“You make it like this.”
Sungchul handed the newly made Golden Duck to the Lizardmen and their eyes began to shine brightly.
“Amazing. This thing referred to as Alchemy of Humans.”
The praise was directed toward Sungchul, but Bertelgia began to vibrate in her pocket from joy. Sungchul managed to get information regarding the jungle in return for crafting the Golden Duck. The Lizardman referring to himself as Rolling Stone spoke.
“That old man wouldn’t know this in his wildest dreams, but the paths within the jungle changes frequently. According to the whims of the spirit residing within the jungle that is. We call it Tree Mother. If you seek to find your path within the jungle, it would be best if you first learn how to gain her favor.”
Sungchul threw out another question.
“The lost city that Kruut Asaam was searching for… Does that city really exist?”
He asked the question point-blank, and the Lizardmen began to look toward each other while being selective in the words they chose to say.
“I cannot answer that question, Human friend. As all things living in the jungle must seek out food on their own, you must seek out what you want in the jungle yourself.”
Rolling Stone politely explained their hesitance. Sungchul wasn’t too disappointed. The important information were the facts that the paths within the jungle changed periodically and that the change was directed by the whims of a spirit called Tree Mother. He had already gained much from learning just these two things.
Sungchul began preparations for another trip after they parted ways. He obtained various things such as fresh water, dried food, insect-repelling incense, and a net to cover his body. They were the small bits of wisdom he had gained from his time in the jungle.
A familiar voice rang out from behind as he slung his fully loaded pack over his shoulder to return to his boat.
“Hey, Mr. Summoned.”
It was Kruut Asaam. He was looking awful, making a face like a dog drenched in rain.
“I don’t need any of my investment returned. The decision to trust you was my own.”
“T-thank you, but I have a request.”
When Sungchul acquiesced, the old man bowed his head and pleaded with tears in his eyes.
“Once more… can you invest in me once more? Things fell apart because I hired the wrong people, but if you invest a bit more, I can get the very best…”
“My business with you has come to an end.”
Sungchul coldly cut him off and began to walk toward the docks. He could hear steps following behind him.
“Please, I beg of you. Just once more. Give me just one more chance.”
Kruut resiliently tailed Sungchul. Once Sungchul boarded the boat, Kruut boarded his own shabby vessel in order to follow behind.
‘He’s becoming a bother.’
Sungchul had half a mind to just smash the boat, but he decided to keep the disturbances within the city to a minimum. There was nothing to be gained by attracting more attention.
The unwelcomed companionship continued before the voice of a young woman could be heard from one side.
“Old man! Just what are you doing?”
A woman wearing an apron was peeking her head out from a building floating on the water. It was the female baker from yesterday.
‘Was it Clarice?’
She had left a deep impression on him with her strength that suited a strongman, not someone of her slim stature. She nimbly tossed her body over to the old man’s boat. A loud splash was made as the boat rocked heavily.
“Where are you going now? I heard you failed this time as well!!?”
The old man could not say anything to her blunt words, instead, he simply hung his head in shame. Bertelgia giggled as though she was amused by this interaction.
It was at this moment that Clarice suddenly turned back to gaze in Sungchul’s direction. She politely greeted him once their eyes met.
“I am deeply sorry that my grandfather caused you such an inconvenience. I would be grateful if you could forgive him out of generosity.”
She appeared to be unruly, but she was actually a woman with a lot of grace. Her words also seemed quite rough, but she was still taking care of Kruut.
Sungchul wordlessly resumed rowing departing from where he was. The old man that had been tightly held by the woman followed him no longer.
Sungchul who had now entered the jungle once again following the path that the old man had taken: the waterway that continued upstream to land. In this regard, Sungchul felt that Kruut’s experience was not all that flawed as the river was the only fixed path within the jungle whose paths changed constantly.
Sungchul soon arrived at the point blocked off by trees at which the exploratory group had to turn back. The geography had shifted ever so slightly. The tree roots that had obstructed the river were slightly twisted.
‘Is this what they call the Tree Mother?’
Sungchul checked with his eye of truth for any hidden element to see if he had overlooked anything. No magic energies or special spells were detected, neither were the presence of any nearby spirits.
It was a tree that had lived for a time close to an eternity; a time that couldn’t be estimated. Beings and objects that live that long gain a power onto itself in a way that’s difficult for humans to perceive.
Sungchul sat at the head of his boat and observed the great tree with persistence. After the time it would’ve taken to drink one cup of tea had passed, he was able to come to a conclusion.
‘It’s moving. It’s almost imperceptible, but the locations of these trees are changing.’
The wall of trees obstructing the river was actually the roots of this one great tree. A portion of this tree that was so large as to make it difficult to discern which part it was had tangled together like vines to form this tree wall. The stalk that had blocked the river was sucking in the river water.
Two options came to mind. One was to wait, and another was to break through the roots of this massive tree. Sungchul didn’t particularly like either option. The former required too much time, and the latter would potentially cause unnecessary conflict with the Lizardmen.
‘Is there any way to shorten the timeline?’
No particular idea came to mind. He had thought of submerging but quickly gave up on the idea. Even if he were to jump into this yellow tinted cloudy almost mud-like river, he would not be able to see an inch ahead of him. However, he felt that he would be trapped in the ever-changing jungle’s maze if he traveled by land.
As more time passed in contemplation, Sungchul could hear a beautiful melody in the distance. He hid his presence and headed toward the sound.
Five lizardmen were wandering around the jungle. The beautiful melody was coming from the wooden flute of the Lizardman at the lead. The same tree roots that had stopped Sungchul’s path now stood before them, but the roots reacted completely differently from when Sungchul had stood in front of it. The tree roots seemed to open a path for them as though the roots were sentient.
The Lizardmen leisurely walked through the path between the roots and the roots extended down once again to block the way as soon as they disappeared from view. It was a sight that was difficult to believe even as he saw it with his own eyes.
“It looks like it’s responding to the music?”
It appeared as though the Tree Mother decided whether to open its path based on the music. However, how would he be able to obtain a method to play the music in his current state?
Sungchul could not draw, and he also couldn’t sing. He couldn’t perform any instruments, and the sole instrument he had handled in his lifetime was the recorder he was taught to play during music class in his elementary school years.
“Bertelgia,” called out Sungchul.
It was a softer voice filled with affection that was much different than usual. Bertelgia knew of the circumstances in which Sungchul used such a voice to call out to her very well.
“Uh.. hm? What’s wrong…?”
She responded in an innocent manner as though she hadn’t noticed anything.
“Pick out a song.”
“I’ll even clap along. Quickly now.”
Sungchul urged her on by making a clapping gesture.
“No way! I can’t sing!”
But Bertelgia’s resistance was much stronger than expected.
It couldn’t be helped.
Sungchul cleared his throat and began to sing with a powerful voice toward the tree roots blocking his path.
“On top of the rolling green field…. the picturesque house…”
The results were pitiful. The tree roots seemed to clamp up much tighter as though enraged before Sungchul could finish a single verse.
Sungchul turned the boat around without regrets.
It was easy enough to hire a singer or a performer, but it was practically impossible to find a performer willing to enter the jungle. Anyone living in Panchuria knew fully well how dangerous the forest was. A musician fairly advanced in age clicked his tongue as he spoke.
“Would millions of gold coins even be worth risking my life for? If you truly need a musician, learn the arts yourself.”
Sungchul spent the entire day on his feet with no results. He tried changing his methods as he went along and offered a large sum of money first to entice people, but every contract went bust once he proposed the part about entering the jungle. The few musicians that seemed interested required an exploratory group that was at least one of a size that Kruut had assembled.
Sungchul had begun to contemplate the foolish thought of trying his hand at learning an instrument himself as he headed toward the Emperor’s Outhouse. The familiar chaotic scene of the local bar greeted him.
Sungchul sat where the eyes of onlookers couldn’t reach him and began to down his drinks in an attempt to soothe his weary soul. Once his fatigue faded to a certain degree, he began to ask around about a musician willing to enter the jungle with him again. The reason he chose the local watering hole is that he had thought that a musician might be found even among the throngs of human trash who come everyday to get drunk.
Sungchul pushed a tip toward a staff before asking him to seek out a musician or someone that knew how to handle an instrument among these drunkards.
The staff, encouraged by the sudden influx of a substantial amount of cash, moved around diligently like a herding dog. Sungchul then rented a guest room on the third floor and waited for the potential applicants. Eventually, three drunkards were put before him in the room. They were all similarly shabby looking people reeking of alcohol.
“Please perform for me one at a time.”
The audition began, and the expectations were low. However, not a single person managed to overcome that low hurdle. Many who showed up didn’t even even do what they were supposed to.
“Is imitation also viable? I am confident that I can mimic a Lizardman! Shk! Sheee! One Mealworm Special here! Plenty of pepper fruit on top!”
Several more layabouts continued to come. Finally, a man with the words ‘rapist’ tattooed on top of his head who knew a bit of flute was somewhat willing to enter the jungle, but Sungchul didn’t approve of him. His performance was mediocre and, more than anything, Sungchul didn’t like his background.
Once Sungchul started hesitating, the rapist fell to his knees and spoke in a voice filled with earnesty. “I am living every single day in repentance for what I’ve done. I promise not to inflict harm on any other resident, so consider this an act of reforming a man and give me this one opportunity.”
Sungchul told him to wait for a decision for now and called for the next applicant. The next applicant was a familiar face he was fully acquainted with.
It was Kruut Asaam. He must have sold off the fancy clothing that he had worn when he led the exploratory team as he was knelt down before Sungchul in his old rags trying to kiss his hand.
Sungchul lightly pushed him aside and called out to the staff waiting outside.
He was about to immediately have him thrown out when Kruut, who had caught on, ran quickly to the door and locked it.
“You’re making this difficult.”
Sungchul allowed his anger to leak out for the first time. Kruut could feel a terror that made his body freeze over, but he grit his teeth and barely managed to spit out his prepared speech.
“I heard you were looking for a musician.”
He managed to sound dignified once again.
“You’re telling me that you know how to handle an instrument?”
Kruut nodded at Sungchul’s question.
The old man hesitated, and Sungchul let out a small sigh.
“I’m warning you. It is not a good idea to appear in front of me again.”
Sungchul spoke sincerely. He tried to avoid harming innocent bystanders, but he had no desire to let someone that was inconveniencing him repeatedly live.
“Clarice! My granddaughter can sing remarkably well.”
“Then bring her here.”
“That is a bit more complicated. As I said before, our relationship isn’t so good.”
“But I know where she is! I suspect that she should be singing to herself at the moment. Let us go together. If I’m wrong, you can strike me down or grind me up. I’ll accept my fate.”
Sungchul felt weary. He rose from his seat and opened the door before looking down the inn’s corridor. There were several layabouts who weren’t largely different from that rapist staggering about reeking of alcohol. Sungchul, who met eyes with one of them, spoke coldly to Kruut.
The place that Kruut had led him to was not on the water, it was a grand residence on the shore. There were roses of various colors blooming splendidly along the fence as beautiful music and a murmur of voices could be heard. He could see men and women in gaudy clothes sitting around several tables filled with scrumptious feast as he drew close. There was a banquet being held inside.
Sungchul could feel goosebumps crawling across his body. Socializing and banquets were two of the few things he hated most. One of the most difficult things he had to do during the time he had devoted himself to the Human Empire was attending these tiresome social gatherings. No matter how good a feast or the beauty of the gathered women, he felt sick revulsion every time he saw the disingenuous smile and the undeserving smug look of the ruling elites who were pretending to be important. This was a banquet in the backwater countryside that paled in comparison to the banquets of the Empire at the heart of the continent, but it was still unavoidable for Sungchul to feel a natural sense of aversion.
As he held in his nausea and continued toward the entrance, the burly servants noticed Sungchul’s party and blocked his path.
“Suspicious looking people and those without invitations cannot enter.”
Suspicious looking people was another word for people that looked poor. Sungchul was rather happy about this turn of events.
As they loitered about the entrance, Kruut pointed a finger into the banquet.
“There, that’s my granddaughter!”
Sungchul looked toward where his finger was pointing at. Clarice was stepping onto the stage amidst the indifference of the crowd. The sole person showing interest was a mischievous kid lingering at the side throwing crumbs at her.
Clarice withstood the indifference and began to sing along with the performance of the band.
“Wow!” said Bertelgia as she let out a low exclamation, while Sungchul’s eyes shone as he watched with interest.
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