60 – Destiny Beckons
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"...And that's the gist of it." I stared at Maldong for a bit before glancing over at Marcel Ghionea... Ghio, on my right.

Maldong rubbed his chin and said, "I see... So that's the situation."

After Ghio's passionate declaration, I brought him back over to Maldong.

Mostly because he kept calling me his great benefactor and insisted to repay his debt whatever way possible. He was also super polite and formal, not budging even after I told him it was fine to keep it casual.

We were seated around the cave, Maldong taking a break from training the Yi siblings by having them do some self-study. After making tea for everyone, the three of us were seated around a makeshift table and going over the situation.

Maldong stared at Ghio and said, "And because of that you want to join Carpe Diem?"

Ghio nodded. "Yes." He looked towards me and nodded. "I wish to do all I can to repay my benefactor. And for what he has done, the only thing that I can think of is this."

I sighed. "And I keep saying that it's fine... It was by chance."

"Even more the reason."

Maldong hummed, carefully examining Ghio. After a few quiet moments, the old man nodded and said, "Is there a request you'd like to make or a condition you'd like to add for joining the team?"

Ghio let out a faint smile and said, "Master Jang, there's no need to be so formal."

Maldong waved his hand and said, "It's fine. Now, your answer?"

"I have none. Simply..." Ghio gathered his thoughts and then nodded. Staring at Maldong with resolute steel eyes, he said, "If you give me a chance, I will give my all and do what little I can until I return the favor I received." After that, he turned to look at me, as if to affirm his words.

When I heard that, and seeing the gaze in his eyes... I sighed.

Was this how people felt like when talking to me?

It was only a little thing, but he was willing to do so much in return for it. Not that I minded since it helped out, but still...

Ghio's gaze wavered and he said, "Was my request too impolite...?"

"No." I shook my head. "I'm just reflecting on how other people react to me."

Maldong blinked and then he laughed. "Yes... I suppose you would."

Ghio frowned. "Pardon? I believe I am missing some context..."

"It's nothing much." I waved my hand and said, "It's just that your actions are similar to my own way of acting. Return kindness with kindness, malice with malice, and all that jazz."

Ghio's eyes widened. "I see! Then it truly must be destiny for me to have met benefactor. My own creed is to return vengeance like the blade and to return kindness like the ocean."

I laughed. "It really is... To think I'd run across someone so similar. Although..." I stared at him.

He was being sincere. It seemed like he really was willing to run through hell and high water for me in return for what I did for him.

But.

"...Can I ask you something too, Ghio?"

"Of course." Ghio nodded. "Anything for my benefactor."

"What's your goal here in Paradise?"

Maldong's eyes widened a fraction and then he gave me a slight nod, approving my actions.

Ghio looked at me, his expression neutral. "My goal?"

"That's right." I stared at him, quietly taking in all of his information. "I'll be honest. I can be quite the uncompromising tyrant. If it reaches a point where we disagree, I'm not backing down. Either everyone is following me, or I'm dragging them along regardless. That's the sort of team you're going to be joining."

"I see. Even so-"

I shook my head. "I know that you're willing to do everything to repay your debt, but I don't want you to go against your own creed or objectives. So before you join... Could you tell me why you're here? Money? Fame? Glory? Personally, I'm here because I want to get rid of all the Parasites in this world... Both literal and figurative. I can't stand seeing such a beautiful place despoiled like this... But I've got a feeling you're different."

I had a feeling it wasn't any of that. Even so, it was odd. A man with such conviction being here... And with that obsession in his eyes as well.

He was different from me in that regard. I was here because I had a 'dream', or rather a 'wish' to see Paradise change. And to meet the expectations of those around me.

But Ghio seemed to have a 'curse' on him. A 'resolution' he had to see through no matter what.

And I respected that. So I wanted to know ahead of time in case it might be a problem.

After all, if he wanted to kill Teresa or overthrow the royal family, we would be having real issues, real fast.

"I see." Ghio nodded. "My benefactor follows a great cause."

I waved my hand. "It's not that great... I'm just selfishly interfering, after all."

Maldong chuckled. "If only more great men were as 'selfish' as you, Jihu, this world might be different."

I shrugged.

Ghio slowly shook his head. "To be completely honest... I don't have a goal as grand as yours."

I nodded. "That's fine. Everyone has their own path. And believe me, I'm the last person who'll judge your goal."

After all, I was here still despite being perfectly capable of living an awesome life back on Earth.

...Well, as long as I didn't mess with that Martial God guy, but I had a feeling I could take him now as long as we were on Earth.

"In that case..." Ghio's complexion darkened and he said, "Benefactor. Do you know what happens to Earthlings who die in Paradise?"

I nodded. "Yeah. They lose their memories and revive on Earth."

"Then, are you aware of the cases where Earthlings fall into a state of being neither dead or alive?"

My eyes widened, and then I narrowed them and said, "No. I wasn't aware..." I glanced over at Maldong. "That can happen?"

Maldong nodded. "It is rare... but yes. It's why Earthlings tend to commit suicide when captured by the Parasites. That way... while the penalty is there, they still have their life on Earth."

I had a flashback to when I saved Yui, Kaz's sister.

If I hadn't... Ah. So that was why.

I killed Dylan because I thought he was suffering... but if I left him, he would have continued like that?

A parasitized zombie, forced to watch his body move against his will...

"Jihu!"

Maldong's sharp voice cut me out of my thoughts.

I blinked and realized that the surroundings were starting to unravel.

...Unravel?

I let out a bitter laugh and forced myself to calm down. "Thanks, Coach. Seems like I haven't gotten as good a grip on my new abilities as I thought."

Maldong sighed. "Be careful."

"I will." I looked at Ghio and shook my head. "Sorry."

He smiled. "It's fine. You need not apologize for your own righteousness, Benefactor."

I conjured a cold fruit smoothie to calm myself down and said, "Please, continue... Or don't." I frowned and said, "...I've got a feeling I know where you're headed, so if it's painful-"

"Thank you for your concern, Benefactor. But I will continue. It is only fair to respond to your kindness."

"If you say so... Though, do you want a beer first?" I conjured a chilled beer can and held it out to him.

Ghio blinked and took it. Still, as he did, he said, "Benefactor truly is a man of many talents, I see."

"Eh, comes in handy."

Ghio chuckled and then cracked open his beer. After taking a long sip, he nodded and said, "It is a simple story. In the past, I had a team that I worked with. And our team received a draft notice when the Parasites launched a large-scale attack."

I nodded.

It was similar to what Teresa did to protect Arden Valley.

Though, considering Ghio's character, I doubted that he ran away like the other cowards.

And I was soon proven right.

"We participated in the war, and as a result, we suffered a significant loss due to the enemy's overwhelming might. We had resolved ourselves to death, but..." Ghio's eyes darkened. He took a long swig from his beer, draining it, and then crushed the can in his hands. "One of the leaders in the Parasites' army took interest in my comrade and turned her into its servant."

"...Her?"

Ghio gave a slow nod and then stared up at the sky. "Yes. ...Someone precious whom I promised my future." His steely gray eyes blurred for a moment. But just as I saw that, they cleared up and he stared back at me. "There is currently only one goal I wish to achieve in Paradise."

Ghio clenched his hands hard enough to rip through his skin and said, "To save my fiancée and return her to Earth... To kill Vulgar Chastity who has her shackled."

I frowned. "Vulgar Chastity...?"

The name was familiar, but why-

A flash of azure light.

With it came a vision.

...An unspeakable scene.

Ghio was standing before a woman that could only be described as a succubus. But he wasn't looking at her. Instead, he was staring at a woman beside her. A beautiful woman with an austere beauty... Whose face was distorted in lust and pleasure as she embraced an arrogant man with a sword at his side.

Ghio roared in fury and charged, but before he could, that arrogant man laughed and swung his blade, splitting Ghio apart.

...In short, it was that. A scene with way too many H tags. Something that should only exist in fantasy.

For it to be real. No, for such a future to be possible...

I glared at the arrogant man, gleaning his features and his name. For once, instead of just being passive, I forced my Transcendent Insight to activate.

[Karmic Eyes of Destiny peers into the future.]
[A being with Divinity notices your gaze!]

The arrogant man turned to stare at me. His eyes widened in surprise, and then he scoffed, swinging his blade.

Unimaginable energy surged, splitting apart my vision and cracking space.

But I saw it.

[Sung Shihyun]
Parasite Queen's hidden ace.
Defector.
Wielder of ???? Divinity.

The vision shattered. While it was a while in my point of view, it didn't look like any time had passed in reality.

Even so, I saw enough.

Maldong let out a deep sigh. "Vulgar Chastity..."

Vulgar Chastity. After seeing that, I understood why she was called that.

A damned succubus who enjoyed taking beautiful women and...!

Ghio bit his lower lip, too upset to say anything. No, as if forcing himself to remain quiet lest the curses and pain he kept trapped beneath that steel resolve would burst.

Seeing that... I stomped the ground and stood up.

Ghio flinched and said, "B-Benefactor?"

I walked in front of him and placed my hands on his shoulders. "Ghio- No. Bro. Welcome to the team."

Maldong coughed. "Not that I have objections, Jihu, but might I ask why-"

The scene I saw in my mind flashed back and I grit my teeth. "I didn't even think there was a fucking bitch like that. Fuck. No, I forgot... Damn whore, mind breaking people and shi- Fuck." I stepped back and glared at my sword.

...I could do it. No, I *should* do it.

Vulgar Chastity... Someone like that didn't deserve to exist.

I could envision it already.

If I wasn't careful, if the wrong event occurred... then it wouldn't be just that woman by Vulgar Chastity's side.

Seol-Ah, Yuhui, Teresa, Claire, Flone...

Just the mere thought of even the tiniest possibility of that fate reaching them...!

"No." I let out a deep breath and forcibly grabbed my right hand, holding it back. "Calm down, Jihu. Even if you can warp to the Parasite Queen's territory and strike a blow, you shouldn't. No matter how much you get pissed off, there's an order to these things. Right. An order... You can't go off the handle."

Maldong cleared his throat.

With that, I managed to calm down. Grabbing my forgotten smoothie, I took a long sip and let the fruity taste relax me.

...It didn't, but it forced me to slow down. And after a while, the cold drink let me go back to normal.

"...Sorry you two. I showed an ugly side to you guys."

Maldong shook his head. "It's fine, Jihu. So long as you're aware of it. But... Did something personal happen between you and Vulgar Chastity as well?"

"No. But..." I narrowed my eyes, remembering Jinhee's situation. "...I just have a bit of a trauma against these sorts of things. Back on Earth, my sister-"

I cut off my thoughts, not even wanting to entertain the slightest notion of what could have happened if I didn't barge in that day.

Ghio's eyes widened. And then he laughed. A low, guttural sound that shook his entire body.

I turned towards him. It wasn't like he was laughing at me... so was he laughing out of relief?

After calming down, he smiled. "My apologies, Benefactor. Only... I am glad. To be indebted to one such as yourself... I am sure that I will not have any regrets."

"Hey Bro, we're not talking about debts here." I held out my hand to him and said, "You're part of the team now... So you're one of my friends. And there aren't any debts between friends, got that?"

His smile grew wider and a faint bit of the darkness in his eyes diminished. "Yes, Benefactor." He took my hand.

"And it's Jihu, Bro. Stop that."

Ghio laughed. "As you say, Leader Jihu."

Seeing the new alias pop up in my list as well as the golden threads snapping around my arm, I sighed.

xxx

[I will deploy ten Nests.]

The Parasite Queen's aloof voice echoed in her grand palace.

Undying Diligence knelt before the Corrupted Throne and looked up. "Nests...? If it is about the invasion of the Tigol Fortress, we have more than enough-"

[I am not done talking.]

Undying Diligence quickly shut his mouth, lowering his gaze.

[You will not be going to the Federation.]

Undying Diligence was quiet. And then his eyes lit up and he said, "Then... Could it be that you have finally decided to crush the puny insects!?"

The Parasite Queen shook her head. [It is too early to celebrate.]

"Shall I wipe out Haramark?"

The Parasite Queen stared at the stars and slowly shook her head. [No.]

"Then is it Arden Valley?"

[...If it is necessary.]

"Then...?"

The Parasite Queen was quiet and continued staring at the stars. But no matter how much she did, the sight didn't change from when she made her decision... No, it had accelerated.

A current was sweeping through the starscape, sending more bright stars towards that lone dead star.

It was an anomaly. Ultimately futile, but still an anomaly.

The Parasite Queen had nothing to fear from a dead star. Even if it moved, even if it tried to change Fate, its lack of light prevented it from doing so.

...And yet, no matter how many times she looked at it, her body would tremble.

As if her instincts- No, as if her very core of existence was warning her against it.

And every time that warning came, a memory that she wanted to forget was dragged out, bringing with it a deep fear.

...Everything began from the birth of a demigod. A human who achieved divinity on his own, one who would later be called the Martial God.

The Martial God who invaded both the Great Realm and the Heaven Realm.

At first, the Parasite Queen was simply shocked when the Great Realm followed their prophecy and surrendered without a fight. But when the Martial God invaded the Heaven Realm, she couldn't sit still.

There was an opportunity. An opportunity to devour the divinities that had recently been born and expand her influence.

But when she entered the Heaven Realm after waiting for it to be conquered, she was faced with a sight that she could never have anticipated.

Two Ninth Heaven Rank Gods, in the league of the Creation God, stood by the Martial God's side. Not only that, there were even two Tenth Heaven Rank Gods, one that she didn't even think possible!

A single flick of the finger by the Crimson Goddess instantly turned the Parasite Queen's army into ash. A second forced the Parasite Queen to endure indescribable and horrific pain as her very existence began to be burned by Cosmos-Destroying Hellfire.

And then the Martial God, wearing a suit of black armor and adorning a fluttering crimson cape... Facing her divinity carefully amassed for thousands of years, he let out a single swing of his invisible blade and cut it in half.

The words he said after would never leave her.

'Huh? I thought you’d at least entertain me a little…. Why is a so-called God so weak?'

A humiliation burned into her very core.

And now, staring at that dead star... she felt the same.

But why?

Why did looking at that star evoke her darkest memory?

She couldn't figure it out. No matter how many days she spent thinking about the matter, she only grew more and more frustrated.

It was nothing. It should be nothing. And yet her very core told her to be wary- No, to act. Because if she did not, everything would fall apart.

Undying Diligence remained silent while the Parasite Queen pondered.

Seeing that, the Parasite Queen remembered her actions and eventually gave her reason for her actions.

[It will be good to pull out any sprout that might grow to become a source of trouble in the future.]

Yes. It might be her paranoia. It might be nothing. But if there was even a slight chance...

Descending herself was too much. But barring that...

The Parasite Queen rose from her throne and then called out.

[I hereby command 'Unsightly Humility (Humilitas)' to participate as well.]

"...My Queen?" Undying Diligence's eyes wavered, confused.

The Nosferatu army, vying for the top position among the Seven Armies and often called the strongest Parasite army, had already been summoned for the task, yet even Unsightly Humility was being dispatched?

[Furthermore…]

However, the Queen was not done yet.

The Parasite Queen’s eyes narrowed like a snake’s.

[I shall also be calling upon ‘Vulgar Chastity (Castitas)’.]

Three Army Commanders leading their own Parasite armies. Three from a total of seven. And aside from the Queen whom they served, those seven Army Commanders were the Parasites' highest-ranked beings.

It was overkill. Considering the humans were struggling to just remain alive, one would be enough to end things. But to dispatch three, let alone deploying ten precious Nests...

Considering the fact that two of the Seven Armies had left the Material Realm for unavoidable reasons, the Parasite Queen was deploying more than half of the Parasites’ available forces.

Being wasteful was generally not a problem. As it was the Queen’s strict command, if they had excess troops or leisure, Undying Diligence would have followed the order without a word of complaint.

The problem was that they had just conquered Tigol Fortress.

[If we advance towards Haramark, they will surely come out to Arden Valley.]

Hearing the Parasite Queen’s command, Undying Diligence became conflicted.

The battle at Tigol Fortress was a large-scale siege battle fully utilizing the five remaining Parasite armies, and the Parasites had just barely conquered the fortress after a fierce battle. Naturally, this spoke volumes of how important Tigol Fortress was as a strategic point.

It would be a different story if the Parasites had completely taken over the fortress, but with the Federation gritting their teeth to try to reclaim the fortress, if the Parasites reassigned over half of their forces, there was a high chance that the Federation would succeed in their recapture efforts.

"..."

Undying Diligence looked like he strongly wanted to protest. But under the Parasite Queen's terrifying pressure, he kept his mouth shut.

[There is no need to worry.]

However, the Parasite Queen’s will was clear.

[You only have to eliminate a single star.]

Her decisions that came from watching the movements of the constellations had never been wrong.

[Then everything will return to normal.]

Everything will return to normal.

Yes. Absolutely.

Once that dead star was removed, everything would return to the destination she sought.

It was a simple course of action.

And yet...

As the Parasite Queen stared at the dead star, she couldn't help but think...

'Why do I feel as if I am not properly seeing it?'

...That there was something terribly important hidden from her view.

xxx

After hashing out the details of Ghio joining Carpe Diem and making general introductions to everyone, I asked if Ghio wanted to head back to the office to sort out some affairs. It would only take me a minute to warp back, after all, so it wasn't too much of a big deal... and Ghio had come a long way by himself to climb the mountain.

But it seemed like my words and mentioning Jinhee a bit had motivated him.

Wreathed in violet light, he requested to join the Yi siblings in training under Maldong.

And of course, due to being a man of steel like he was...

"Master Jang. Please, feel free to work me to your heart's content. That will be much more beneficial."

...He chose to walk into hell of his own accord.

But he wasn't the only one who did that.

"You're slacking, Jihu!" Flone charged forward, swinging a ghostly silver shield at my head while a hidden silver blur surged towards my heart.

"I've got you!"

From behind, Sora's voice called out. And in the same moment, the faint sound of whistling air echoed. But that was a lie. While there was a single sound, I felt three slashes aimed at my back.

"Remember, Jihu!" Yuhui held up her hands, wreathed in white light. "You asked for this!"

The moment she finished her words, a dense mana filled the air, pressing me down while speeding up Flone and Sora.

I was trapped.

My body was pinned down and even if I tried to escape by warping away or distorting space, the area was locked by the dense mana from Yuhui.

Flone's blue eyes lit up with joy.

I couldn't see them, but I 'knew' that Sora's eyes were the same.

Finally, a solid attack.

But...

'Sorry to disappoint you two.'

...I had already realized it.

The hint that I attained from my anger while talking with Ghio.

-Unraveling.

I didn't think about it because my ability had been called 'All as One', but by necessity tying things together meant that things could be ripped apart. And not only that, but if things were put together to form a new whole, when that whole was destroyed, so were the individual components.

So.

I focused.

Transcendent Insight activated in my mind's eye, freezing my perception of time. No, rather than freezing my perception of time, it was more accurate to say my awareness expanded beyond time.

But the moment it did, I felt an invisible force push back at me. As if warning me to not go too far. To not use my insight to unravel too many mysteries before it was forced to react.

So I didn't. Instead of looking at the past or the future, I looked at the frozen present and my surroundings.

A third person's point of view.

I saw myself in the midst of being struck by unavoidable attacks.

Sora had somehow managed to develop a crazy attack that bent space to hit three times at once after getting fed up with me dodging so much.

As for Flone, her sword and shield had developed a weird dual attribute that was neither tangible nor intangible, making it impossible to block with magic or physically. Or rather than saying that, it was more like she had figured out how to attack with 'concepts' rather than physically.

I couldn't dodge the attacks. I couldn't block them.

As they were.

But...

Tying in the space around me to my sword. Grabbing the attacks aimed at me and locking it with my own attack. Stealing the kinetic energy, potential energy, mana...

I shifted my awareness back to normal and tightened my grip around my sword. At the same time, I started to move.

A sound like steel grating against glass before shattering it and grinding against course sand.

I grinned and grabbed my sword, holding my ground.

It wasn't touching anything. My sword looked to just be in mid-air. But...

"Oh that is such BULLSHIT!" Sora screamed and then stomped on the ground, trying to force her sword through.

Flone pouted and said, "Jihu! That's cheating!"

I chuckled and said, "All's fair in love and war. And... Well, this isn't either, but since I'm fighting lovely ladies, it's close enough right?"

Off to the side of our training ground, the usual forest clearing, Yuhui sighed and shook her head.

Sora glared at me and said, "For once, I agree with Flone! You're cheating!"

"Can't be helped. You guys are getting too strong now, you know? Still, we've been fighting for a while... so it's time to end it."

I wrapped sleep magic around my sword and slowly started to seep it into the attacks I was holding back.

Flone's eyes widened. "H-Hey! Jihu! You can't-!"

"Night. See you two tomorrow. Take it easy, alright?"

Azure light flashed, and then the two women fighting me slumped, falling to the ground.

Before they could actually hit the ground, I caught them in the air with my powers and warped them back into the beds in my makeshift cabin. After making sure they were safe and sound, I turned my attention to Yuhui. "What? You're not going to fight too?"

She held up her hands and said, "I'm a priestess, Jihu. How could I fight you?"

"...By using those fancy barrier spells and fighting me head on with your insane stats? You aren't as dainty as you pretend to be, you know?"

Yuhui gave me an innocent smile in response.

I shook my head and conjured a chair for her and myself. After sitting down, I made some cola sodas and offered her one. "Want one?"

"Gladly!" She took it from me and pulled her chair close before sitting down.

I ignored her for the moment and cracked the can open, taking a deep sip. The fizzy soda burned my throat... is what I'd like to say. But as I drank it and felt only a refreshing fizz, I was reminded of how far away from a normal human I had become.

Not that I minded very much. Better that and able to protect everyone I loved than human and forced to watch them all suffer.

"You know..." Yuhui sipped on her soda and said, "I've been meaning to ask you about it, but did Lady Gula give you some Authorities, Jihu?"

I lowered my can and said, "Hm? Authorities...?"

I paused to think about it and then shook my head. "No. I'm pretty sure she hasn't... And she probably won't either."

Authorities would be wasted on me, even if granted by a god. After all, my power could unravel even those, so it would only be redundant since I'd arrive at the same power on my own merits eventually.

Yuhui frowned. "...I think Lady Gula would if you asked her. But then... Where are you getting all of these things, Jihu?" She gestured to the chair and the soda. "I always see you pulling them out of thin air, but if you don't have any Authorities... Do you have a magical item or a skill that lets you use a Dimensional Pocket?"

"Hm? Oh. No, I don't have anything like that." I paused. "...Though I should probably make one, now that I think about it."

I still had my bag that I used to camouflage some of my creations, and it was slightly bigger on the inside than it looked, but now that she mentioned it...

"Wait. So Dimensional Pockets are an authority?"

"Mmhm." Yuhui nodded. "It's one of the innate Authorities you get when you become a Unique Ranker."

"...Huh. Good to know. That might be useful to fake out some people in the future..."

And a good excuse for my Synthesis... Creation? Whatever ability it had become now in the future.

Yuhui blinked. "Wait. Then... If you aren't using an item or a skill and you don't have any Authorities... Where are you getting these things?"

"Oh, I just make them."

"...What?"

I held out my hand and materialized a sword. Slower this time though, instead of instantaneously like I usually do. "See?" I pointed to the sword slowly being sketched out by my mana and said, "I just memorize the underlying molecular pattern, energy frequencies and waves, and then replicate it with my mana and finetune with raw energy. When I'm done, it just pops into existence." To emphasize, I finished the pattern and created an iron sword.

Yuhui sighed. "...You really have no common sense. I knew it a bit from what she told me, but something like this... Does such a small change have such a big effect...?"

I heard a lot of flags being raised, but I pretended to not hear them. Mostly because I wasn't ready to confront the whole being a time traveler but not really deal with Yuhui just yet.

So, as usual I played dumb and said, "Hm?"

"Nothing, Jihu. But..." She hummed and said, "...If you can do that, does that mean you can copy items too? Like rare herbs?"

I started to nod, but then I narrowed my eyes, slowly edging away. "If you're planning to try and tie me up to make money by copying rare herbs..."

Yuhui let out an exasperated sigh. "Could you be serious for once?!"

I laughed. "Fine, fine. Just making sure your yandere tendencies haven't suddenly emerged like Flone's."

Yuhui blinked. "Yandere? What's that?"

"...Don't worry about it." I scooted my chair back and said, "Anyway, what are you thinking about?"

Yuhui stared at me and then quietly took out a flower that looked like a crimson marigold. "Would this be any use to you?"

"Hm?" I stared at the flower, instinctively analyzing it.

The Essence of Soma. A name coming from two characters, 'So' meaning to incinerate and 'Ma' meaning evil. A flower that could impart the anti-evil attribute in the form of lightning. No, a lightning that incinerated evil by dispersing it to the surroundings and using dense and pure lightning to purge it.

And that flower could be used by anyone, instantly giving their mana that attribute.

It also gave me plenty of ideas for things to try out.

"...It's useful. No, really useful. But..." I looked up at Yuhui and said, "It's unique, isn't it? No, priceless."

More than just rare, that sort of item was something you would be hard-pressed to find in a lifetime. It was the crystallization of countless efforts... and also the 'end' of those efforts.

Like the Prihi's Tears I had, the Essence of Soma was an item developed by lifetime effort.

There weren't duplicates. At least, if there were, it was as rare as finding a glass needle in a desert.

Yuhui nodded. "It is. But if it's useful to Jihu-"

I shook my head. "Just seeing it is enough. I don't actually need to use it. But..." I tilted my head to look at Yuhui. "There's been something I've been meaning to ask you too, Yuhui."

Yuhui put the Essence of Soma back and then nodded. "Go ahead." She smiled and said, "I'm all ears!"

"Why do you like me so much?"

It was one thing for her to like me because of her memories for Seol. But by this point it should be clear that I was different from that guy. A LOT different.

But still, Yuhui stuck around. And not only was she just as affectionate, she was even more forward than I remembered her being with Seol.

She smiled and said, "You asked that already, silly. And I told you, it's a-"

"Yuhui. I'm being serious."

"Ah." Yuhui frowned and went quiet.

I waited.

After a while, she hesitantly opened her mouth and said, "By any chance... Have you heard of this saying?"

"Saying?"

Yuhui nodded and looked at me. "Memories become the nutrients to live another day."

"..."

She smiled and then leaned forward, lacing her hands together. "You see... I wasn't very kind in the past. Because I was too proud, I said many hurtful things and purposefully made someone worry because of my poor personality." She paused and let out a faint smile. "Come to think of it... I committed quite a big sin, acting like that. But even so... My memories of that time, those unforgettable memories... they give me the strength to live another day." She finished by staring into my eyes, her smile widening.

I stared back and slowly shook my head. "But I'm not that person, Yuhui. I don't know who you're talking about or who you're reminiscing of... but I'm not him."

Her smile vanished. After sighing, she nodded. "I know. The two of you are as different as night and day. No, should I say Black and White...?" She shook her head and gave me a thin smile. "But even so... I can't help it." She placed her elbows on her thighs and propped up her chin with her hands. "What should I do, Jihu? It seems like I found myself taken in by a bad man after all."

A clear confession. No, not completely spelled out, but clear enough.

I looked away and said, "...You'll regret it, you know? I'm already making someone wait for me. Well, someone who's accepting of even a scoundrel like me. I've hurt her before, so I don't want to keep hurting her... or you."

A quiet rejection... Is what I should have said. But I couldn't. The selfish part in me refused to allow it. Instead...

'What an asshole.'

...I gave that half-hearted response instead.

Yuhui was quiet for a while, but then she nodded. She leaned back in her chair and said, "That's fine. Even so... I won't change my mind, Jihu."

I sighed and muttered, "...Dammit. I'm really weak to women, huh?"

Yuhui let out a bashful smile and said, "Well, since you are... Do you mind helping me with a favor? You know, since you feel guilty about me liking you so much."

"Ooh, the guilt trip, huh? What if I want to just run away and not take responsibility?"

Yuhui laughed. "It's too late for that now, Jihu. I'll follow you to hell if I have to now that I know how you really think."

The moment she said that, the crimson threads usually around Yuhui turned into thick crimson chains.

Ah. Shit.

Should definitely have thought my words through better...

Not that I couldn't cut it off, but... Was this what people meant when they said they willingly wanted to be locked up...?

"Anyway~" Yuhui smiled and said, "You see... I'm currently Level Seven. And for me to level up, I need to meet certain conditions."

"And you want me to help you with these conditions."

Yuhui nodded. "Yep!" She paused. "Though... I think the first one might be hard even for you..."

I waved my hand. "Just go for it. Since you're shameless enough now to guilt trip me, might as well commit."

"Hmph." Yuhui pouted but then smiled. "Fine. In that case... I need to meet two conditions to level up. The first condition is to bring back two items, and the second is to increase my Luck stat by a single stage."

"Mm... The luck won't be hard to manage, but what are the items?"

Yuhui blinked, and then she laughed. "Most people would find that part harder, you know?"

"Stats are stats. Besides, I got a rather thorough understanding of Divine Elixirs in the past."

"Hm... Well, I'll believe you. As for the items..." Yuhui frowned. "They're both tokens the ancient Empire passed down to their saintesses as a symbolic gesture."

Wait. Ancient Empire... Saintesses?

A memory came to mind. No, a lot of memories. All of the items I saw in Flone's tomb.

Yuhui continued and said, "The first looks like a crucifix that Priests often use, and the other looks like a ring."

A crucifix. A ring... Those were among the items in her tomb, right? Right. And if I remembered correctly...

Yuhui let out a wry smile. "Actually, now that I'm saying it out loud, this request is a bit too shameless-"

"Do you mean these?" I held out my hand and recreated them. A shimmering crucifix and a ring emanating a holy aura.

"...Eh?"

"...Yeah. It should be these. And for your Luck... here." I recreated some Divine Elixirs for luck and handed them over. "I'm not sure of how many of these you need, and I think they stop working at a certain point, but it should be enough."

Yuhui took the items from me in a daze. And then she laughed.

I frowned. "What's so funny?"

She shook her head. "No. It's just..." She smiled and said, "You really give your women lavish gifts, Jihu."

I coughed. "It's not that much- Wait, what do you mean, 'my women'?!"

Yuhui laughed and put her items away into her Dimensional Pocket. "Nothing~! Although... Princess Teresa *did* suddenly buy back a lot of properties and doubled work on Arden Fortress..."

"...I'm going back to train."

The air was getting weird, so I made my quick retreat- I mean, I decided to go back to training before we both went too far.

"Wait! Jihu! Don't just-"

I warped away, heading towards the lake.

And I landed in front of a naked Seol-Ah, bathing in the lake while Sungjin stood guard nearby.

"Eh?" Seol-Ah blinked. "...Oppa?"

"Hyung!?"

I groaned and closed my eyes. "This world's messing with me. It's gotta be."

"W-W-Wait! O-O-Oppa! You can't...! I mean, I don't mind, but you shouldn't-!"

"Yeah, I'm out."

Fed up with the romcom developments, I warped back to the mountain peak and started to meditate.

...Because goddammit, I needed mental training to deal with this bullshit.

And I might as well work on some projects.

Let's see... Anti-Evil. The concept was good, but it wasn't fool proof. If something was 'evil' enough, the dispersal effect wouldn't work. Or rather, it could reform.

Like my spear. If I tried using anti-evil magic on it, Gae Bolg would basically just laugh and bat it away. After all, it was too pure of a 'curse'.

Then...

Instead of dispersing, what about 'nullifying?'

Reading the energy form, developing the opposite energy to harmonize it...

xxx

Time flowed like a stream. Once more, everyone went back to the usual routine.

Training, eating, sleeping, and repeat.

But one night, it came to a stop.

It was while I was passing out food for everyone at night around a campfire. Since my training wasn't physical... at least, not really, I decided to make some food for everyone to let them rest properly.

A basic ramen soup, but with essential nutrients. A hearty broth, beef, and spongy fresh noodles.

Flone let out a happy sound as she slurped her bowl. "I've been waiting for this so long!"

Yuhui took a sip from her bowl as well and let out a content sigh. "It's different from what I expected... but this is so much better... Nostalgic, comforting, refreshing..."

Maldong nodded, his eyes wide in approval. "To think that ramen could be like this..." He looked to me and said, "Are you planning on opening a mega chain of ramen restaurants on Earth? Because if you can cook this well..."

I laughed and shook my head, sitting down with my own bowl. "Nah. I'm not very fond of cooking ramen for a living. But if you ever want a bowl, Coach, I'd be happy to whip one up for you."

Maldong clicked his tongue. "In that case, I might just have to buy a restaurant for myself and have you train some people..."

I started to sweat when I saw Maldong's gaze.

It seemed like the trainer's instincts he had were starting to expand to other fields...

Maybe it was a bad idea to secretly use a bit of Atma Refinement on him...?

I started to slurp on my noodles while watching everyone else.

Sungjin and Seol-Ah let out content sighs while eating. "Hyung really knows how to cook..."

Seol-Ah nodded and sighed again. "If I could eat this every day, I think my life would be satisfied..."

Sungjin laughed and said, "Yeah. I think Hyung's wife is going to be a really happy lady."

At those words, I suddenly felt three sharp gazes on me.

Sora stared at me thoughtfully.

Flone stared at me meaningfully.

And Yuhui... stared at me with determination.

"Kuh." I coughed on my noodles and quickly took a sip from the broth. After that, I let out a nervous chuckle and said, "Good one, Sungjin. But I think I'm going to be a bachelor for a while longer..."

"Ah." Sungjin nodded. "True... Hyung is too busy to settle down yet."

Ghio took a sip from his noodles as well and nodded. "Yes. Leader Jihu still has yet to achieve his objectives, so thinking of love is still far off. Though I believe finding a wife would be a simple matter for one as awe-inspiring as he."

Maldong snorted. "Considering how he's already got half a dozen women lined up to snag him, I don't doubt it."

I narrowed my eyes and opened my mouth to retort.

And then I felt a vibration from my bag. The communication crystal I used to keep in touch with Hannah, Seora, and my friends... And then the communication crystals I had as Carpe Diem's leader to keep in touch with Sicilia, the Haramark Royal Palace, and the office at Carpe Diem.

All four of those communication crystals were blinking at the same time.

Maldong froze.

At once, the mood turned serious.

I frowned and stood up.

Immediately, Maldong and Ghio stood up as well. Shortly after, everyone else started to stand, but I waved them down.

"I'll handle this. Everyone relax and enjoy your meal." I stared at the crystals and muttered, "I think it might be the last good one for a while..."

Walking off to the side for some space and putting up some privacy formations, I activated the crystals.

"Darling!" Teresa's concerned voice.

"Good. You're awake, Jihu." Claire's calm tone.

"Oppa! It's serious!" Chohong's voice, energetic as always... but also worried.

"About damned time. What, was my beloved partner so busy that-" And then Hannah's voice... which suddenly cut off as she looked around. Her eyes widened, and then she groaned. "You goddamned idiot! Pay attention next time!"

With that, she cut off the line.

...Oh, yeah. Probably wasn't a good idea to use that private line in front of others since it was meant for us to unwind and catch up... Hannah was definitely going to chew me out for it later.

But that was for later.

I focused on the three crystals remaining and stared at the remaining women. "While I'd love to make a joke about being caught seeing other women... I'm guessing it's serious. What happened?"

The three women looked at each other for a bit.

And then Teresa spoke up and said, "Miss Agnes, Miss Chung Chohong. I will tell him the news."

Claire nodded. "Understood." With that single word, her crystal dimmed, the line severed.

Chohong looked hesitant, but then she nodded as well. "Alright. But... No. It should be fine." Muttering that to herself, she cut the line as well.

And then it was just Teresa.

I stared at her, frowning.

It was serious. Whenever I saw Teresa, the princess was always bright and happy. Of course, that was natural considering I relieved so many of her burdens. But right now, she looked like she did before I helped her out.

Desperate.

"Resa." Since it was like this, I called her by her nickname and said, "Calm down."

Did it work?

Teresa took a deep breath and then nodded. "...Thanks, Jihu."

Hearing that, I narrowed my eyes.

To call me by my name...

"Is it that bad?"

"...Where are you right now?"

"I'm at Huge Stone Rocky Mountain with Maldong and some others to train."

"That's... I see. Right, there's no way you would-"

"No way I would what, Resa?"

She didn't respond for a few moments. But then her pink eyes turned to look at me, sharp. "Listen carefully, Jihu. All the royal families other than Scheherazade have issued a draft-call."

"A draft-call... I see."

Faint sirens echoed in the distance on Teresa's side. And from that, I could tell.

The situation was serious.

But not only that...

The moment I heard about the situation in full, my vision became filled with colors.

...No. A single color.

Pitch black as far as I could see. 

"...Understood."

No other words were necessary. No, if it was like this, then I already knew what was going to happen.

A confrontation.

I felt a crooked smirk cross my mouth and said, "It seems like she's impatient."

"Jihu?"

I shook my head and smoothed my expression. "It's nothing, Resa. But I got it. We'll head back right away."

Teresa gave me a faint smile and said, "Thank you. And... be careful."

I smiled back.

The line ended. The moment it did, footsteps approached from behind. Maldong's.

I turned back to him and said, "You couldn't wait, huh?" As I did, I saw the others standing nearby as well.

Maldong shook his head. "It's serious. Isn't it?"

Seeing the black smoke surrounding everyone there, I let out a wry smile and said, "That's putting it lightly... But I'll explain once we're back. Time is short."

I glanced at everyone and then let out a sigh, resolving myself.

And when I did, the black vanished.

No. Only around them.

In exchange, the darkness around me...

I stared at my completely dark arm and then shook my head. "Pack your bags. We're leaving as soon as you're done."

After a quick teardown of our base, grabbing the essentials, and putting out the fire, I sent us back.

Mana rippled, space bent... and then we arrived in the office.

Ghio reeled a bit, unused to the change, but he quickly gained his bearings.

Everyone else was already used to it and quickly balanced themselves, adjusting to the change.

As they did, I took a look around the room.

Chohong was already there, as if expecting me to arrive, sitting on the couch.

Hugo was there as well, surprisingly lost in thought.

And then, seated at the desk with a wide array of papers...

"Welcome back, my friend."

...Ian greeted me, his eyes flashing with determination. "No. Leader." He stood up and swept his gaze around at the others before focusing on me, a smile on his face. "Are you ready to pull off another miracle?"

I smiled back... And then I turned towards the expectant gazes of everyone else. "Now... I'll explain the situation and our plans going forward."

26