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Chapter 95

"Where did you hear that? Has anyone called you by that name?"

"Well... you could say it's similar," Ian answered calmly.

Precisely, it was the name of the quest that had appeared the previous night when he passed in front of Karha's statue.

[The Great Warrior of the North.]

The description was to display his will in front of Karha, a goal that could have been achieved with a single click if it were a game. The reward was the Blessing of Struggle. It wasn't even an optional quest. It must have been a quest exclusive to barbarian warriors, as there was no reason for them to reject it.

Ian had suspected this quest was about becoming Karha's apostle. Now that he knew Karha did not appoint apostles, it seemed worth investigating further.

"Every warrior, when their time comes, undergoes a ritual to present their soul to Karha. It's a kind of coming-of-age ceremony."

"Does he really look into their souls?"

"I'm not sure if he does so with everyone. But occasionally, he does show interest. Those warriors are usually appointed as the great warriors of the village. It's considered a recognition from Karha." After taking a sip of water, Urd continued. "However, to those warriors with truly great souls, Karha personally inspects and blesses them. Such warriors are what truly define a great warrior."

"It sounds like you're saying one must serve Karha after all."

"Not at all. Karha doesn't mind even if the goal of a great warrior is to ascend to the heavens and strike his head with an ax."

"Has there really been such a person?"

"There was." A faint smile crossed Urd's lips. "A great warrior born in the age of war did just that. He stood before the statue with the head of a demon he had killed, laughing about how the day was not far when he would strike at your head with an ax. He did not serve Karha. He only saw him as a rival to be surpassed. Yet, Karha occasionally blessed him."

"Hmm...."

"The title of the great warrior is merely symbolic. There's nothing to be responsible for or bound by. Karha, who fought against destiny for freedom, would hardly oppress or bind anyone."

...Well, that was the setting.

Ian nodded thoughtfully as Urd added calmly, "Karha just observes. He waits for another superhuman to reach divinity like himself.”

“Occasionally tossing a blessing their way. A capricious fellow indeed."

"You've seen it clearly."

Ian finally burst into laughter at Urd's answer. It may not have been just because Karha did not need a priest or apostle. Perhaps he did not want to be bound by a relationship of dictating doctrines and dispensing blessings.

So, those damn blessings in the game, did they operate probabilistically? Then there really might be no other risks or constraints.

Random options or skills that could not be used at will served as constraints.

Like the Ancient Meteoric Dagger obtained in the underground palace, which had a chance to destroy equipment but did not consume anything.

"So, did that great warrior ascend to become a God?" Ian asked eventually.

Urd suddenly looked down at his empty left hand. A gaze that seemed to dredge up the past.

"I don't know. He died in battle against a demon after all. Whether that was his destined fate or the end he met while defying fate and forging his own path is unknown. Only he and Karha would know." Urd smiled lightly.

"It seems he didn't manage to strike at Karha's head after all. Seeing as Karha is still in good health."

...Becoming a great warrior doesn't mean one's fate is sealed.

It was just seeing the possibility. That alone wrapped Ian in a peculiar sentiment. It implied that Karha saw the potential for him to defy a predetermined fate.

"I don't know where you heard it, but it doesn't seem like nonsense to me either."

As Urd regarded Ian again, he said, "Karha has never shown the kind of interest in anyone else in the village that he has in you. Not to the village's great warrior, not even to my dead son or me. If you were to undergo the warrior's ritual, you might indeed become a great warrior recognized by Karha."

"Can an outsider like me undergo the ritual? I'm not even from the North."

"The ritual is just a procedure to show other humans. Karha probably doesn't care about such things. Moreover..." Urd scrutinized Ian's face quietly. "Having black eyes and black hair isn't common. And one of those with such lineage is in the North. It wouldn't be strange if you had Northern blood in you. Actually, I've been thinking something similar myself."

It was just the result of randomly selecting a basic appearance. Murmuring internally, Ian shrugged his shoulders.

"Well, you've satisfied my curiosity. Thank you, old man."

"Don't mention it. It's been a long time since I've had such a conversation. The young ones nowadays don't even care about such things."

"Well then, let's hear what you had wanted to ask," Ian asked leisurely.

The smile that had lingered on Urd's lips faded away. However, it was brief. Returning to his usual calm demeanor, he faced Ian.

"Our village, has it really overcome its hardships?"

Ian's gaze flickered.

Urd added, "I just want an honest answer."

"The village has overcome them for now. But..." Ian, after a pause, met Urd's one-eyed gaze.

"It could start again at any time. Whether it will be worse or less severe, I can't say."

"I see..." Urd nodded his head.

The old man stared into space with a dim, joyless look in his eyes for a moment before facing Ian again.

"I'd like to ask you for another favor."

"I'll listen."

"When you leave the village, could you take Askel with you?"

***

Ian had spent several hours in the forest near the village and had barely managed to catch two squirrels. Askel’s words that the animals were scarce weren't an exaggeration. Probably, every night the monsters that swarmed had frightened them all away, causing them to flee.

"I wondered why you were late," Thesaya greeted Ian. Her pupils had begun to redden slightly.

"Where's Charlotte?"

"She came in briefly and then went out again."

"She went out?"

"She seems excited to have met some people similar to herself. She even got a nickname about an ax. It's quaint."

Indeed, Charlotte's treatment had changed just like Ian's. Everyone treated her as a formidable warrior. She had slaughtered dozens of undead alone, witnessed by all the warriors of the village.

In a typical city, they might have feared or shunned her. But even civilized, the nature of a barbarian warrior seemed unchanged.

"You seem better.."

"Better than during the day. That, is it mine?"

"Yes." Ian, who had been holding the squirrel by its tail, tossed it to Thesaya. She quickly caught it and bit into one.

"...I feel like I can tell what animal it is just by drinking its blood now."

"Does it taste that different?" Ian asked as he placed down his weapon.

Thesaya, throwing down the emaciated squirrel, nodded. "Yes. Diverse in its lack of flavor. Truthfully, only human blood tastes good."

"..."

"Why are you looking at me like that?"

"When was the last time you drank human blood?"

"It's been a while. The blood of those Imperials you killed was the last. Now I barely remember the taste of human blood."

She’s doing well. Ian nodded.

"Control your impulses. If you want to keep living."

"...Not even the blood of the bad guys?"

After a moment of silence, Ian finally answered. "If you can control your impulses after drinking their blood."

"I'm confident. Don't worry. My patience is increasing. These days, I even endure when that kitty hits me."

"That won't do. Ask for permission first."

"...Which part of my story just now did you find unreliable?"

"All of it."

Thesaya pouted and bit into another squirrel. That was when the door flung open. Startled, Thesaya threw the squirrel and yelled, "Knock first! You stupid beast!"

Charlotte blinked her eyes and blocked Askel, who was following her, with her body.

"I forgot. I'll be careful from now on."

"...What are you being careful about? Why did you stop as you were entering?" Askel asked, to which Charlotte blinked, confused.

It was Thesaya who answered calmly. "I was naked. I’m getting dressed now, so don't peek."

"Ah... Okay." Askel sighed and closed his mouth.

Thesaya playfully smiled as she meticulously wiped the blood from her lips. Normally, Ian would have smirked along, but he did not smile this time.

"Alright. Come in."

"Prepare the bathwater first, Askel."

Following Ian's command, Askel quickly grabbed a pot and said, "You bathed yesterday too. You really enjoy baths."

"It's one of Ian's quirks," Charlotte added nonchalantly.

Ian narrowed his eyes. "Since I can't have a good wash during the journey, I bathe every day when I can."

"I respect your preference, Ian."

Since when did bathing become a preference?

As Ian shook his head, Askel skillfully prepared the bathwater and said, "I didn't know you had that kind of relationship with Thesaya."

It was a statement sufficient to scramble Ian's thoughts once more.

"That kind of relationship?"

"A romantic relationship."

"..."

As Ian's brow furrowed, Thesaya smiled leisurely.

"You didn't know? That's surprising, Askel. I thought you would have seen it at first glance."

...What is she on about now?

Askel shook his head. "I thought you matched well with Charlotte, too."

"Eh...? What kind of— Aren't your eyes a bit off?" Thesaya seemed bewildered by such a suggestion.

Charlotte lifted her chin slightly. "It's just a superior taste. Comparing you and me is absurd, you pointy ears. I'm bigger, stronger, and more beautiful."

"I get the big and strong part. But I can't agree with the rest. Unless big isn't referring to height, but including that too. After all, you're a beast, aren't you?"

"Such ignorant talk again. We beastfolks—"

"Enough." Ian, his brow furrowed in frustration, cut them off. "Don't spout nonsense in front of the kid."

"I am not a child, Sir Ian," Askel responded with a polite yet firm resolve.

Ian sharply added, "If you're younger than me, you're a kid. And these folks are my comrades, not lovers or anything like it. Don't spread baseless fantasies. Just fill the bathwater."

"...Yes." Askel moved to obey immediately.

Thesaya flopped down with a pout, and Charlotte, seemingly content with being referred to as a comrade, nodded and leaned against the wall.

Soon, Ian was submerged in the bathtub.

...Finally, some peace.

His gaze followed Askel as he fetched more water.

He really does seem to know nothing.

Askel's face bore neither shadow nor concern. He seemed merely glad that the village's troubles were resolved.

Urd's voice echoed in Ian's mind. He'd asked him to take Askel as far as Travelga, hoping that once he delivered the boy to the settled barbarians near the city, Askel would manage on his own.

Urd's reasoning for the request was clear, even without deep contemplation.

He must think the village will eventually fall.

Ian agreed with this notion but declined Urd's request.

Askel wouldn't move unless Urd accompanied him, and Ian couldn't just drag him away. Urd had reassured him, almost guaranteeing that the boy would leave the village eventually.

He even offered a sharp greatsword as payment. It was a rare grade Northern Warrior's Longsword.

Ian had accepted the request, with the condition that he wouldn't forcibly take Askel. He understood the old warrior's desire to save his grandson.

Still, it weighed on his mind.

Urd's means of persuasion remained a mystery, and no quest had popped up because of it. Quests were like milestones. They indicated a somewhat predetermined flow. The absence of a quest meant that the outcome was unpredictable, much like Thesaya's case.

"Why are you looking at me like that?" Askel suddenly asked.

Ian casually shook his head. "It's nothing.”

“Today, Charlotte and I wandered around the village quite a bit. More people than expected hope that you three will stay. They said it's like Karha has sent you guys, as you descended from the mountains."

"Karha didn't send us, and we can't stay in the village indefinitely. We'll leave after the banquet."

"...That's unfortunate. If you stayed, you might have become a great warrior soon."

"..."

Ian didn't respond. His gaze rested on the quest window.

[The Great Warrior of the North.]

"Still, you can look forward to the banquet tomorrow. The warriors have all gone hunting, so there will be plenty of meat for you to enjoy."

"...That's some welcoming news." Ian closed the quest window and, relaxing, slowly closed his eyes.

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