Author: 年终 / Nian Zhong
Translator: Kinky || https://kinkytranslations.com/
Chapter 22: There’s Something There
Zhu Yanchen once said that the Erosion Swamps could be likened to a pack of wolves, with a giant Erosion Swamp resembling the alpha. This “alpha” in its mouth was most likely another alpha-level Erosion Swamp.
The creature in front of them, which seemed to be an Erosion Swamp, didn’t seem much stronger than Monday, but its’ intelligence wasn’t in the same league. Shu Jun never feared battle, nor was he afraid of such a strange creature. But “recklessness” and “bravery” weren’t synonymous, and he would only suffer if he attacked rashly in the midst of being blinded.
It was better to take a step back and take a page out of the Thirty-Six Stratagems*, so Shu Jun reached out to pull Zhu Yanchen, but the latter seemed to be nailed to the ground and didn’t move.
*Proverb referring to the thirty-six stratagems of ancient Chinese military tactics. It implies that sometimes retreat or avoiding conflict can be the most advantageous course of action.
Zhu Yanchen was good at fighting ordinary mutant beasts, but the fact that he lacked front-line experience meant that he was inevitably scared. Shu Jun rubbed his hands and was about to directly carry him away, but Zhu Yanchen neatly pulled out his gun and turned on the flashlight with his other hand.
…He was wrong. Marshal Zhu probably grew ten times more courageous.
The beam of light pierced through the thin fog, illuminating the face of the creature in front of them.
Although Shu Jun had seen many monsters before, he still shuddered in place. At this moment, he truly understood the saying, “Anything could appear in the ruins of a city that humans haven’t set foot in for two hundred years.”
The creature’s skin had a texture similar to that of humans, with a deep gray-black color. Despite its bent and twisted limbs, he could still vaguely make out the structure of its arms and legs. He couldn’t distinguish the teardrop-shaped body of where its head and torso were, and its gray-black membranes covered rib-like structures, with human facial features scattered randomly on the skin, like a jumbled puzzle.
One of the human eyes faced the beam of light and squinted slightly.
Shu Jun swallowed loudly. Compared to this thing, the previous mutant beasts were quite pleasing to the eye. Even the Corpse Parasite, which everyone called for extermination, was as docile and cute as a kitten when compared to this thing.
Even Monday expressed its feelings at the right time. “Wow.”
Only Zhu Yanchen nodded calmly, observing very carefully, as if facing a newly born foal. He even opened his briefcase on the spot, taking out more and more things with the air of a zoologist discovering a new species. Shu Jun could feel the monster’s suspicion, and for a moment, he understood its feelings.
The monster hesitated for a while, then took a few steps closer, slightly lowering its body and swaying ominously. Zhu Yanchen glanced at it and held his gun in his hand. His movements became faster as he operated the machinery, but he didn’t intend to leave.
“Let’s retreat first,” Shu Jun called out.
Zhu Yanchen, who was always calm, shook his head. He stared at the monster, with a hint of strange fanaticism in his movements. “Wait a little longer. It’s okay, this is not an alpha-level Erosion Swamp.”
After a long while, as if he had remembered something, he added seriously, “I won’t die.”
The monster got closer—only about ten steps away from Zhu Yanchen. Its eyes, which resembled those of a human, were vertical and blinked as it focused on Marshal Zhu. Shu Jun recognized the emotional fluctuations; it was the concentration before the hunt.
Shu Jun took a deep breath and then smoothly exploded—
He had seen the handcuffs in the briefcase earlier. Now, Shu Jun pulled out the handcuffs and swiftly put them on Zhu Yanchen. Marshal Zhu was caught off guard and was lifted by Shu Jun in the next second and pressed onto the cargo rail.
“Three days have passed.” Zhu Yanchen shook off the handcuffs as he saw Shu Jun quickly hoist the sail.
“It’s calculated according to the hours we’re chained together.” Shu Jun’s face turned dark as he activated his skills—they really didn’t need Uncle Xiong’s dogs. With the blowing wind in their sails, their sled was fast enough to fly, and the monster was instantly left far behind. “What were you doing just now? Are you courting death?”
“An alpha-level Erosion Swamp couldn’t lead the charge alone. That was a low-level Erosion Swamp; it couldn’t hurt you, and I wouldn’t be killed either.” Marshal Zhu corrected seriously.
“Yes, it couldn’t hurt me, but who knows what abilities it has? I may not be able to protect you. Even if we can escape in time, you may still get injured—your last injury hasn’t healed properly yet. Will just saying ‘I won’t die’ solve the problem?”
Shu Jun harshly threw the briefcase at Zhu Yanchen.
“Don’t think I don’t know what you’re thinking, Marshal Zhu. ‘This is just a low-level Erosion Swamp. It doesn’t matter if I get hurt. After all, my death is imminent, and there’s no need to worry about post-traumatic complications’. ” Shu Jun’s face became serious, and he lowered his voice as he imitated Zhu Yanchen’s tone. “… Hey, why are you turning your head? Look at me!”
Zhu Yanchen turned his head back, and his lips moved. In the end, he just sighed and stared at Shu Jun.
“If you still consider me a friend, don’t perform stunts in front of me where you can get hurt. Thanks to you, I have sent away many people in the past ten years without knowing it. I’ve seen enough.” Shu Jun’s tone was unusually cold. “I don’t know why you can’t tell me your reasons, but at least consider yourself a human, okay? Do you really think I’m just being polite when I say, ‘I want to help you stay alive’?”
Making sure they were far enough away, Shu Jun found a large rock as cover and stopped the sled.
“If you want to study, you can. I’ll go first and check it out. Worst case, I’ll capture one for you. If you keep getting too close to them, I’ll tie you up.”
“We are only in a cooperative relationship. Don’t forget your position.” Zhu Yanchen tightened the chain of the handcuffs.
Shu Jun didn’t hesitate. “Position? If you really played me from the beginning, and you died so easily, wouldn’t that be worse for me?”
Zhu Yanchen: “…I understand.” There was some truth in those words, but they were still a bit painful. He wanted to laugh again. The shell that had enveloped him for more than ten years had been pried open by the other person’s anger, and it hurt with bitterness.
Round and round they went, but in the end, it was still the same person.
He thought for a moment, reached out and grabbed Shu Jun’s wrist, and spoke in a solemn tone. “I’ll pay attention next time.”
“That’s more like it.”
Shu Jun patted the mud off his body, made a casual gesture, and the wind started blowing in the opposite direction. The mud sled was fast and stable, much more comfortable than when they were running away.
“Now let’s go back and talk about what’s going on in X City. Don’t try to fool me by saying ‘I don’t know the target’ again—walking deep into the erosion zone without care and seeing that thing just now without being surprised—this is not a death-defying adventure at all. You know the situation in X City.”
“I really don’t know the specific situation in the city. I just guessed that there was something there.” Zhu Yanchen pondered for a moment. “I didn’t expect the Erosion Swamp in X City to appear so early either.”
“Uh-huh.” Shu Jun propped his arm on the mud sled railing, holding half of his face with his palm.
“Two hundred years ago, Zhu Rong completed the player system in X City. As the capital at the time, X City was the first city in human history to use synthetic humans. However, the player system at that time wasn’t perfect, and it was not as mature as <Erosion>.”
“Oh, later there was a natural disaster, and the Erosion Swamps migrated from the east to X City. The residents fled to Y City. X City became one of the most severely eroded areas that even the players couldn’t go there.” Shu Jun took over the conversation. “I know these things too.”
“If it was a natural disaster, the giant Erosion Swamp wouldn’t stay in the city for a long time. X City is relatively dry and not suitable for them to inhabit.”
“But you guessed there was something in X City.” Shu Jun frowned.
“Yes, I suspect that the Erosion Swamp at the time is still there, and it wasn’t a natural disaster that destroyed X City, but a man-made disaster. However, there is too little information on Erosion Swamps at present, and my idea is ultimately just a guess without evidence.” Zhu Yanchen held the briefcase in his arms and struggled to get up from a pile of luggage. “As long as the situation in X City is confirmed, I can… Ngh.”
Just as Zhu Yanchen had just sat down, he leaned forward and curled up in pain. Shu Jun looked around. The surrounding darkness was empty, without any anomalies.
“The concentration of erosion substance is wrong,” Zhu Yanchen said with difficulty.
They were still on the outskirts of the erosion zone, and they hadn’t even returned to the river they had come from. How could the concentration of erosion substance suddenly increase? Unless…
Shu Jun’s back ran cold, and he instinctively raised the wind to blow the mud sled away from the boulder. In the next moment, the boulder moved.
Laughter rang out again, and the “boulder” slowly disintegrated. The monsters released their hands and feet, which they had been holding together, and chased after the mud sled. If Shu Jun’s reaction had been a second slower, they would have been caught by that group of monsters.
The appearance of those monsters was quite uniform, almost like they were all made from the same mold as the one by the riverbank.
Zhu Yanchen endured the pain, raised his gun, and stood back-to-back with Shu Jun, who was wielding his greatsword. Before he could adjust his posture, the strong wind blew up, splashing mud and water everywhere. Shu Jun hugged his waist again, and the two of them rushed into the sky together.
“Shh,” Shu Jun whispered in Zhu Yanchen’s ear.
Trying to ignore the warmth beside his ear, Zhu Yanchen looked down.
If it were someone else, they might scream directly. There was clearly no open land around them, with four-legged monsters everywhere, just leaving them with one way out. A group of monsters ran behind the sled, while a few others were secretly pulling it, as if they were guiding it in a specific direction.
“I controlled the water to form a mirage, using illusions to deceive them. If we stay on the sled, we won’t be discovered.” Shu Jun muttered softly. “Just a little trick. Luo Duan likes to use this move.”
“You made a substitute out of erosion substance?” Zhu Yanchen saw the two… what could be considered mud men on the mud sled, with blood-stained bandages wrapped around himself and Shun Jun.
“No one has seen these monsters before. They suddenly appeared, probably coming for me. Since they mistook me for their leader, they probably recognized me based on the characteristics of erosion substance. With limited time, I dumped these substitutes and left some real parts behind. I hope they don’t find out too quickly.”
“No—” Monday’s hoarse shout came from far below.
Zhu Yanchen: “…”
“I can follow them first and retrieve it if necessary. How about you? Are you feeling better?”
“Let’s observe for a few minutes first, and then go back to the sled later.” Zhu Yanchen didn’t immediately answer his question.
“The erosion concentration near X City has always been high. I just wasn’t prepared earlier—there’s medicine in the briefcase. I’ll be fine if I take it in time.” Zhu Yanchen carefully studied the monsters’ route. “They’re taking us in the direction of X City. The speed is good.”
…Don’t make this scary situation sound like taking a taxi. Shu Jun was a little dazed.
“They mistook you for their leader, which means they do have a leader. Based on the current situation, they won’t dispose of us without their leader’s decision… I suspect the illusion started a long time ago. As for the Corpse Parasite and that individual monster, they are just used to test you.”
Zhu Yanchen paused. “The other party has laid such a long line, so they won’t act carelessly. The mud men will be exposed sooner or later. We might as well pretend not to know and take this free ride. You can also take the opportunity to rest and recharge your energy.”
“If it weren’t for me, would your original plan have been so thrilling?” As Shu Jun carefully descended, he grumbled. “How about I lead them away first and you follow your original plan…”
“No need.” Zhu Yanchen’s voice sounded amused. “I came for them in the first place. It’s perfect, I don’t have to go looking.”
As soon as they got back on the sled, the crowded group of monsters disappeared instantly. If he hadn’t just looked down from above, Shu Jun would almost believe that they had already escaped. He simply drummed up some wind and let the invisible monsters pull the sled in front, conscientiously disguising the surrounding environment. The sled quickly glided across the “uninhabited” land that looked seemingly peaceful.
Out of sight, out of mind. Shu Jun silently recited, throwing a piece of meat to Monday to shut up its grumbling mouth.
Zhu Yanchen took his medicine and sat up straight, calmly staring in the direction of X City.
Shu Jun always had the feeling that this person’s temperament had changed. Surrounded by invisible monsters, Zhu Yanchen’s satisfaction seemed greater than his fear. He exuded an inexplicable radiance, which didn’t make Shu Jun feel at ease.
It was like fireworks at their most brilliant moment, and then there was only one ending—extinguishment.
‘Hopefully, my intuition won’t come into play this time,’ Shu Jun thought to himself. There was still another month that this person could live.
The four-legged monsters were quite capable. They managed to pull the sled to their destination in less than three days, which should have taken five days. Shu Jun and Zhu Yanchen pretended to be ignorant the whole time, and eventually became numb to their surroundings—they couldn’t see the monsters around them, and occasionally forgetting wasn’t a big deal. Shu Jun occasionally flew high in secret to confirm their location. Other than that, their journey was relatively peaceful.
However, the concentration of the erosion substance around them was too high. Zhu Yanchen took medicine constantly, which made Shu Jun’s stomach hurt.
It had been three days since the four-legged monsters took over the sled before they reached their destination. The illusion melted away like snow and they could fully see the exposed ruins of X City.
‘No matter what Zhu Yanchen’s previous guesses were, he was right,’ Shu Jun thought. There was more than just “something” in X City—the scene in front of him almost made his heart stop.
“A’Yan, quickly take a sample and record it.” Shu Jun took a deep breath. “Then I’ll take you away.”
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