Chapter 73. The White Ship, The Anchor

Experience is important – this wisdom applied to just about every imaginable area of expertise.

The extermination team's attitude went through an immediate change after they found out that the mutants now possessed the ability to camouflage as well as the ability to regenerate in almost a blink of an eye.

Mikhail and his team, an old hand in stuff like this in their own way, totally threw away any notion of underestimating their enemies. Veronika carried a far, far more somber expression than before as she guided the team forward. She kept grinding her teeth, her eyes scanning the surroundings and missing not even a tiny speck of dust. Thanks to her diligence, the team's speed of advancement had plummeted down to a turtle's walking pace. Of course, no one was dissatisfied with it.

When the ambushing tactic no longer worked, mutants changed their strategy and reverted back to simply clashing with the team head-on.

Fortunately, the team preferred to breakthrough from the front. This was because Chohong had her mace draped in divine power, Mikhail sheathed his sword in a blueish aura, while Seol Jihu had gotten himself fully ready with his magic spear. With Maria's timely assistance added to the mix, they didn't have to fear the mutants anymore, though they still proved to be slightly cumbersome opponents to handle at the end of the day.

About four hours later, the team was able to completely wipe out every single variant seemingly existing within the Night Fog Zone. They roamed around for a little while longer to make sure, but couldn't find a single one, which could only mean that they had succeeded in eradicating the enemy.

“The end!”

Mikhail sheathed his longsword and formed an expression of pure contentment. Even Gierszal and Veronika displayed obvious hints of being pleased as well. The opponents may not have been the easiest ones out there, but at the same time, they weren't too tough either. That was why the trio felt so chuffed right now.

They didn't have a lot to go before getting their much-anticipated level-ups. It was a rare thing to run into enemies that perfectly suited their current in-between status like these mutants.

Unlike them, though, Seol Jihu was dwelling on a different kind of sentiment. The eradication of the mutants was, in the end, only one of the goals he had set out to achieve. He planned to dig into the mystery and lay it bare once and for all, and at the moment, he couldn't hide the signs of confusion on his face.

'There’s no color….'

The moment the last variant was taken care of, the Night Fog Zone's color changed from yellow to colorless. What did this event signify?

'…..I can't figure it out.'

Seol Jihu rubbed his face. No matter how long he walked around, he couldn't see anything suspicious at all.

One of the fundamentals in any investigation was searching for potential clues. However, he felt like he was being stonewalled by an invisible force, unable to even begin searching for clues.

His chest felt heavy and tight as if a boulder got stuck there. Was this how someone would feel after being asked to solve a mystery without any clues whatsoever?

'This sucks….'

“When we go back to Haramark, the first thing we will do is to make a pitstop by the temples.”

Mikhail suddenly engaged Seol Jihu in conversation as the youth stood there burning his brain cells.

“You know, I think this is more than enough. Me, Gierszal, Veronika, all three of us might be able to get to the next stage after today.”

“Is that so?”

“That's right! When I become a Level 4, I'll be able to walk around with a bit more strength in my shoulders! The 'Sword Actor'! Keuh! Tell me that doesn’t sound cool!”

Mikhail laughed good-naturedly and blabbed on. Seol Jihu could only form a weak smile, instead.

“Congratulations.”

“Huh…. Did I read the mood wrong?”

Mikhail grinned embarrassedly at the youth's response.

“Well, what I actually wanted to tell you was that you shouldn't be too discouraged by this.”

“What do you mean?”

“The three of us are more than happy to return to Haramark with what we’ve achieved. From the get-go, you told us that the info you had wasn't a 100% sure thing. It was us three who made the choice to come with you anyway. Besides, it's not like this is our first time going home empty-handed. Expeditions or explorations, it's all a big gamble, really.”

Seol Jihu must have looked far too worried from others' perspectives. For sure, he felt the unseen weight pressing down on his shoulders from the burden of being the leader. Mikhail's words certainly did help the youth in that regard.

“Thank you.”

“Sure, sure. So, what will you do now? Going back to Ramman isn't a bad idea, but if it's too much bother going back and forth, it won't be that bad to set up a camp nearby.”

Now that Seol Jihu thought about it, the sun had set a while ago and dim twilight was slowly creeping into the land. This meant the fog should be rising up soon.

It was unwise to doggedly cling to a problem with no solution in sight. Seol Jihu quickly organized his thoughts and made an announcement.

“Let's make camp here. We'll survey the zone during the night, and if we don't find anything particular, then we go home in the morning.”

“Nice. Let's do that.”

Mikhail coolly replied to that.

*

Evening came and went, and the time now was well into the middle of the night.

The team set up camp a bit further away from the Night Fog Zone. If it was at all possible, Seol Jihu would have preferred setting it up within the Night Fog Zone itself, but the fog thickly covered the area as the night deepened, greatly limiting one's visibility in the process. They may have swept all the mutants away, but one would never know. There was no real reason to deliberately take on any unnecessary risk when they could avoid it altogether.

Dawn was approaching silently. Seol Jihu rubbed his eyes and got up from his sleeping bag. It was his turn to stand as the lookout.

Two people would rotate in turn to serve as the lookout. That was the basics of camping outside in Paradise. When he made his way out of the tent, he found Maria sitting before the campfire, but she was already nodding off to the la-la land by then.

“M-mm, mm….”

He settled down cautiously next to her, and as if she was waiting for that, she used his lap as her pillow and laid down completely. A thin smile formed on his lips, but it dissipated soon enough.

Now that he got some much-deserved shut-eye, he no longer felt as anxious as before. Of course, that didn't mean the elusive answer had suddenly materialized in front of his face. He simply stared at the campfire burning away without saying a word, his gaze tracing the reddish arcs drawn in the air by the dancing flames.

'What did I miss?'

In all honesty, Seol Jihu had already half given up on his quest to unravel this mystery. Well, many outstanding Earthlings had tried and eventually surrendered with their hands – and even feet – raised in the air.

He wasn't the smartest person out there nor was he overflowing with wisdom built up from extensive experience. Indeed, it was wrong for him to jump headlong into this problem, loudly claiming that he would solve it when others couldn't. The only thing separating him from the rest was his 'Nine Eyes'….

That was probably why he couldn't just let this one go. Because there definitely was something here. There was no doubt about that. His suspicions had morphed into certainty after that meeting with the village head.

'Should I go back and threaten him or something?'

Seol Jihu could only wryly chuckle at his own stupid idea. Obviously, he wasn't thinking of doing that, ever. He hadn't seen any colors of danger from the village, and the village head himself showed no ill will towards him. The youth wasn't so thick-faced to force a man living in solitude into saying something that might or might not help him.

Just in case, he took a glance at the dense fog covering the zone, but he confirmed that there was no change. He slowly licked his lower lip.

'I've succeeded in carrying out the request, yet I don't feel good at all.'

He looked at Maria on his lap, her sleeping face not carrying one hint of worry and suddenly felt a bit grumpy. He then lightly pinched her cheek that still had some baby fat left. She spat out hing~! and turned her head around.

A soft chuckle escaped from his mouth. He gently patted her head, and she grinned and murmured,

Her soft, steady breathing reminded him of a house cat.

“Haaaaaa…”

Argh, I don't know anymore. Seol Jihu laid down on his back as well and turned his attention to the sky above. A bright white moon was casting pale-blue light from the clear night sky.

'Huh, it's a half-moon tonight.'

When he silently gazed at it, the half-moon resembled a white ship gently floating on the endless stretch of a jet-black ocean. Absorbed by this rather beautiful sight, he stared at the sky, unmoving and wordless.

Just how much time passed by like that?

“?”

Quite suddenly, he thought that his vision had become blurred. Seol Jihu quickly blinked several times.

'….What was that?'

At first, he thought his eyes were playing a trick on him. But no – from a certain point onwards, his eyes could clearly see dozens upon dozens of black 'lines' rising up to the sky.

This event wasn't happening near him; he couldn't even see properly what those lines were made out of since they were so far away. However, those black lines still pierced out of the night's fog and wiggled towards the half-moon as if they were trying desperately to reach out to the night sky.

Wooooooo…..

Almost right away, an eerie call resounded out from somewhere within the fog – and, at the same time, a portion of the Night Fog Zone suddenly changed color to yellow. Goosebumps broke out all over his body in mere seconds.

“OUCH!!”

Seol Jihu hurriedly shot up to his feet, and Maria cried out in distress as her sweet slumber was interrupted by her head hitting the ground.

“W-what was that?!”

Her pain wasn't that important, though.

[It was a white ship! A white ship lowered its anchor!!]

The moment his memories reached there….

[I'm telling you, a white ship lowered dozens of anchors!!]

Seol Jihu was already running like wild wind.

“Maria!! Wake everyone up and follow me!”

After leaving behind those words, of course.

Wooooo…?

When he breached into the Night Fog Zone, that eerie wail began softening for some reason. The black lines trying to cover the half-moon slunk back into the fog too – just like a white ship lowering its anchors.

Seol Jihu arrived in his destination in the blink of an eye and crazily swept his gaze around his surroundings. However, he couldn't see anything.

But it was definitely here! Not only that, even the yellow color was beginning to disappear, reverting back to the previous colorless state.

'What the hell is going on here?'

He genuinely felt that, if he missed this chance, then he would not be able to find another one any time soon. Seol Jihu was momentarily caught in indecision, but being pressed for time, he quickly ran up a small mound right next to him. He thought that, by being somewhere higher, he might be able to see something, anything.

The mound wasn't even six meters high, and he climbed to the top in no time at all. He looked down with his Nine Eyes still active and finally discovered the strange phenomenon happening right below.

'The yellow color….'

…was disappearing? Seol Jihu narrowed his eyes. Indeed, the color was 'disappearing', but it was completely different to how the color faded away usually. It would normally fade away like paint spreading over another color and changing it, but here, he saw a big, yellow circle rapidly shrink into a far smaller dot.

It was the size of a house, then to a large boulder, then rapidly shrunk down to a size of a clenched fist, then eventually a small dot – and then, gone for good, leaving behind no color at all.

“What the hell…..?”

He muttered to himself in puzzlement, before he sucked in several cold breaths. Others would say that he suddenly had an epiphany. His comrades had arrived around at this time.

“What happened?!”

Maria's loud yell brought Seol Jihu back to his senses. Before he could forget that spot, he took another hard look down below. Although the color was gone now, he still remembered the location where that yellow was.

“What's going on?”

“It didn't disappear.”

“What?”

“It realized that I was looking, and it went below. And that's why it shrunk like that.”

“W-What are you even talking about?! Did you eat something you shouldn't have??”

Maria creased up her brows.

Again, Seol Jihu wasn't completely sure. But if his theory was right, a few questions would be answered straight away. Why only this place was so barren, why there were all those holes in the ground, and then….

Seol Jihu pulled out his spear almost out of reflex and smacked the hill with it. Pak!! The hardened chunk of sand crumbled and scattered dust in the air.

This was quite literally a lightning bolt out of the blue. All the team members stared at the youth busy pounding the hill with dazed faces. Only Chohong hesitantly pulled her mace out after spending a few more seconds observing the youth.

“I really wanna ask you what's up with your exercise routine in the middle of the night, but I should just hit this hill like you, right?”

“I could be wrong, but it has to be somewhere around here.”

SLAM!

With Chohong added to the mix, the hill began to crumble at a far quicker pace now. And because the soil itself lacked any life whatsoever, it broke away easily, too. She continued to pound the ground but still didn't forget to throw him a sideways glance as well as a question.

“And why are we suddenly doing this now?”

“Back in the village, I heard about 'three taboos'.”

“Three taboos?”

“The sound, the waving hands, and people wearing grey clothes. Ignore these three taboos, and you will end up in another world.”

“The sound? You mean, that Woooo~ from just now?”

“That's right.”

Seol Jihu agreed with her while still digging out the hill.

“The wavering hands was just a figurative description.”

“Eh?”

“I just happened to see it. Something below here, beneath the Night Fog Zone, would sometimes reveal itself when it thinks there's nobody nearby. And when it detects danger, it quickly hides itself again. When you think about the special characteristics of the mutants, the one about them not leaving any traces behind, then it's not all that strange for the others to miss the signs.”

Seol Jihu explained himself at a rapid knock.

“T-Then, what about grey clothed people or whatever?”

“No need to think too hard about that. Remember what the color of the mutants was?”

“Hey, I really can't tell head from tail what you're on about, you know?!”

Chohong frowned grandly and swung down her mace with a lot of power. And this happened.

CRACK!

Without any warning whatsoever, the sensation of something hard splitting up got transmitted to her hands. She yanked her deeply-buried mace out and blinked her eyes in sheer dumbfounded amazement.

“This…..?!”

“The thing was….”

Seol Jihu's eyes were gleaming brightly now.

“It was not 'another world' or something like that. Someone cooked up that rumor in order to hide something.”

Chohong looked at him with the face of a person still failing to understand. And that was the difference between someone who simply decided to participate in the request and someone who investigated everything before coming here.

“Don't try to dig deeper there. Instead, let's try to carve down the sides now.”

Four Warriors roused up their mana and began digging into the hill, and before long, the whole mound began resembling an apple with its side bitten out.

A short while later, the team was staring a certain large boulder firmly blocking 'something' with amazed eyes.

“Holy cow…. So, well, uh, why the heck is this thing here?”

“Remember that the Night Fog Zone is a hilly region. No one would find it odd to see another 'hill' here.”

When Veronika asked in stupefaction, Seol Jihu replied in a soft voice.

“Someone built a small hill here disguising the entrance, all in order to hide something.”

“I, well, I didn't know. For real. I didn’t see any trace of artificial tampering around here.”

Veronika stuttered defensively.

“That's to be expected. This place was closed up many years ago, after all. Since it's only this big, you wouldn't have needed a lot of time for something man-made to be swallowed up by nature.”

“Many years ago? Closed up?!”

Seol Jihu was about to say, ‘The person hiding all this was very meticulous’, but decided to save his breath. They wouldn't understand it even if he explained it now.

“In any case, let's get this rock outta there first.”

Chohong and her short temper stepped up forward before anybody else, her sleeves all rolled up. Gierszal, Mikhail and Seol Jihu also joined in.

Hnnnng!

The boulder eventually issued a heavy creak and was pushed to the side, revealing a rocky cavern it had been blocking up all this time.

“So….”

Mikhail nervously swallowed his saliva.

“…The secret to the mystery is sleeping within this hole, is that it?”

Seol Jihu wordlessly nodded his head. He was sure of it now. The moment this entrance was revealed, the 'hill' changed its color back to yellow. He also got to learn that being 'colorless' was the most variable out of the four directions.

“Ha! This is great! Leveling up by solving a mystery once and for all! Can there be any outcome better than that?”

Mikhail shouted out in excitement, his head already full with images of a rosy future.

“Good! Very good! Leader, let's go inside!”

The team quickly assumed their previous formation. Veronika hit the entrance a couple of times and even tossed a rock inside, before nodding her head in satisfaction and took the spot in front of the group again.

For a while, the six of them walked in the humid, damp corridor that took them lower and lower underground. By the end of this stony passageway, they spotted hints of light. The team cautiously walked further forward and found themselves inside a massive underground chamber.

The interior wasn't that dark, which was somewhat unexpected. Illuminating stones were buried in the walls here and there to provide necessary illumination. That was one of the clearest proofs that this place felt the hands of humans before.

If one had to name a problem with this place, it would be that there was absolutely nothing there, which was strange for such a large area. All they could see was the ceiling, about four meters high, as well as another passageway at the far end of the chamber. This underground tunnel felt lonesome and deserted, even.

“Mm…. There might be something here, so let me take a look around first.”

Veronika tilted her head slightly and carefully moved forward.

“This is not what I was expecting….”

Seol Jihu muttered to himself.

“Hey, just how did you locate this place? I wasn't expecting something like this to exist here, you know?”

Gierszal asked with a face full of curiosity.

“Oh, that. I figured that there was a research center somewhere near Ramman, you see.”

“A research center?”

“I read about it in the Empire's history book. After the Parasites invaded….”

Seol Jihu proceeded to briefly explain what he found out to the rest of the team and sighed out.

“The village of Ramman wasn't mentioned at all, but Master Ian suspected that the mutants were the results of that research.”

“Hold on. Didn't you just say that the research center was in the Delphinion Duchy?”

“That's where the main research center was located, yes. But the satellite research centers were dotted around the countryside, so I thought that it was possible for one of them to be somewhere around here…..”

Seol Jihu didn't finish his sentence, but Gierszal still nodded his head.

“So, that's what happened. It's a bit shoddy in here to be a research center, though. Doesn't look like there's anything of value at all.”

He was right. It was nominally a place to conduct research, yet not one commonly-seen research apparatus could be seen here. Logically speaking, shouldn't there be at least a single flask or something similar to that? Even a deserted mine wouldn't be this empty. Considering the technological prowess of the Empire, reputedly at the peak of magic engineering, something like this place made no sense at all.

'Could it be that the village head wasn't lying?'

It was then, Veronika finished scouting up ahead and returned to the team.

“Damn it, I found nothing.”

“Did you see anything like the footsteps of a person or something similar to that?”

“Well, I'd say this place is definitely man-made, but….”

Veronika shook her head.

“I can't see any sort of trace in this place. All I can say is that no one has stepped a foot in this space in the last three months, at the least. That's as far as I can read, though. Sorry.”

Which meant that the only thing remaining would be the cavern on the other side.

“It would be nice if there's something in there.”

Veronika licked her lips and took the lead of the team again. But, just as she was about to lead them forward, Seol Jihu opened his eyes extra wide and gasped out belatedly.

“Wait!!”

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