It might have taken half a day to get to the village in carriages, but they needed four days of solid walking for the return trip home.
Maria didn't even bother to say anything and headed straight to her temple. Even if the adverse reaction was small, a Ceremony was still a Ceremony at the end of the day. She mentioned that she needed to pray and recuperate in a temple the god resides in order to prevent her from taking on potential losses.
On the other hand, Mikhail and Veronika looked as if they didn't want to part ways just like that. It was pretty obvious why they would feel that way; the abilities, judgment, and overall actions and behavior of Seol Jihu during the request itself had left a deep impression on them.
It was difficult to estimate just how much he'd grow in the future when considering how amazing he was as a Level 2. They would lose nothing by getting close to him now. After all, who knew what would happen in the future?
Mikhail had finished with his mental calculations and made a friendly suggestion of sharing a few cold ones together. He said that he'd pay for the drinks as a gesture of thanks for saving his and Veronika's lives.
Seol Jihu also busily tinkered with his internal abacus. He did feel this before, and even now it hadn't really changed; these guys weren't really up to his liking. However, their abilities should get a decent boost after reaching Level 4. If he thought about the future, then it would not be such a bad idea to get friendly with them. Most importantly, though, the free-alcohol-loving Chohong gave numerous hints of wanting to go, so he had no choice but to say yes.
On that day, Seol Jihu did as the pub advertised and ate, drank, and thoroughly enjoyed himself until he was nearly drunk out of his mind. He sang loudly and cheerfully with Chohong as they returned back to the office. He took a much deserved refreshing shower and laid down on his back on the bed. Having slept on the hard, unforgiving ground for a few nights in a row, this modest bed suddenly came across as the softest and most comfortable resting place in the whole world.
'This is so good.'
He really liked the scent of people living around him. He was no longer alone. He was now an Earthling who had made his nest in Haramark.
A content grin crept up on his face as one thought after another slipped in and out of his head. His expression remained one of happiness as he drifted into his slumber.
He only realized that Dylan and Hugo were not in the office on the following morning of his return to Haramark.
Since their usual luggage was nowhere to be seen, it didn't seem like they had gone out for a casual stroll, but Seol Jihu let it be. After all, he already knew those two had a mission to get to.
He had no clue how long they'd be away for, but seeing that Cinzia personally came here to speak to the duo, the mission could not have been the kind that might end in a day or two.
Since Ian was roped into it as well, Seol Jihu couldn't help but wonder if the royal family was also involved in this matter somehow.
Didn't that mean that it was only him and Chohong living in this building then? Wasn't it somewhat like a couple living together?
“Ohh, yeah. Now that's refreshing. That really wakes you up for good, doesn't it?”
It was at this point that he heard her familiar voice. Chohong had finished up her hangover-cure morning workout routine and took a shower before emerging from the bathroom while shaking her wet hair loose.
No matter how many times he saw it, he couldn't help himself.
Those pair of firm thighs emerging from the curves of the 'Dolfin' shorts. Her healthily-fleshed, tear-drop shaped buttocks connected to those thighs. And the arching lines flowing up from there to form beautiful curves resembling a fine white ceramic vase, with her rather appealingly shaped belly button in the center catching one's attention. And then, as she wore the sleeveless white T, her upright bosom proudly announcing themselves a step more than before.
Maybe he stared at her for too long, because Chohong stopped drinking water and gave him a weird look.
“What's up with that face?”
“W-What do you mean?”
“Your eyes are wiggling like a pair of worms, and the philtrum below your nose is stretching down to the ground too…..”
Chohong walked over to the couch and settled down on it. Seol Jihu quickly took the spot next to her and began stroking her hair as if it was his new favorite hobby. Her wet-hair still shimmered softly in that arresting silver hue. It all looked so pretty and soft to touch too, so naturally, he couldn't stop himself from touching it.
Chohong was biting into a fruit but then felt a chill run down her spine and quickly spun her head to the side. She spotted Seol Jihu tightly clenching onto some strands of her hair so he could wantonly brush his face against them.
“…What are you doing?”
“Mm? Ahh, it just feels nice, you see. And also, it's so cool to look at, too.”
“Stop it. You're creeping me out.”
“I wish your hair would stay this way forever.”
“Stop dreaming, will ya? At the latest, it should revert back to the origi….. Argh, I told you to stop already!”
Seol Jihu tried to tie her hair and make a pretty little shape, so she got rather temperamental and shook her head around wildly. All his hard work trying to create a perfect ribbon was now lost for good and he could only lament the loss in his heart.
“Did you suddenly lose your screws or something? You know, you kinda look like a perv when you're being like this!”
“Please, can I touch your hair some more? Well, you treat me like a pillow, so it's all fair, right?”
Chohong threatened to throw the fruit at him but took a big bite out of it instead. Orya! She then laid down on the couch and placed her legs on his lap. Not wanting to lose out, Seol Jihu also grasped her hair.
“Let go, right now. Or else.”
“Then put your legs down.”
Hng! Chohong snorted in defiance. Her cheeks ballooned up and down as she continued to chew before she spoke to him.
“I'm going to the temple today. Wanna go together?”
“But I'm Gula. Aren't you Ira or Invidia?”
“Urgh, come on now. You're a Level 2, you know? It doesn't matter where you go, as long as you aren't a Level 4.”
She had a point.
“Besides, I'm planning to stop by at Gula's place too.”
“Really? But why would you go to Gula's temple?”
Seol Jihu had been using her thighs as an impromptu drum kit and was lightly tapping on them, but after hearing her declaration, his hands came to an abrupt stop. Could it be?
“Hang on a minute. Seriously?”
“No, well, it's not a definite thing. I'll know once I get there.”
Chohong carried a disinterested expression. She avoided meeting his gaze and focused on chewing her fruit. However, she couldn't entirely hide the corners of her lips from curling upwards every now and then. Seol Jihu formed a bright smile for her instead.
“For real? You're going to be a Level 5?”
He poked her on the side, and she contorted on the couch while erupting out in a fit of laughter.
“Argh, I told you, I gotta go and see first!”
Chohong continued to laugh out as he tickled her.
“Why didn't you say anything?”
“I didn't expect a Nest to suddenly pop up out of nowhere, you know.”
“Which path are you thinking of taking?”
“I haven't decided yet. I'm not interested in going with Invidia at all. If I go with Ira, then I'd become a Templar. If I go with Gula, there's a good chance that I'd end up as a Crusader.”
“A Templar, a Crusader…… I'm jealous. Even their names sound cool.”
Seol Jihu jumped up from the couch.
“There's no time to waste, then. What are you doing? Come on now. Get up. Let's go!”
“Take it easy. I'll go after breakfast, okay. Besides, you think becoming a High Ranker is that easy?”
“From Level 5 onwards, experiences alone won't be enough. Your contribution points are counted too.”
Chohong polished off the fruit by then. She lightly dusted her hand and nodded her head.
“Contribution points, achievement points, they’re the same thing. They look at how much service you've rendered to Paradise until now, that sort of thing.”
“If it's not enough, you can't get to Level 5?”
“Well, it's a bit hard to be sure, because….”
Chohong tilted her head this way and that before carrying on.
“You see, even the royal family gets involved when it's time to advance to Level 5.”
“Royal family? Really?”
“Yeah. You go to a temple and get acknowledged there, then you pull off the mission the royal families give you. Only then can you level up. It's kinda like an advancement test.”
“Do you have to go through all that? No exceptions?”
“Well, obviously there have been cases of people leveling up without taking a test, but that's only for those folks who had contributed a lot even as they got to Level 4. You know, those people who don't spend a single point of their achievement points tally and only chase after one battlefield after another. There are practically no Earthlings who do that though.”
Seol Jihu muttered to himself, “It's more complicated than I thought.”
Chohong shrugged her shoulders.
“It can't be helped. Once you arrive at the upper ranks, the way people treat you changes. Oh, well. Warriors still have it easier than Priests, that’s for sure.”
“How bad is it for Priests, then?”
“I heard that you gotta get a ton of offerings ready and also prove your worth through some method. It's all really annoying.”
Seol Jihu nodded his head.
“I guess being a Priest isn't as easy as it looks.”
“You could say that. If you get really technical about it, every class out there has its pros and cons. It's the same story for Magicians.”
“In any case, should we hold a celebration tonight?”
Chohong was taken by surprise from that.
“A celebration? Eiii, there's no need. It's nothing worth celebrating about.”
“It is definitely worth celebrating about. Carpe Diem is about to welcome its second High Ranker, after all.”
“I'm telling you, there's no need. It's too embarrassing.”
Seol Jihu easily caught Chohong's waving hand and pulled her closer.
“Don't be like that and let's do it. Allow me to splurge tonight so I can get something out of you in the near future, okay?”
“R-Really? W-well, if you're thinking that way…. Yeah, why not?”
She probably didn't feel bad at all that someone was congratulating her like this because she stopped leering at him from the corners of her eyes and pushed herself off from the couch while pretending to be defeated by him. However, there was this bright smile blooming on her pale face. It certainly looked good on her. She opened her mouth to speak in between her smiles.
“I wonder, will it be fine for only us two to hold a celebration?”
“No helping it, then. When Dylan and Hugo come back, we'll just have to hold another one.”
“Kek! I can already imagine Hugo's face. When he finds out that I've advanced to the upper level before he did, he's gonna get a serious case of stomach cramp of jealousy.”
The two of them laughed out boisterously and left the office together.
They separated the mid-way. Chohong said she'd head off to Ira's temple first, and Seol Jihu told her that he'd be waiting at Gula's. He wasn't expecting much today, but it'd be a total lie if he wasn't hoping for something to happen as well.
However, it was as expected. There was no such thing as him shooting up to Level 3 today.
'I see, it wasn't enough….'
[Fufufu. Your greed is too excessive.]
[Combat experience indeed takes up the largest portion in getting to higher levels, true.]
Gula's languid voice continued on.
[However, that is not the only thing to consider. Even if your current fitness level meets the criteria, you haven't mastered any of your Level 2 abilities yet, have you?]
Indeed, she had a point there. And because she was right, Seol Jihu had no choice but to swallow his rueful heart and accept her findings.
[Remember, it's not always a good thing for you to level up quickly. You should try again after sufficiently preparing yourself.]
He then felt the sensation of a hand stroking his head as if Gula found him adorable. He lowered his head a little. It felt nice, though.
[By the way, you have done admirably on your mission.]
[It was a truly surprising turn of events.]
Seol Jihu tilted his head, but a thought entered his mind quickly enough. If it was a mission, then…
'Are you referring to the request? Does that mean exterminating the Nest will have some kind of ramifications in the future?'
[Such a simple, negligible thing won't affect the flow of events in any shape or form.]
Gula sounded so gentle, but her words certainly were not.
[However, to think that you'd forcibly create debt and tangle the strings of fate together in that manner. I had expected you to simply walk right by, but you surprised me. Fufufu.]
'If you mean by debt, can it be….?'
Was she talking about the village head? Or Mikhail? Was it Veronika? Or, maybe even the villagers?
[In any case, I'm relieved. Although the path ahead is a field of thorns, you now at least possess shoes to help you tread it.]
'I just don't understand what you're saying?'
[I'm praising you. 'That' will at least pry open a breathing space for you.]
[Of course, it all depends on the choices you make in the end.]
‘Here she goes again.’
He felt like falling into a pit of confusion every time he heard the words that sounded like him chasing after the floating clouds.
Seriously, would letting him know in clear, concise words bring the sky down or something?
[The causality will be brought down, yes. Do not ever take the divulging of heaven's secrets lightly.]
Seol Jihu was grumbling inwardly but got shocked out of his mind from that warning. Scared that he might get smacked in the head again, he quickly bade his goodbye and turned around to leave.
He waited by the entrance of the temple for Chohong, but she didn't show up even after a long while. It seemed that she needed more time than they had expected.
'Well, I guess I'll just head there myself.'
He figured that he'd finish his cigarette first before leaving but then, he spotted a man hurriedly running towards him. Seol Jihu had never met this man before.
“Are you Seol by any chance?”
“Excuse me? I am, but who…?”
“I came from Ira's temple. I carry a message from Chung Chohong. She says that she'll be late today, so don't wait for her and go back first.”
“….Chohong said that?”
“I've delivered the message. Well, then.”
As if he had nothing more to say, the man simply turned around and left without even a goodbye. In all honesty, it was hard to make heads or tails from that message alone.
Seol Jihu watched the man hurriedly climb down the steps of the temple while sucking in the last bits of his cigarette.
'Did something happen?'
Chohong might have said she'd be late, but that didn't mean Seol Jihu would stand around doing nothing. He trained moderately until around dinner time, and he went out to buy an armful of booze and snacks before returning to the office. He placed them down on the coffee table and settled down on the couch to wait.
'She'd be happy when she sees this, right?'
….However, no matter how long he waited, Chohong showed no signs of coming back.
The clock continued to tick over and the food was gradually getting colder. Seol Jihu began pouting as he fidgeted around.
She only came back several hours after dinner time. The night had already deepened considerably by then. Seol Jihu was napping a little on the couch, but he heard the front door open and his eyes shot up wide right away. Chohong had been walking with an energy-less face but then, formed a surprised face after running into him.
“You weren't asleep?”
“Ah, that is, well….”
Seol Jihu's gaze was lowered, and Chohong followed it to the table filled with the grub. She gasped out in belated realization. Seol Jihu was the same. Seeing that she looked exhausted and listless, that could only mean….
'….I uncorked the champagne a little too early.'
He admonished himself a little and cautiously spoke to her.
“I guess you got delayed a bit?”
“Yeah, just a little. I went to the temple and went to the royal palace too…. Were you waiting for long?”
“The royal palace?”
Seol Jihu's eyes opened wider.
“Is it done?”
“Uh? Well, something like that.”
“Okay, what about that test, that mission thing, then?”
“Well, that….. Looks like I'll have to, you know, hash it out some more.”
For some reason, Chohong averted her gaze. Seol Jihu patted the spot on the couch next to him.
“What exactly had happened? Take a seat here and talk to me, please.”
“There isn't much to say, really. It's not a confirmed thing, anyway.”
“Oh… I see.”
She looked puzzlingly listless and that naturally sucked out all enthusiasm from Seol Jihu, as well.
“…You hungry? If not, how about something to drink?”
Chohong shook her head. Seol Jihu stopped lightly shaking the bottle of booze as his jaw nearly dropped to the floor. This woman refused a free drink? Something like that was utterly unimaginable.
“Did something happen to you?”
“No, not at all.”
Chohong shook her head again.
“I'm not really in the mood, you know? I'm kinda feeling pooped out, too.”
“I see. If you're too tired, you should get some rest first.”
This whole thing must've played on her mind because she hesitated where she stood for a while before a helpless sigh escaped from her mouth.
She whispered softly under her breath and slowly walked away. Seol Jihu dazedly stared at her back as she entered the bedroom.
'…Did she just say she's sorry?'
That would be his first time hearing her apologize. Seol Jihu stood there in silence for a while, before opening his mouth.
“Is there anything I can help you with?”
No reply came back his way, however.
Chohong seemed to be really busy all of a sudden. When he woke up in the mornings, she would be gone already, and it became a pretty common occurrence to see her return late into the night as well. Not only that, she didn't even show up in the training facility once and, when it got really bad, he ended up not seeing her for an entire day.
But when she did come back to the office, he found it hard to approach her from the way she chose to sit all alone. She would be either resting her chin on her hands as she stewed in her worries or every now and then displayed hints of how anxious and pressed her mental state was.
He kept asking her what was the matter with her, but all he got in return was “It's nothing. Don't worry about it.”
'Something did happen.'
Although he felt a bit saddened by her not confiding in him, it was true that people had issues they needed to sort out by themselves. Seol decided to patiently wait for her to come around and immersed himself in daily routines, instead. In the mornings, physical training; in the afternoons, abilities and mana training. And then, sleep. Like a squirrel spinning inside a wheel, he continued the exact same routine over and over again.
However, the time continued to move on; one day, then two days passed, and then, three, four days went by. A week later, Chohong didn't even bother to show up back in the office at all. He had never seen her gone for more than two days in a row, so he naturally got pretty concerned.
That wasn't all, either. He had no idea what kind of a mission Dylan and Hugo went off to, but those two also showed no signs of returning, as well. Just what on earth was going on here?
Now that the situation had arrived this far, it was only natural that Seol Jihu would start suspecting that something was indeed very off. There definitely had to be something going on here that he wasn't aware of. Convinced of this, he didn't sleep that night and waited by the couch.
Chohong returned to the office during the dawn of the fourth day of his vigil. She cautiously opened the door and trudged in only for her eyes to open wide in a pair of round holes.
“What aren't you in bed?”
“Were you waiting for me? Sorry, sorry. I had some things to take care of.”
Chohong wasn't a fool, either. She continued to sneak a glance at Seol Jihu as he sat quietly on the couch and stared back at her. It was easy to see that she did feel guilty about something.
“Huaam~, I'm so tired.”
She tried her best to not notice anything and walk past him, but….
His low, hushed voice stopped her feet from moving again.
“Come and sit down next to me, please.”
Tap! Seol Jihu placed his hand on the coffee table.
“We need to talk.”
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