end up polluting their mind or something…. Uh….”
Argh, darn it, Chohong muttered out and roughly scratched her head.
“In any case, the point of this story is, we can use the prepared countermeasures the geezer had made. But, he also said that it'll be tough to stop the pollution at the fundamental level. We gotta suppress our emotions as much as possible inside the forest, apparently.”
Chohong muttered softly, before cackling in a sinister manner.
“You should've seen Hugo's face back then. Well, think about it for a sec. With that personality of his, you think it's possible for him to control himself?”
“It’s not like you’re any different.”
Her voice suddenly turned cold. Seol Jihu decided to immediately change the subject.
“In any case, the countermeasure against the magic itself is imperfect, that's what you're saying.”
“What can we do? It's already pretty impressive to resist against mind manipulation magic, to begin with…. By the way, aren't you going to sleep?”
Perhaps she got tired of answering him, Chohong began complaining once more.
“I've got lots on my mind and can't sleep.”
“And why would you have lots on your mind, Level 1 brat?”
“Why did the royal family issue an order to scout this dangerous forest, for instance.”
That was a simple but logical question to ask. This expedition was formed in order to loot the grave goods within the tomb, but still, the pretext was the scouting mission issued by the royal family, after all.
“You're worried about some strange things. Those guys always act like that. Their eyes all bloodshot and the like, impatiently waiting and trying to reclaim their land as soon as possible.”
Chohong spoke with a rough tone of voice and didn't think too much about it, but for Seol Jihu, he simply couldn't overlook this matter. He couldn't be certain, but there must've been a deeper reason.
The reason for issuing a mission to scout the Forest of Denial.
“I should start sleeping soon, too.”
Chohong energetically yawned and stretched her limbs before extending her rather healthy thigh and placing it over Seol Jihu's chest.
“Take it down.”
Chohong began giggling.
“I don't wanna. This lady has personally come to your tent for your protection and even kindly explained things to you, so shouldn't you tolerate this little thing, no?”
Seol Jihu tilted his head slightly.
“But, I thought you came here because of Master Ian?”
He then felt the leg perched on his chest tremble ever so imperceptibly.
“Was I wrong?”
“You aren't that good at pretending to be asleep, you know.”
Seol Jihu giggled loudly.
“Okay, I get it. Keep looking after me even in the future.”
That prompted a grunt of Keuk to leak out from her, and then….
“Bastard! Can't you just let it slide?!”
Chohong pounced on him with a reddened face.
Seol Jihu was able to fall asleep pretty quickly from the fatigue of fiercely wrestling with Chohong in the tent.
The morning sun rose up.
After breakfast, the expedition quickly disbanded the overnight camp and finally stood ready in front of the Forest of Denial. Since they decided to continue on, there was no need to wait around anymore.
“Remember it well. My potions aren't the cure-all, and there are only a limited number of spells that can purify your corrupted state of mind.”
Before they entered the forest, Seol Jihu drank from a small vial handed out by Ian. This was one of the countermeasures the old Magician had prepared – well, he was an Alchemist after all, and he was famous for his potion crafting as well.
“Emotions are highly contagious. The moment of one revealing one's emotions would serve as the perfect pretext for the effects to activate. And whether the people around you like it or not, they would be affected as well.”
The potion's taste wasn't so good. It felt like blocks of ice were filling him up from the tip of his toes all the way to his brain as soon as he drank it. Would this be how one might feel after forcibly stabilizing one's mind and body? His head felt a bit numb, but moving around wasn't affected, it seemed.
“I don't expect you to be completely emotionless or thinking of nothing all the time, but whatever happens in there, you must maintain a calm state of mind.”
Along with the warnings of Ian, the expedition entered the forest while maintaining the previous formation.
Although the sun was blazing overhead, the interior of the forest was dark and dim. Trees tall enough to block out the sky did exactly that, blocking out the sunlight, and they cast a thick shade all over the greenery extending from the hill behind them.
Seol Jihu focused only on the march. As soon as entering the forest, hot and stuffy air came in contact with his skin. The sensation of muddy ground beneath his feet got on his nerves for some reason, as the tall grasses and intertwining thickets continuously brushed past him.
However, since he had no idea when the effects of the forest would attack him, he did his best to clear his mind. Others must have thought the same since none of them bothered to say anything and continued to follow after Samuel's lead.
The only sounds they heard were the calls of the birds, cries of unknown beasts from the distance, and the unseen flowing water.
Suddenly, Samuel's steps came to a halt. Surprisingly, he wasn't looking down on the ground but at the sky. More specifically, at one of the lush trees found within the forest.
Dylan spoke up first.
“Samuel? What is it?”
“….It's a corpse.”
“There's a corpse hanging on the tree.”
Just as he said, there was something that resembled a huge plastic bag dangling on a tree. And it was a corpse missing its lower torso, its arms barely slung over the branch of a tree. The lower torso could not be found nearby, and three, four ropes coming out from the body turned out to be its entrails.
“I gotta investigate this. Anyone who can't handle it, look away.”
Samuel climbed up and cautiously retrieved the corpse. It was in the middle of decomposition, so the rotting stench was overpowering.
“Looks like its lower body was ripped apart by brute force. It's meaningless to loot the body at this rate…. Mm?”
Samuel studied the blackened and bloated face for a few moments before his expression crumpled unsightly.
“Dylan! Isn't this Kahn?!”
“Kahn? What do you mean?”
Dylan stopped surveying the vicinity and hurriedly ran over there. And he spat out a groan after confirming it with his own eyes.
“Oh my gosh. It is Kahn.”
“But, why is Kahn here….?”
Samuel was tilting his head this way and that, but then, his brows arched up quite suddenly. Seeing this, Dylan went Ah, crap, inwardly. There could be only one reason why Kahn was out here.
[Let me be honest here. I went to speak to Kahn's team first before calling you. They refused though. Still, they will definitely keep it as a secret.]
“This son of a bitch!!”
Samuel kicked the half corpse and angrily roared out.
“You fucking bastard!! You try to pull a fast one like this?!”
“Woah. Woah, man. Chill. He's already dead.”
“How can I calm down under the circumstances?! This bastard, he….”
It was then.
“Samuel, calm down!!”
Ian's call caused Samuel to flinch. Dylan quickly took several steps back and readied his crossbow.
A short while later, Samuel raised his head fast and surveyed his surroundings, before his burning eyes landed squarely on Seol Jihu.
“Dylan! Punch him hard! It's fine to knock him out, too!”
Samuel flew away after being punched by a fist as big as a pot. However, he was also an accomplished Archer and thus didn't lose his consciousness.
Although his expression crumpled in pain….
“Calm down. Do you wish to die?”
“Please, do what you can to stabilize your mind. I understand that you're angry, but Kahn is already dead.”
Dylan and Ian took turns to calm Samuel down.
Samuel slowly rubbed his aching cheek before sucking in lots of air. He repeated that six more times, before nodding his head.
“Are you alright now?”
“Yeah. I'm fine now. I showed you something uncool, didn't I?”
Samuel grabbed Dylan's hand and pulled himself up with a groan. His eyes as he looked at Seol seemed a bit complicated for some reason.
“It's a good thing that we didn't have to use the magic spell. So, what did you want to deny just now?”
Ian asked. Samuel hesitated for a bit, before replying in a small voice.
“….I think I was denying my sexual orientation.”
“W, what was that?”
“I can't be sure. This was my first time too, so…. When I looked at that friend over there, I…. suddenly got this desire to…..”
Samuel couldn't finish what he wanted to say. Seol Jihu swallowed down his saliva and sneakily took several steps back. Meanwhile, Ian lightly patted Samuel's shoulder.
“Fine, fine. It wasn't anything bad. If you've calmed down sufficiently, let's get back to what we're supposed to do, okay?”
Samuel regained his calm bearing and quietly walked around the vicinity. He stared at the ground for one, two minutes, before spitting out a lengthy groan.
“There are ten pairs of footsteps heading in deeper. Kahn's team consists of eight people, so the other two must've belonged to the porters. And then…”
Samuel clicked his tongue.
“Ten pairs of legs entered, yet only a single pair came out. It must belong to Kahn, and he's here with us, dead.”
“We can’t overlook this… A team containing a High Ranker getting annihilated?”
Dylan's soft mutterings brought along this ominous gut feelings in Seol Jihu, but he kept it to himself.
“Can you find out what killed them?”
“That's what I'm not sure about. The decomposition is too severe, and I've never seen these bite marks before.”
“It's fine if we slow down, so let's increase our alertness, instead.”
“Of course. But, don't be too alarmed. The firepower of our expedition is twice the level of Kahn's team, after all.”
Samuel spoke up as he swept his gaze over the members of the expedition before he took the lead again. Dylan returned to his spot at the rear and the expedition carried on.
Samuel was now walking forward far more cautiously than before. Both the expressions of Chohong and Hugo, and even Alex's, were all stiff and frozen. Every one of them was shocked by the death of Kahn, who was a Level 5 Royal Guard.
Another ten minutes went by.
The expedition marching forward at a snail's pace came to a halt once more. Samuel stared down at the ground for a long, long time before he began chewing on his lower lip.
“Dylan, sorry about this, but please come over here again.”
“No need to apologize. Can you show me the traces?”
Seol Jihu watched Dylan get down on one knee and slowly raised his head to look above.
The sky could be seen between the thick, lush canopy of the forest.
The sky had been clean and bright when they were about to enter the forest, but now, thick clouds had rolled in, and it was dyed in the colors of depressing grey.