Chapter 63: Finally a Tutorial (5)
They marched and marched. No one spoke and instead focused all their attention on walking. People feared that they would collapse to the ground once they stopped and continued to march whether it was night or day. Having won a battle didn’t seem to mean that much now.
Half of them had survived, and now the question remained whether or not they would be able to survive through thirst and hunger. Chi-Woo in particular had no strength to even talk, and he was in an extremely dire state. His throat was burning like he had swallowed scorching coals. His head felt dizzy, and he came to the realization that his stomach was hurting from prolonged starvation. He could no longer feel his feet. However, he knew he had to endure, and the hope that everything would be better once they arrived at their destination compelled him to continue.
Something similar had happened in the Records of the Three Kingdoms. When the Wei soldiers struggled to keep marching due to severe thirst and depleted strength, Cao Cao told his men that if they pushed themselves a bit more, they would soon be able to have as many plum fruits as they wished. The soldiers’ mouths watered at the thought of a plum’s sour taste, and they forgot their thirst temporarily and managed to reach their destination early. It was the same for the recruits and the natives. If they went a bit farther, they would soon enjoy the safety of a fortress, sleep warmly, and find food and drinks. With these hopes, they forced their frigid, heavy feet to move. When the sun rose to the middle of the sky the next day, they finally saw their destination.
Everyone stopped walking.
“…” Eshnunna looked up and saw an old, worn-out castle juxtaposed by a completely upright, tall mountain.
“…We have arrived.” When she was leaving the base camp, she had wondered if she would ever be able to arrive at their destination. In the end, she had reached this place alive. Hearing her, everyone pushed their half-dead body to move again and fought to walk forward. Chi-Woo also let out a small cry.
The fortress was stationed on a mound, and near the fortress was a running river. Behind it, a rugged mountain stood. It lived up to the name the Fortress of the Heavens. People ran in a flurry. Under the stone bridge that connected the fortress’s entrance, there was a river circling around the exterior like a natural moat. The sight of water put a mad glint in everyone’s eyes. The first heroes to reach the fortress got on their knees before shoving their heads into the river. They gulped down the water like they were possessed, and only raised their head to breathe before dunking their heads back into the water again.
“Is it okay for us to drink this water?” one person asked grimly, but no one paid attention.
“Let them be! At most, their stomach would ache for a bit!”
Having an aching stomach seemed like a small price to pay in order to quench their thirst, and everyone took big gulps. Chi-Woo also went crazy over the water. At first, he still had the presence of mind to drink from his cupped hands, but soon he was shoving his head underwater like the others, not so much drinking but inhaling water until his throat felt like it would burst. It felt like his dried-up esophagus was finally getting rehydrated. It was refres.h.i.+ng, so refres.h.i.+ng that he wanted to scream and roll on the ground.
After drinking until his throat felt sore, Chi-Woo shook his head underwater like a mad man. He hadn’t been able to wash up properly since coming to Liber, and his scalp itched. He felt better just by being in the water.
“Haaa!” Chi-Woo re-emerged from the water when he couldn’t hold his breath any longer. With cold water dripping down his head, his hazy mind seemed to have returned to its original state. The sunlight s.h.i.+ning on him felt warm, and his burning thirst cleared away like they were washed off him. After standing blankly for a while, Chi-Woo turned around.
“Ha!” Eshnunna looked up, shaking her soaking wet hair with water running down her face. She blinked hard multiple times before turning to Chi-Woo, sensing his eyes on her. Chi-Woo smirked at her. It wasn’t really that funny, but for some reason, he burst into laughter. Eshnunna looked taken aback for a moment, but she soon joined in with carefree laughter as well. It didn’t take long before everyone around them followed suit. Yes, this was it. This was what it meant to be alive.
With their thirst sated, the recruits and the natives went inside the fortress. They kept a watchful eye on their surroundings in case there were enemies lurking about, but their hearts weren’t in it. It was understandable. For Chi-Woo’s case—Although he hadn’t been starving the entire time since arriving at Liber, he had never eaten his full. In fact, he had always stopped eating far before he was satisfied. On top of that, he had been starving for the last two weeks; in the most recent week, especially, he hadn’t eaten anything.
He had been thinking of eating his snacks to make the hunger go away, but he hadn’t been able to since that would make his thirst worse. And now, after quenching his thirst, the water in his stomach made him feel hungrier. His body was crying out for food now, and his stomach wasn’t the only one that rumbled in the vicinity.
“The noise might alert others to our location.” Zelit smiled wryly.
Chi-Woo responded with a self-deprecating smile after looking around. The fortress was—how should one describe it? It looked like a fortress through and through. A rectangular structure stood in the embrace of stone walls, and there was more than one single layer. Past the fortress’ outskirts was another circle of walls, and between them, there were other stone structures densely built in the shape of ‘ᄀ’, ‘ᄂ’, ‘ᄃ’, and ‘ᄅ’. In short, there were three layers of castle walls; and that wasn’t the end of it.
“Why is the path so complicated?”
There was a maze of some sort past the three layers of walls. The path was so complicated that it would infuriate those who were trespa.s.sing for the first time. It was narrow, incredibly b.u.mpy, and meandering. Past another castle wall, they arrived at a place that could make a trespa.s.ser shout in exasperation, “What a s.h.i.+tty way to fight a war!”
The body of water and the area around it looked effective in fighting off an enemy force with small numbers. A fortress was usually structured this way, built mainly for the purpose of defense and provided minimum functions for a civilian to live in.
“The lord of this place must have worked really hard to fulfill his role,” Zelit remarked.
“Yes, you’re right,” Eshnunna replied. She explained that the margrave who built this fortress was called the ‘Divine Guardian of Salem’, and this figure was one of the main reasons why Salem had been able to maintain a mid-sized kingdom for so long with limited territory.
“A thorough man like that would have prepared a sufficient amount of food supplies, right?” someone asked hopefully.
After going through a narrow path, they arrived at a wide s.p.a.ce that appeared to be a square. Zelit stopped momentarily and took a deep breath. After determining that there were no enemies remaining, he suggested for all of them to look for goods, especially food. None of the heroes was paying much attention to him, and as soon as Zelit finished his sentence, they all dispersed like ants without even getting into groups. Eshnunna and the natives she led were the only ones showing any resemblance of order.
After around two hours, the heroes reconvened on the square with a disappointed look on their faces. Everyone returned empty-handed. It was hard to believe, but there was no food left in the fortress for them. They found a room that looked to be a storage, but it was completely empty. They also found private facilities, but there wasn’t much in these areas, and definitely no food. Later on, they searched everywhere they went but found nothing they could eat. Although they had found safe shelter, a good amount of armories and gloves, and ensured a sufficient amount of water, they were still missing the most important thing.
“Did you find anything?”
“No, what about you?”
The question was eagerly repeated to every hero that returned, but the answer was always the same
“Do we have to eat gra.s.s roots mixed with mud again?”
“I’m not sure if we would even have that. Didn’t you see? All around us are cliffs without any green.”
“Then, are there any fishes in the river…?”
“I looked inside the waters with my eyes open wide, but I couldn’t even see a single pale chub.”
Their hope dimmed and eventually gave way to hopelessness as all the potential venues for food were eliminated. They didn’t have the strength to move anymore. Everyone lay on the square and stared blankly at the sky.
“…Ha.” Someone sighed. “Why did we go through all that trouble to come here….?” The hero lamented as if their prospects physically pained him. One had to have a will to even live, and the greater the hope one had, the greater the despair following a disappointment. There was a limit to how much a person could endure by pure grit. Like a candle that burned with the biggest fire had suddenly gone out, when everyone realized that there was nothing for them to eat, their will to live greatly diminished, and everything they had been withholding burst out. After all, their prospects were miserable; in the current situation, it wouldn’t be unthinkable for people to start dying from infected wounds or starvation the next day.
Chi-Woo’s situation was at least a bit better than the others. He wondered if he had to clear all the snacks in his bag when he suddenly heard a noise. It sounded like wheels rolling. The heroes who were lying on the ground in despair didn’t respond to the noise. However, as the noise approached, one or two of them rose and turned to the direction of the noise.
“I’m sorry to have kept you all waiting.” Eshnunna appeared with the natives like a G.o.ddess.
“We found food,” she said. The natives and she were carrying several heavily loaded sacks.
The heroes looked bewildered; their eyes turned wide as the natives took things out of the sack and prepared to start a fire.
“Food? Is it really food?”
They asked in disbelief.
Eshnunna responded as if what she had done was nothing, “There was a time when the guardian deity of Salem fought against an empire’s army four times the size of his own and won without losing a single soldier. He was able to do this because he burned all the enemy’s food supplies with a troop he had secretly dispatched outside of the fortress. After this battle, the margrave said something of great wisdom, ‘There is nothing more stupid than leaving all your food supplies in one obvious place at the start of a war.’”
In short, Eshnunna and the natives had managed to find the food supplies that the margrave had carefully hidden in several places. Well, that didn’t matter now.
“Please wait a bit. We will soon prepare the meals.”
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All the recruits erupted into cheers. At the end of the day, no one was exempt from the power of food, and every single one of them looked at the princess with grat.i.tude and affection. Some of them also turned to Chi-Woo, wondering what would have happened if they had declared Eshnunna a traitor and killed her. The recruits wouldn’t have been able to find the food supplies even if they managed to reach the fortress after all the struggle.
“Ah, yes. Please continue.” Chi-Woo sniffled and wiped his tears.
“I think this is a test. The journey we’ve been through since coming to Liber was meant as a trial to find out if we’re qualified to serve as heroes on this planet.” Zelit said while patting Chi-Woo’s back. “It’s not as common now, but I heard in the past, there were cases when heroes were summoned to places and forced to prove their qualifications upon arrival.”
Chi-Woo tilted his head in realization and asked, “Are you talking about a tutorial?”
“Hm, tutorial…” Zelit smirked before crossing his arm and said, “Given our situation, it seems more accurate to call it a rite of pa.s.sage rather than a tutorial. Now that we’ve completed the rite of pa.s.sage, maybe the tutorial will finally begin.”
Chi-Woo nodded mindlessly. If what Zelit said was true, they would now have to fulfill several conditions in order to establish themselves in this world—and that would be part of the tutorial they would have to pa.s.s.
“A tutorial, finally.” Chi-Woo slowly chewed on a piece of meat and chuckled. “This is really hard for a tutorial.”
“Yes, you’re right,” Zelit smiled softly and replied before turning to look ahead.
Most seemed to have had their fill by now and were talking while eating.
“I am going to build an inn here! An inn!” Eval Sevaru shouted pa.s.sionately while spitting. “Who needs things like weapon or potion shops? All living creatures need to sleep and need a place to sleep. People would gather at an inn for sure.” While looking for food, Eval had found a private facility and was telling everyone that he called dibs; no one would take it from him.
“Yeah, a city has to have an inn.”
“I want a restaurant instead,” Ru Hiana said brightly. “After coming back from an adventure, I want to go to a restaurant and order a whole bunch of meat without was.h.i.+ng myself. A nice gla.s.s of beer with that would go splendidly…Ha!” She crouched and smirked at the thought, shaking in repressed laughter.
“I want to establish a guild,” Allen Leonard said. “Like an adventure guild. I always dreamed of being the master of an adventure guild.”
“An adventure guild sounds good, but won’t we need a temple?”
Each person voiced their dreams and opinions. Zelit listened to them quietly before turning to Chi-Woo and asking, “What do you think?”
Chi-Woo stopped midway from savoring his meat. He thought Zelit was pressing him for an answer because he had seen Eshnunna sneaking meat into his bowl. However, the surroundings had gone quiet as well, and everyone stopped to look at Chi-Woo.
‘What? Why? Why?’ Chi-Woo almost blurted out to the many eyes staring at him when he just wanted to finish his meal. However, he couldn’t say that with the current atmosphere. ‘Seriously, it feels like everyone is waiting for me to give a toast at a dinner party.’
Chi-Woo licked his lips and said quietly, “Well…I’m sure it would be hard to do right now.” After all, building a city was no easy feat. “But first and foremost, we have to increase our survival rate. Then we have to establish a method for us to take in future recruits safely.” When people gathered, a collective formed. Then ranks emerged, and a society was created.
“The number of people we have is also a problem,” Chi-Woo continued. Work didn’t end just because they managed to build a society. Dozens of people would make up at most a village. Thus, population count was important, as it would be a society’s strength. “We could get nomads or captured natives from other territories. There could even be more survivors from the seventh recruits that we don’t know of…Maybe we can consider forming an alliance with other intelligent species.” Only then, would they be able to have any economic, military, political, and geographic influence in the region.
“This fortress would be temporary. We need more s.p.a.ce. There might come a time when we need to attack the capital. Rather than urbanize this fortress, we have to use the place as a stepping stone to where we’re going. But besides that, there’s so much else to do…Everything seems so daunting right now, but…” Chi-Woo stirred his spoon in his bowl. Then he looked up and said, “But let’s still try. Let’s try to build inns, restaurants, guilds, temples…”
Chi-Woo turned around and looked at the forest. “Like those who had come and those who had been here dreamed of, let’s make our ideals into reality. I believe our stories and what we’ve been through today will go down as legends in the future.” One day, more heroes might arrive on this planet, and they would question if the legends were true. “That’s what we have to do.” Chi-Woo ended, and the square became quiet.
n.o.body talked, but everyone seemed to be in deep thought. They all nodded in agreement. Perhaps the 20th or 30th or maybe even the 50th recruit— it would be embarra.s.sing to call them ‘recruits’ at that point, but nevertheless—would find themselves in a completely different place when they came here. The heroes were sure of it; there would be a day when this world was no longer empty and barren, but a place where heroes could perform their duty as usual; a day when somebody claimed that heroes from the Celestial Realm had slept in the elements while curling up, were chased by enemies day after day, and had almost died of starvation, people would brush them off as simply jesting.
The picture Chi-Woo painted filled everyone with hope. They engraved the possibility in their hearts, believing that the day would surely come. However, even if such a day did come after a long period of time had pa.s.sed, no one knew how many of them in this square would live to witness it.
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