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381 Civilized Border

 Rhode stood in the plaza in the middle of the village and quietly took in everything before his eyes. The village was silent after the flames were extinguished, as though the Barbarians' raid was just a dream. However, it was a pity that reality was the truth.

Lize and the other three Clerics entered the village and immediately commenced their rescue mission. Luckily, most of the villagers only sustained minor injuries and were easily curable. Some of the militias and Barbarians suffered heavier injuries. However, they still managed to recover after receiving treatment from the Clerics. As for the remaining unfortunate ones, it wasn't the Cleric's duty to revive them. In any case, even if it was their duty, they didn't possess any skills that could resurrect the dead.

"Thank you so much for your help."

Rhode turned over to a voice behind him. A gaunt militia clad in a simple set of armor smiled and showed his gratitude. Rhode had seen this man before. He was the unfortunate man that was almost killed after the watchtower collapsed. Although he seemed tired, he forced his body straight and gazed into Rhode's eyes with both curiosity and respect.

"If it wasn't for all of you, perhaps our Deep Creek Village would be gone by now. Those cunning Barbarians... I didn't think that they would attack while our Village Head is out hunting with the others. I am a militia squad captain of Deep Creek Village, Vinny. May I know the name of our savior?"

"We from the Starlight Guild."

Rhode answered calmly and nodded.

"We were passing through Deep Creek Village towards the Land of Atonement. It was by coincidence that we met the group of Barbarians assaulting your village. How is everyone now?"

"We're fine now, all thanks to everyone."

Then Vinny revealed a slightly hopeless expression.

"More than ten of the militias survived. Although it isn't many, it's considered good enough that we managed to hold against the Barbarians for so long..."

Vinny shook his head as he realized that such depressing words were inappropriate at this moment. He forced himself into raising his spirits and displayed a smile.

"Forget it, let's not talk about these matters. No matter what, all of you are the saviors of our village. Please stay for the night and accept our hospitality."

"Sure."

Rhode pondered for a while and eventually agreed. Although he wasn't mindful of the hospitality and invitation of these villagers, he also wished to receive some intel from them. Even though he was familiar with the environment of the Land of Atonement, it would still be more assuring by gathering more information. After all, the timeline had already been altered.

These people living in the civilized borders were truly determined. Although their homeland had been set on fire and they had lost some of their friends and families, they returned to their normal state as soon as they extinguished the flames and buried the corpses. At least on the outside, they were able to display heartwarming smiles to entertain and welcome these guests from afar.

From their discussions, Rhode found out that the forces of Deep Creek Village were powerful and ordinary Barbarians wouldn't dare to mess with them. But, it was an exception this time. The different clans of Barbarians who had despised one another gathered for this ambush. Furthermore, they struck when the Village Head had led the villagers out for hunting and caught the village unprepared.

During dinner, Rhode understood from Vinny regarding the situation of the Barbarians. Similar to the information that he knew, there were more than ten clans of Barbarians outside the civilized border and no one knew where their exact locations were. However, as long as Rhode could get hold of their approximate locations, he could conclude the clues which he had gathered.

In their conversation, Vinny mentioned something which caught Rhode's attention. There was a total of three Barbarian clans which attacked the village. They were situated nearby and only sent out half of their total strength. This was a rare sight because food, resources, and women were limited in this area. The population in the Barbarian clans were usually small to avoid uneven distributions within themselves. Furthermore, these three clans were mutual enemies, which caught Vinny off guard when they made a joint attack. This was one of the reasons why Deep Creek Village was unable to hold them off.

These changes weren't good news for Rhode and he took note of this particular piece of information. Rhode had never heard of Barbarian clans forming an alliance, so there must be something amiss... Thinking from another perspective, it was no easy task for three clans to put down their hatred against one another and the paranoia about the distributions of benefits. Not to mention, the Deep Creek Village was a relatively poor village and there weren't any treasures which could make them rich overnight. Also, the Barbarians wouldn't commit themselves to the situation until they were certain that success was within their grasp. So what was the reason for these Barbarians to agree in forming an alliance? Who was the one who united them?

This had become the piece of information which he needed to prioritize in investigating on after entering the Land of Atonement.

"Ha..."

Moonlight shone gently from the night skies. Marlene sat on a stone chair in the plaza while gazing into the bonfire with complicated feelings. The mercenaries and local villagers were enjoying themselves as they spoke cheerfully. The villagers praised the mercenaries loudly for their bravery as they offered delicious food and wine. However, all these hospitalities seemed rather odd to Marlene.

"What's wrong, Marlene? Why are you sitting here alone?"

Lize approached Marlene and asked softly before taking a seat beside her. As Marlene's best friend, Lize detected her abnormal behaviors instantly.

"Are you not used to it?"

"No... I'm really not used to it."

Marlene shook her head and continued to gaze forward.

"I can't understand how can these people still be so happy after losing their families and friends in the morning. Shouldn't they be sad or mourn over the deaths of their companions and friends? I mean, their graves are just nearby. I think they are really..."

"... Heartless?"

Lize continued Marlene's unfinished sentence and the latter nodded slightly. Lize replied with a smile and rested her head on Marlene's shoulder.

"To be honest, I had the same thoughts too... It was a long time ago when I joined my first mercenary group and witnessed the death of a companion. I was heartbroken but my leader and the other members weren't as sad as I was. Although they were angry and regretful, they returned to their usual selves in half a day's time as though nothing had happened and continue to lead their own lives. I couldn't understand at all and I thought they were just a bunch of cold-blooded people without any respect for their companions. But... I understood later..."

Lize lifted her head towards the sky.

"That's the line of work for us mercenaries. We can lose anyone during our adventures and we need to be mentally prepared to accept this fact. Even if our companions fall, we need to continue moving forward - My then leader once told me that he didn't want to see me die in battle due to my grief over the death of others. The dead will move on in the afterlife, and the only thing we can do is to survive to respect the sacrifices made by others. Because, if their deaths cause sorrow in us, they would feel equally sad too."

Lize paused for a moment.

"I guess that's the case for these people. They lived in the civilized border and have to be on guard against threats like today. Apart from Barbarians, there are also wild beasts and scarier beings, so they must be prepared to lose their family or friends at any moment. But, even so, they must continue to live on, right?

"If they carry their grief everywhere they go, do you think their dead companions would be happy? What about themselves? Would they be happy if there is only pain and sorrow in exchange for their lives?"

Marlene lowered her head and pondered for a few seconds, before letting out a long sigh.

"Perhaps you're right, Lize... You're really mature now..."

"I'm not sure if that's a good or bad thing. To be frank, I felt a strong sense of remorse when I lost my previous leader. If it wasn't for Mr. Rhode, I may not even recover from the blow. I feel that I'm able to accept this truth now..."

Lize revealed a complicated smile and grabbed onto Marlene's hand.

"But... Marlene, do you have something bothering you? I feel that you've been acting strange lately... Did something happen between you and Mr. Rhode?"

"I..."

Marlene blushed slightly. She gazed back at Lize but she didn't know what to say.

Screech!

Out of a sudden, a sharp whistle tore apart the tranquil night sky.