Chapter 72. Taboo (2)

The expression of the village head didn't change much as he read the document. Seol Jihu got the next phase of the conversation started.

“Up until now, the subjugation efforts never failed. Always, without a doubt.”

He kept his voice level and continued on.

“There were two occurrences where the kingdom voluntarily sent subjugation forces to Ramman Village. However, their action is understandable if you consider the fact that they wanted to improve the stability of Haramark region by beating back the frequent appearances of the mutants.”

The village head listened quietly until then but began displaying hints of not following the youth now.

“I don't understand what you're trying to tell me here, young man.”

“I heard that you always issue the request.”

“Yes, that is indeed the case.”

“The team that received the mission three months ago consisted of four Level 2s, one Level 3, and one Level 4. And the average Level found in Carpe Diem is 3.75. Although he didn't come today, it indeed is a big difference that we feature a High Ranker in our team line up.”

“The reason I sent the request to Carpe Diem is not just because you're famous, but because I heard that you also take on smaller work as well.”

The village head lightly shook his head and handed the document back to Seol Jihu. The old man wasn't wrong about that. After all, he did go along with Chohong as a courier or worked as a guard several times already.

“I may be being presumptuous here, but….”

Seol Jihu slid the document back into his inner pocket and cautiously opened his mouth.

“I'd like to know how you could issue requests this accurately all the time, village head.”

The village head's brow arched up ever so slightly.

“There wasn't any detailed information on the mutants, but you always issued these missions to the teams that can easily handle them.”

“….”

“Fine. You could have been interested in how the Earthlings operate. And as the head of a village with a population of several hundred people, you'd be burdened with the responsibility of their safety. I'm not trying to criticize you. No, I believe that you’ve been making the right choices.”

“….”

“However, I heard that, because the remains of the mutants quickly withering away into nothingness after their deaths, it's practically impossible to perform any form of research on them. And it isn't as if there is someone giving you information either.”

Seol Jihu took his time and quietly continued on.

“But you have always sent out requests to teams capable of solving the problem, almost as if you could see what would happen next. And it wasn't just once or twice, but over twenty times in a row.”

The village head quietly closed his eyes. He then let a long sigh escape from his lips and spoke up.

“In the end, you're suspecting me of something, aren't you?”

“Not at all. Regardless of what you were doing, I believe that you were trying to protect this village in the end. I respect your effort in doing so.”

“Respect, is it….”

The village head grinned brightly.

“What a strange thing this is. You could have simply glossed over it. For an Earthling to hold this much interest…. What was the term again? The Quest NPC? There was this one Earthling that called me that in the past. Well, I certainly feel better than that time, that's for sure.”

“A Quest NPC…..”

Treating a real person as an NPC…. Seol Jihu could only form a wry smile at realizing there really were people like that out here.

“I see what you're curious about now. Since you say you don't suspect me of wrongdoings, I will say that you're quite correct on that one. I shall take it as you being purely curious and nothing else.”

“Does that mean….?”

“However, it's not as grand as you make it out to be.”

The village head closed his eyes.

“Seven years passed by since the mutants made their first appearance.”

He slowly built up some suspense as he continued on.

“At first, we didn't even need to issue requests. The security force of the village was enough to deal with them, after all.”

“I see.”

“However, I realized that, as time passed and new mutants kept appearing, their strengths began increasing bit by bit. In the end, we even suffered a casualty. It was my oversight that we underestimated the threat, and I fully accepted the responsibility. After that, I began issuing requests.”

“I get what you're saying. But….”

“Let me finish.”

The village head opened his eyes.

“I'm well aware of what kind of beings you are. I hear that you become stronger through the grace of the gods. What an enviable thing that is. However, that doesn't mean we're powerless civilians waiting around like fools for aid to come.”

His aged eyes gleamed as if white flames were burning inside.

“Right now, I am the head of a small, insignificant village. But once upon a time, I was a loyal soldier of the Empire. I even fought against the abominable Parasite horde. The experiences and insights I gained wouldn't suddenly fly away because I've grown old.”

“I didn't mean it that way.”

“You believe that is all? This is a very poor village that can't pay the kind of rewards that Earthlings would be interested in. But what do you think would happen if I issue a request to the first team I find and they get annihilated instead? Have you thought about the ramification such a story would have on this village in the mid to long term?”

Seol Jihu closed his mouth shut.

“If I was mistaken about something, then I have no excuses to offer you. However, I believed that teams not caring much about the reward money would take on this village's requests. And that is why I continued to issue requests. Those are my reasons.”

Seol Jihu didn't accept those words, but now that the village head was coming out like this, he didn't know what else to say. Also, the old man had shut his mouth now, as if to indicate that he said all he wanted to say on this matter.

4-5 seconds of silence later, the village head opened his mouth again.

“Is there anything else you're curious about?”

His tone of voice was now far closer to 'Get out' than before, but Seol Jihu endured on patiently and asked another question.

“You said that you were a part of the Empire's army.”

“You're still asking me about that? Didn't I say it earlier? I was….”

“By any chance, have you heard of the secret research the Empire conducted after the Parasite's invasion and during the subsequent war?”

The eyes of the village head went extra-round from surprise. His reaction was above Seol Jihu's expectations.

“And where have you heard about that?”

“I found it in the historical records. It said, 'A report on the experiments the Empire conducted during the war had been recovered. The research was about mass-producing special types of soldiers to combat against the Parasites. Although there were a couple of minor successes, in the end, it was deemed a failure, and the total shutdown of all research centers had been swiftly ordered. There had been strong resistance to this decision, but the research was eventually shut down'.”

“I see that the history book's version is rather short and concise.”

The village head smiled ruefully.

“Was that wrong?”

“Well, only by a little bit. It was sort of an open secret, after all.”

“Can you tell me more?”

“Hmm, I wonder. Even I don't know all that much.”

The village head haltingly stroked his beard.

“The top brass of the Empire felt threatened by the parasitic ability of the Parasite horde and began the research, that part is correct. But, from what I can remember, they just announced the failure of the project one day and started shutting down the research facilities around the countryside.”

“Seeing that there was fierce resistance to that decision, there must've been some potential in the project.”

“I wouldn't know about that. I was only a foot soldier, so what were you expecting from me?”

“Oh. I'm sorry.”

“No need to apologize for that. However, unless we're talking about the request itself…. Talking for a while like this is tiring me out, you see.”

The village head roughly breathed out. Seol Jihu quietly stared at the old man's fatigue-laden visage and slowly got up. He still had his 'Nine Eyes' active all this time.

“….Very well. Thank you for taking the time out of your day to talk to me.”

“I don't know why you brought up that story, but well….”

When the youth turned around to leave, a hushed, aged voice came from behind him and stopped his movements.

“That part of history has nothing to do with Ramman Village. If you want to learn more about that topic, perhaps it'll be better to seek out any survivors from the Duchy of Delphinion.”

“Duchy of Delphinion?”

Seol Jihu turned his head halfway.

“It was a dukedom cooperating with the Empire on that research. I believe that the main research center was in their territory as well. Well, they were destroyed eventually and their land belongs to the Parasites now.”

The village head let a long sigh escape from his lips.

“But… I heard rumors that a certain mage from Delphinion couldn't accept the decision to abandon the research, and….. And, he couldn't give up on the research, stole the data and important equipment, and hid somewhere. If he wasn't killed in the ensuing years, then I'm sure he's still alive somewhere.”

“Is that so….”

“That's as far as I know. I pray that my ramblings have been of some help to you.”

Seol Jihu performed a bow as he left the house.

When he finally made his way back to where the rest of the team was, Chohong immediately became angry at him.

“Where have you been all this time? You know how late you are? I was really worried that you bailed out on us or something!”

“What's the matter? Did something happen?”

“……No, not really.”

She averted her gaze with an unhappy face. Meanwhile, Maria must have recovered in full as her complexion was noticeably better.

“So, what do you want to do? The sun's still up.”

“Let's get going. I mean, wouldn't dealing with the mutants first make it easier to solve the mystery?”

Veronika, assigned the role of the header, voiced her opinion. The rest of the team displayed hints of agreeing with her, so Seol Jihu also nodded his head.

*

Having decided to get rid of the mutants before the end of the day, the team quickly departed from the village of Ramman.

They walked on without the aid of carriages; Maria and the porters were obviously positioned within the center of the formation, while Gierszal and Chohong stood on either side of them. At the front, it was Veronika as the header and Mikhail acting as her escort. Seol Jihu took on the rearguard position. He couldn't help but feel odd at finding himself in the position once occupied by Dylan.

Thanks to their rapid advancement, the team was able to arrive at their destination about one and a half-hour later.

This place was referred to as the 'Night Fog Zone' because an unknown fog would cover the area as evening approached.

When they got there, they were greeted by a completely contrasting scenery from Ramman. Never mind the picturesque mother nature, they could only see a dry, stripped-bare rough patch of ground covering up a hilly region.

Seol Jihu cautiously studied the layout of the land. He could spot three, four interesting things about this place. First of all, the inclines were rather steep, and there were hundreds of tall points within the scope of his vision. The heights of the hills also were all over the place, so there were many areas that he couldn't immediately see.

The soil itself seemed strange, as well. The greenery had dried up into yellow husks, and there were many strange-looking mysterious holes on the ground too.

And finally….

'….It's yellow.'

Seol Jihu sucked in his breath after scanning the landscape with his 'Nine Eyes'. The entirety of the Night Fog Zone was glowing in the color of 'Attention Required'.

“Veronika! Can you see anything? It doesn't matter what it is.”

“There isn't any. If there's one thing that's really troublesome about these mutants, then that would be them not leaving behind any traces of themselves.”

“Yup, there’s a famous story of a Grand Pathfinder, a High Ranker Archer, giving up trying to track these mutants. And this whole thing became a mystery afterwards.”

Mikhail grinned and added something as well. Seol Jihu fell into deep contemplation.

His calculations were off. He thought that, once he got to the location, he'd activate 'Nine Eyes' and search for anything suspicious. However, if the entire area was in this color…..

'For now, I should stay alert and keep an eye out for anything weird.'

Seol Jihu grasped his spear tightly and scanned his vicinity. He feared missing out on a single thing, so he paid extra careful attention.

Suddenly, Veronika's steps came to an abrupt halt.

“What's….”

Mikhail was about to finish saying, “…the matter”, but immediately unsheathed his sword the moment Veronika got down low and sent out a quick hand signal. Gierszal also raised his spear and shield, and Chohong also got ready, glaring all around her. Only Maria yawned grandly until her jaw almost fell off and then nonchalantly clicked her tongue.

Five minutes passed by after they came to a halt. Veronika slowly raised her body up again.

“That's strange. I swear I heard….”

Just as she tilted her head and looked to her side, something fell and pounced on top of her crown.

Seol Jihu reflexively crouched into position, but then, heard the lengthy “Uwaahhhk!”

He immediately regained his wits and lowered his gaze to find an ash-colored object coiling around Veronika's head and torso.

“Ahhhk! Ahahahk!”

She flailed about and struggled. Mikhail next to her hurriedly sliced at the object with his sword. The cut itself was deep, but he couldn't manage to break it off from her.

“Damn it!!”

Mikhail spat out a curse and raised his blade up high. However, before he could do anything, Chohong flew in like a bullet and with unnerving accuracy, kicked the object like a soccer ball.

Riiiip!! The sound of flesh being torn resounded out, and the clay-like clump of grey matter sprayed out 'blood' as it flew far away.

“Euuhk!”

Veronika grimaced as her neck and chest were now coated in blood.

“W-What was that?! What happened?”

“F-From the top of the hill…??”

“B-But!”

“It's, it's like assimilation. That thing was waiting to ambush us, assimilating into the hill itself….”

Veronika stuttered out in great difficulty.

Seol Jihu stared forward and ended up doing a double take, instead. The large object split in half began wriggling around before connecting back into one, and it slowly rose back up. It eventually reached just below two meters tall, and then….

'….A man??'

….And then, it began assuming the shape of a man made out of clay. If there was something different about it, then rather than arms, the tips of the limbs were pointy like the ends of a lance, instead. However, that wasn't the end.

Wuuoooo…. Wuuuooooooo…..

Eerie cries began rumbling out from all over the hill.

“Damn it! It's the mutants!!”

Chohong shouted out.

“That's impossible! These things didn't have a power like assimilation before!”

“Stop your yammering! Twelve o'clock!”

Chohong roared out in anger. Mikhail followed his instinct and shifted his gaze back to his front, and he began freaking out.

The mutants that began to pop up weren't just one or two anymore. Thirty? Forty? Every single one of them carried all sorts of 'weapons' where their arms should have been. In the blink of an eye, the path up ahead had become enveloped in the colour of grey.

Swish-! Swish!

Veronika managed to force herself up and fired a volley of arrows. Both of them accurately struck the variant that tried to ambush her, but the damn thing didn't even care in the least and began running back towards the team. She became pale from the surprise.

If those things were allowed to come any closer, the whole team would be surrounded in no time.

“God damn it! Mikhail! After me!”

“W-Wait…!”

Chohong rushed forward with her hand tightly gripping onto the mace. Mikhail could no longer hesitate and hurriedly chased after her, his teeth busy biting down on his lower lip.

Her lengthy black hair danced as she slammed the mace down.

POW!!

The head of the variant exploded like mud and it teetered about unsteadily. She brushed past this one and began rampaging around like a berserk rhinoceros.

She brought down five, six creatures in no time at all, but she suddenly sensed that it felt rather empty behind her.

“Shit!”

She spun around immediately and raised her left arm up.

Boom!!

A circular barrier shot out from her raised forearm and blocked the sneaky attack of the variant taking aim at her back. She quickly blew away the head of the offending monster and began gnashing her teeth.

“Hey, you dipshit! You're supposed to watch my ba…..?!”

A shock of disbelief quickly filled Chohong's face. Those mutants she thought she had put down for good were back up again in full health and were surrounding Mikhail.

He was freaking out and swinging his longsword every way he could, but all the sliced parts of the mutants simply reverted back to how they were in the blink of an eye. Even worse, the one with its head blown off by her mace began regenerating rapidly as bubbles formed around its wounds.

“Regeneration ability?!”

Chohong groaned out and ran like a lightning bolt to resume smashing apart the mutants surrounding her colleague. She somehow made it in time to rescue Mikhail, but he had already suffered a deep wound and was faltering about by the time she did.

Chohong gritted her teeth. Veronika was still shooting her arrows but none of that proved to be helpful in the least. She remembered hearing that the new mutants would be tougher to deal with, but she definitely didn't expect the gap would be this great.

“Still fucking around like idiots, I see.”

Maria quietly watched on and sneered. She extended the hand holding the crucifix forward and spoke up.

“Luxu, Lu, Luxuria.”

Boom! Along with her disinterested voice, a semi-transparent barrier enveloped the two at the frontline with a loud, energetic thud. It was sturdy enough to withstand these mutants busy pounding on the surface.

“Well, I've bought them enough time, but….”

Maria sneaked a glance to her side.

“If the rumors weren't exaggerated, then I hope you can at least create an escape route for those two morons.”

Seol Jihu wordlessly grasped his spear tightly. Veronika could only provide support with her arrows, while Gierszal's job was a keeper, a guardian. Meaning he was the only true Warrior remaining.

'In that case.'

Without a single shred of hesitation, Seol Jihu dashed forward with his blue spear aiming forward. He had already roused his mana to its maximum by then.

“Hey!”

Just as his brain registered Chohong's worried shout, he slashed his spear at the head of the variant turning around to meet him.

Riiiip!

'Hmm?'

Only after Seol Jihu sliced up the enemy all the way down to its groin did he belatedly get shocked by the spear's incredible cutting power. The satisfying sensation of slicing into hardened clay was transmitted into his hands.

'Hey, this feels pretty good in my hands, doesn't it?'

It wasn't the only good thing to happen, too.

“W-what's that?”

Chohong leaked out a surprised gasp while watching the developing situation from inside the barrier. It was the same story for Seol Jihu, too. He knew that these things possessed the capability to regenerate, so he was prepared to attack for the second time, but then….

Crack, crrrackle!

Pale-blue ice suddenly formed and spread out from the wound of the variant. The creature tried to reattach itself several times, but in the end, it couldn't achieve its goal and melted down to nothing as if it got sucked back into the ground.

'Freezing!'

Seol Jihu's eyes gleamed in understanding as he took a deeper look at the blade of the spear, still emitting that bone-chilling air. Chohong was watching on in a bit of a daze before she too realised what was going on here and began murmuring a chant under her breath. He didn't have enough time to see her mace getting progressively wrapped up in light, as he was too busy colliding against the grey-coloured flood heading his way.

Slice!

After he sliced off the left leg of another variant, Seol Jihu was completely assured of his findings now. He stabbed down at the forehead of the collapsed variant and controlled his mana again.

Pow!

He shot forward with the aid of the Festina Earring, and the horde of the mutants began to separate as if he was Moses performing a miracle. More than that, he felt the spear getting lighter in his hands the more he poured in his mana. For the first time in a long, long while, he got to continuously execute 'Thrust', 'Strike', and 'Cut' to his heart's content.

And so, he instantly pulverised ten, eleven mutants into the ground, but then….

“….!!”

The mutants suddenly threw away all regards to their own lives and jumped on him, their arms spread out wide. He managed to strike down those coming in from the front, but the creatures still surrounded him and clung onto him from left, right, and even at his back and on his legs.

'Damn it!!'

He quickly defeated those clinging onto his sides, but by then, his back and ankles were already in the grips of the mutants.

“Keuk!!”

Out of the blue, he felt white-hot searing pain shoot up from his back. Seol Jihu gritted his teeth, his brows arching up high. Unable to move now, he could only helplessly watch as a variant and its lance-shaped arm aimed at his chest dashed towards him!

“Luxu, Lu, Luxuira!”

Suddenly, his body became free once more. Seol Jihu quickly confirmed that the mutants holding onto him, as well as the one dashing towards him, stop what they were doing and slowly topple over. And, Maria was pointing her crucifix in his general direction with a proud expression on her face.

“Thank you!”

Seol Jihu lightly shouted out and proceeded to slice off the necks of the collapsed mutants. Once finished, he quickly spun around. He alone managed to massacre over ten of the enemy's forces, but there were still over thirty remaining. And well, every single one of them had turned to face him, obviously losing their interest in the barrier now. He didn't have to be a genius to figure out that their new target was him.

'This sucks….'

If it were around ten or so, he wouldn't have minded taking them all on, but this….

Just as Seol Jihu bit down on his lower lip…

“Let's go!”

Chohong jumped out from the barrier. She then proceeded to bulldoze through the mutants hastily turning around and pressed her back tightly against Seol Jihu's.

“Is it fine for you to come out so soon?”

“Well, I know what's what now. Thanks to you.”

Chohong grinned and pointed at the variant that lost its head just now with her mace, now glowing white-hot. The ash grey colour immediately burned up into charcoal.

“How long are you going to hide in there?!”

Maria unhappily shouted out. Mikhail was sweating profusely as he concentrated, hard. His injuries had been healed by healing magic even before Seol Jihu had the time to notice it. Only after bluish aura covered his blade did Mikhail shout back to her.

“I'm done! You can take the barrier away!!”

And with that, the barrier was indeed taken away.

“You stinking sons of bitches. You dare to injure me?”

Mikhail growled menacingly and swung his blue aura-covered sword in anger to re-enter the fray.

“Hey.”

Chohong, her back still pressed to Seol Jihu, quietly spoke.

“How about we shoot some cool movies together here?”

Seol Jihu smirked after hearing her suggestion.

A short while later, the two of them pounced forward in opposite directions.

He manipulated his spear to slice off the variant's arm angrily swung at his way, and he immediately shifted into 'Thrust' to stab into its neck. As the creature fell while grabbing its neck with ice rapidly spreading all around it, he used it as his stepping stone to jump slightly forward and swung his spear in a large arc.

Now that he had comrades watching his blind spots and Maria providing timely support, Seol Jihu became completely enthralled by the performance of his new spear and focused all his being on the battle, eventually performing a dizzying dance where he became one with his weapon. He even forgot to breathe.

By the time he regained his bearings from the bout of wanton slaughter, the surroundings were now filled with the fallen mutants, busy melting into a puddle of nothingness.

“You know, I think you gotta stop by at a temple when this mission is over.”

Chohong turned the light of her mace 'off' and giggled.

“You strength is somewhere between Level 3 and Level 4. I’m sure you’ll level up again in no time.”

Seol Jihu regulated his rough breathing and lowered his spear. Mikhail had been staring at him as if he was a freak or something, but when their gazes met, he quickly gathered his hands together and lowered his head.

“Sorry, I’m really sorry! I didn't know these things could assimilate and regenerate like this.”

“Nah, it's okay. By the way, what was that ability just now?”

“What ability? Ah, you mean that blue light thing?”

“Yes, is that sword qi?”

“Sword qi? Oh, I wish it was. Only a Level 7 Sword Master can use that. No, just think of it as an aura of some sort.”

Mikhail waved his hands about in a jovial dismissal, before his expression became more serious.

“Anyways, are you really Level 2?”

Seol Jihu was already familiar with facing such a misunderstanding, so he was able to smoothly gloss over that question.

The slightly injured combatants recovered from their wounds by drinking healing potions, while Maria stuck close to Veronika who had suffered far heavier wounds than others.

With this, their first battle was over. They were initially thrown into confusion from the stronger-than-expected abilities of the mutants, but now that they knew how to deal with these things, it should become easier than expected moving forward. More importantly, the battle was indeed a lot easier because their Priest provided timely support whenever they found themselves in tight spots.

Witnessing Maria heal Veronika to full health with just one spell, Seol Jihu began nodding his head like a sage.

'Yup, it was the right call, bringing her along.'

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