It looked as though there was something to be gained from the eleven largely failed past expeditions. Kruut Asaam quickly and efficiently found the members he needed and formed an exploratory party. Several scammers applied for the money, but Asaam’s sharp, discerning eye did not allow such unsuitable men to participate in this expedition.
It didn’t even take three days for a party of twelve to be formed for the expedition. Kruut who had successfully gathered the party announced its completion to Sungchul, the financier, with pride.
“There’s a bad atmosphere about the scammers. I can tell who’s planning to take the money and flee by just their eyes, and when it comes to mercenaries, it’s actually preferable to find ones who demand stringent and detailed exit agreement. The reason being those that are untrustworthy give no importance to the terms of the agreement since they can just bounce out of town at the first sign of trouble.”
Kruut who had been living in the slums as a vagrant looked healthy and bursting with energy unbefitting of his age as he transformed into a fancy expedition leader overnight. The day after forming the expedition, he had everyone including Sungchul divided among three small boats that were just large enough to seat five. He had even managed to get a lizardman ferrymen on each boat. They wordlessly watched the humans board with their cold reptilian stare as their tongues flicked back and forth from their lips.
Kruut appeared at the docks with three laborers for odds and ends.
“Let’s get going!”
It looked as though Kruut’s 12th expedition caused quite a stir within Panchuria. There were several onlookers gathered at the narrow planks around the docks to watch the scene with amusement.
“I don’t know where he got the money from, but if he fails this time, it’ll be impossible for him to get back up.”
“Isn’t he already ruined? I think I saw him living in the slums.”
The people weren’t optimistic. Their scornful whispers followed them like a shadow. However, there wasn’t a single change in Kruut’s expression. He appeared to be at peace as he put on a steely composure while facing the mockery poured against him.
‘You’ll all see. If I succeed this expedition, no one will be able to laugh at my efforts.’
Kruut who held such resolution had a single weakness. There was a small boat chasing after them at a rapid pace as they slowly departed from the docks.
“Again! What are you up to this time?!”
Was it a baker? A young woman with an apron and oven mitts was desperately rowing her oars. She must have had a good deal of strength, because the speed of her rowing was abnormal. Sungchul watched the woman’s boat splitting the waters and couldn’t help but think of a motorboat.
The woman’s boat suddenly caught up to the fleet and smashed into the boat carrying the old man before the woman leaped onto the boat with surprisingly agile movements.
“What were you thinking starting this up again? Where did you even get the money?!”
Sungchul who was mingled in with the laborers on the old man’s boat watched the pair with indifferent eyes. Kruut who had brushed off every critical gaze of the people buckled before this woman as though he was being confronted by his maker.
“T-that is… Clarise. I’m REALLY going to succeed the expedition this time. The course was revised to be completely safe unlike last time, the expedition crew are of the highest quality, and the contingent fee is also quite lucrative…”
The young woman pulled at the old man’s arm in an effort to get him onto her boat.
“How much longer are you going to continue with this foolishness! Cancel the contract immediately and hand over your remaining money!”
Kruut looked indecisive.
“Hand over the money right now! It’s just money that you’re going to pour down the toilet, so just hand it over!”
As their scuffle grew longer, one of the mercenaries pulled the woman named Clarise away from the old man. He was an old knight and the leader of the mercenaries. Kruut gave a look of thanks toward the man.
“Just leave, lady. Regardless of who you are, we have to do our job.”
Clarise no longer fought back as a third party stepped in, but once she found Kruut hiding behind a slender mercenary after craning her neck this way and that, she uttered words laced with resentment.
“Remember this. I’ve already severed ties, but I won’t so much as look at you any longer. I’m going to the city hall to change the accursed last name that is mocked by everyone in town!”
The expedition fleet that had been delayed by the sudden happening began to split the waters to move forward once again. Kruut poured out his painful apology toward Sungchul, his financier, with an apologetic face.
“I am truly sorry. I’ve shown you something unsightly.”
“Who was that woman?”
Sungchul could vaguely figure it out, but he asked feigning ignorance.
There were countless emotions intermingled with that single word: granddaughter.
Sungchul didn’t press him any further. It was because he didn’t particularly care.
The old man opened his mouth once again as they left the city borders and entered the upstream that connected into the jungle.
“She sings well. Has a talent for it. She enjoys it herself as well.”
The old man who was staring off into the distance while uttering bitter words clenched his fists as though he had come to some kind of a resolution. The fact that the man was deeply resolved to succeed was self evident, but the world doesn’t go the way we want.
“What the… did the path change?”
The old man looked surprised as he compared the scenery opening up before him and the map that he had drawn himself. The marked path and his map were different.
“H-how could this be? There was definitely a waterway in this direction last time.”
However, there was a tree about the span two outstretched arms standing in the path that he had indicated. There was no way that a boat could cross through.
The mercenaries and hunters that were boarded on another boat were callously watching the old man’s panicked actions. The boat holding the mercenaries approached the old man’s boat. Their leader, the old knight, spoke to Kruut with a solemn appearance.
“The contract stated that you knew the path to the destination and that this foreknowledge could be assured. If that is no longer the case, I’m afraid we’re going to have to back out of this one.”
He shoved the contract that was still wet with fresh ink into Kruut intending to pressure him. The fact that skilled mercenaries were more fastidious regarding their contracts was now becoming an obstacle for Kruut.
“It might not be wise to take any detours. This place is filled with signs of Lizardmen.”
The hunters were trying to push Kruut into a corner. They pointed to the ropes dyed in blue, white, red and deep red which were tied off in various places around the jungle. They were tied off by the Lizardmen, and were a form of territorial markings indicating that intruders will not be forgiven. This meant that it was impossible to continue forward, but it was also impossible to take any detours.
Kruut was beset with enemies on all sides. He looked toward Sungchul with a pained expression. He was asking for more money.
Sungchul intentionally avoided his gaze.
‘Is this a dead end?’
It wasn’t like he had high expectations to begin with.
They began to discuss new conditions as Kruut gathered the mercenary leader and the hunters. Other than Kruut’s angry outbursts, it was a dry and quiet conversation. Sungchul looked around their surroundings as they had their discussion. It was the same green hell that he had been wading through for the past month, He slightly trembled in irritation as he waited for time to flow by.
It didn’t seem like their discussion was going to end anytime soon. Sungchul didn’t particularly dislike solitude, but he detested boredom accentuated by the actions of others to the point of revulsion.
“Just as I suspected, it looks like that old man was a scam all along.”
Bertelgia complained from her pocket. Sungchul was thinking along the same line, but he didn’t condemn the old man to this opinion because he knew that Kruut’s passion was real at the very least.
Sungchul’s eyes drifted toward the Lizardman boatmen. They looked disinterested at the argument unfolding before them and were muttering something amongst themselves. Sungchul tried to eavesdrop, but he couldn’t hear anything. Their voices were too soft, and their unique accent caused by their slithering tongue scrambled the sound making it even more difficult to hear.
Curiosity lit up in Sungchul’s eyes. Why couldn’t he think of it earlier? The true owners of the jungle located within the Screaming Knife’s Edge mountain range were not the residents of Panchuria, but the Lizardmen. The jungle was a place of exploration for Panchurians like Kruut, but to the Lizardmen, it was no different than their living room. If they really did know something, then asking the lizardmen would be faster.
‘Well, there were really no opportunities to meet with lizardmen in the past.’
Lizardmen were particularly wary people with great reservations about other races. Regarding this point, Kruut might have possessed more talent than he expected judging from the fact that he managed to hire four difficult-to-communicate lizardmen rowers.
‘How do you talk to these guys anyways?’
He needed some sort of pretext. The lizardmen were notorious fatalists. A blunt approach might only bring unintentional suspicion and hostility. It didn’t take long until Sungchul remembered that he had something in his pocket that could arouse their interest. He pulled out the Golden Ducky, the bathing companion that would always shine with a golden luster, and floated it on the murky river water.
The Golden Ducky floated on the water toward where the Lizardmen were gathered.
Sungchul naturally hopped onto their boat to recover the Golden Ducky. As he did so, he eavesdropped on their conversation.
“That shop’s mealworm special is no longer the best. There are rumors that the mountain herbs aren’t so fresh and the mealworms are underdeveloped.”
“To mess around with food. Those humans are unsalvageable species!”
They were having a rather unproductive conversation. One of the lizardmen noticed Sungchul climb aboard their boat and turned to look at him with his tongue slithering back and forth. His face was difficult to read, but he had a wary presence. The other lizardmen also stopped talking, and they all looked at Sungchul. It wasn’t animosity, but there was a cold atmosphere of hostility.
Sungchul retrieved the Golden Ducky with a smooth motion and showed it to the Lizardmen.
“I needed to get this thing.”
He then floated the Golden Ducky where the Lizardmen could see it. The lizardmen showed interest when they saw the golden duck float despite appearing to be made of gold that shouldn’t be able to float on water.
“Human. What is this? A trick?”
A lizardman began the conversation.
“No trick. Why not just try it yourself?”
Sungchul held out the Golden Ducky to the Lizardman in the front. He was upwards of two meters tall with a massive harpoon and net slung around his back. His tongue slithered in and out as he carefully examined the Golden Ducky. He was particularly obsessed with trying to shake the Golden Ducky to see if there were some air compartments inside.
Its weight was quite hefty, and its texture felt like pure gold. The Lizardman let his tongue hang out as he lowered his body to float the Golden Ducky onto the water. It fell onto the river with a small plop and wavered precariously before it was submerged halfway into the water, but it eventually burst forth from it like a phoenix. Sounds of celebration spilled out from the Lizardmen’s mouths.
Sungchul watched the Lizardmen cheer with indifference.
“This is really amazing.”
“How did you make it, human?”
The Lizardmen began to push each other for an opportunity to talk to Sungchul. They smelled of something similar to peanut butter.
Sungchul wiped down the Golden Ducky with the rag that he always carried with a serious expression before placing it back into his pocket.
“It’s the power of Alchemy.”
As everything was progressing smoothly, a sudden scream burst out from the front. It wasn’t the usual voice of Kruut, but the voice of the solemn Mercenary Captain.
“Are you planning on killing us all? We might not have arrived here for long, but I know full well how many men have died pitifully by your hands. We have no desire to die such pitiful deaths, so let’s just leave it at that.”
The mercenaries were shouting profanities with their captain at the lead while stepping onto an empty boat. Kruut, whose face was already red with fury, gulped down another swig of liquor before shouting toward the mercenaries.
“Hand over the deposit! At least hand the deposit over before you leave!”
The mercenaries only smirked in response.
“What a pathetic man that doesn’t even understand the concept of deposits. The one who broke the terms of the contract is you.”
“Hand it over! My money!”
Bertelgia who heard this began to mutter aloud.
“Huh? It’s our money, isn’t it?”
Sungchul corrected her.
“If you feel wronged, feel free to sue when you get back. We will respect the decision of the court.”
There was no boatman, but the mercenaries rowed the oars themselves to slowly return to the city. Kruut’s face flushed red then blue as he simply watched them helplessly. Once the mercenaries left, the hunters in charge of pathfinding began to gather on another boat.
“Since there are no more mercenaries to protect us, it’ll be difficult for us to continue along with you. Feel free to call us up once you’ve hired more mercenaries.”
The hunters left as well. All that remained with Kruut were the Lizardman boatmen and the laborers. The old man who had realistically been left to fend for himself began to scream something indiscernible while pulling at his hair. Kruut’s 12th expedition came to an end here. The blameless laborers simply watched the old man with a discontent expression on their face. The Lizardmen looked at the despairing old man and began to mutter amongst each other.
“A human that doesn’t understand the whimsical nature of the Tree Mother trying to be an explorer? How laughable.”
“What could he do? Our workload just decreased thanks to that though.”
It was impossible to decipher the facial expressions of the Lizardmen, but Sungchul discovered that they were making a similar expression to when they were observing the Golden Ducky. In other words, they were happy.
‘Ah, these demihumans. They look like they know something.’
It felt like the rusted needle of the compass was finally shifting.
Sungchul called out to the Lizardmen. Their lizard eyes all turned toward Sungchul’s direction.
“Well, it looks like the work finished faster than expected. How about it? I was thinking of having a round.”
Their eyes flashed a strange light, but they eventually nodded.
“I wish to hear more about this Alchemy, human.”
Kruut Asaam’s adventure had come to an end, but Sungchul adventure had begun anew.
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