66 – Karmic Ties
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:sweat: Trending number one again... Guess I have to do a double release...

1/2

-I took a deep breath. No, I tried to take a deep breath.

A faint gasp echoed as my body drew in air, but nothing more. At that time, I realized that while I could 'see', I wasn't actually seeing.

It was an odd sensation. Like watching the world through the perspective of a gamer, with my body being the player character. A sort of 'mind's eye'.

Was this a result of my Transcendent Insight? No, even that didn't go this far. At least, not naturally.

Instead, it seemed like my reckless actions had caused my fundamental makeup to change.

I could gather information around me... but that was all. Trying to take another breath manually did nothing. My body's breathing was routine, and that faint gasp was just a coincidence.

Not only that... But I couldn't 'see' much. I could tell that my body was on a bed, and the room looked vaguely familiar for some reason, but it wasn't a place I was used to. Then again, considering I could only see about a few steps away from the bed before the surroundings blurred into gray mist, that was probably to be expected.

What happened though?

My body... Well, I could still see the magic formations on it, so it seemed like I wasn't dead. Or rather, that my body was still alive. Though, considering the fact that it should have been completely vaporized and just an empty shell... that was pretty miraculous.

Since I was here though, it seemed like my friends didn't give up on me. Hopefully Ian managed to figure something out... If I could, I would just cobble my body back together myself, but like Seol said, I did a really ridiculous thing.

I didn't know whether it was because my energy core had grown so strong it sucked my consciousness in as well or what, but I couldn't actually manipulate any energy around me even though I could see it.

Hopefully that was just a transition phase...

I frowned... Well, I mentally frowned, and focused my attention back to the room.

At that time, a door slammed open.

"Why are you still here?"

A familiar voice echoed. Familiar, but foreign in its fury. Yuhui's.

"I have to see him."

"Why?" Yuhui walked into my view and spun around, glaring at someone just out of sight. "So you can feel guilty about it? Apologize for the hundredth time, Miss Haeju? Oh wait, that's just an alias."

Haeju? Ah... Yuhui and Seonhwa.

Right. Yeah... that wouldn't end well. If I remembered right, they argued a lot in the actual timeline... Or rather, in Seol's timeline too.

But that came after, didn't it? Why were they arguing now?

Baek Haeju came into view... At least, that was who I expected to see. But instead, it was a familiar face standing there.

Yoo Seonhwa. 'My' childhood friend and lover. Former lover.

She ignored Yuhui for a moment, only staring at me with clear regret and sorrow in her eyes. But then she turned to Yuhui and said, "I have every right to be here. I'm Jihu's girlfriend."

"You?! His girlfriend?" Yuhui scoffed and glared at her. "It was because of you that he ended up like that in the first place! You don't have the right!"

"And what would you know?!" Seonhwa glared right back at Yuhui and said, "I've known Jihu almost my whole life! You're just an outsider! No, I heard from the others. You're just his stalker!"

"Yeah? At least I really cared about him unlike a certain Sacred Empress who only showed up at the last second!"

"That's not fair! You know I couldn't reveal my real identity!"

"To people on Earth, maybe! But what about to Jihu?" Yuhui crossed her arms and said, "You said you knew him your whole life. Surely you would have known that he would have forgiven you if you told him!"

"T-That's..."

"Coward!" Yuhui narrowed her eyes and said, "I don't want to see your face. Just leave."

Seonhwa grit her teeth. "I am not-!"

Footsteps echoed, and then a weary male sigh resounded. "Ladies. I'm sure that my friend is more than happy to hear that you two are concerned about him. But that's something to be done when he's awake. If you're just going to argue here, I'm going to have to ask you both to leave."

Ian walked into view. Unlike the last time I saw him, he seemed to have aged quite a bit. His face was a bit more creased and he had a bit more white hair. While he still looked in his thirties, it was the weary expression of an overworked office worker rather than the cheery bachelor I was familiar with.

He flashed a weary smile at me, and then turned towards the two women. "Miss Yuhui. Miss Haeju." He sighed and said, "I understand that both of you are stressed and worried. We ALL are. But this isn't the place for arguing."

Yuhui lowered her head and said, "I'm sorry Mister Ian."

Seonhwa flinched and lowered her head as well. "I didn't mean to..."

Ian waved his hand. "It's fine. I'm sure that Jihu would be more than happy to hear that two beautiful women are arguing over him when he wakes up-"

Yeah right! I'm stressing out of my mind right now!

"-But we need to wake him up first. Now." He turned to face me and pulled out an opaque bottle from his pocket. "Let's begin." Ian walked forward and lightly swirled the bottle before uncorking it. The moment he did, a faint swirl of iridescent light began drifting from the top.

Yuhui looked at the bottle and frowned. "What is that, Mister Ian?"

Ian knelt down in front of me and said, "The culmination of three wise men's life works."

Seonhwa frowned. "Three wise men...?"

"That's right. The legendary alchemist who sought to restore a girl's magic circuits broken from improper training, the expelled grand magus who sought to create a tool that could change the tides of war against the Parasites... and this foolish old man that just wants to save the young man in front of him." He raised the bottle and started to walk over. But then he paused and turned towards Yuhui.

Yuhui blinked. "I-Is something wrong?"

Ian frowned and then smiled. "Nothing. But... Miss Yuhui. Would you mind?" He gestured towards the bottle and said, "It's a bit unusual... but don't you think that a beautiful maiden should feed the potion to the cursed hero?"

Yuhui blinked. And then she quickly dashed forward, her eyes bright. "Yes! I will! Just tell me what to do!"

Seonhwa glared at Ian.

Ian showed Yuhui how to give the potion and then turned towards Seonhwa. "My apologies, Miss Haeju. But in this case, it really is beneficial for a pure maiden to give the potion."

Seonhwa's glare turned icy and she said, "And I'm not?"

Ian shrugged. "You said you were Jihu's girlfriend, didn't you? Not to be rude or too intrusive... but considering my friend here, I find it hard to believe that you are still a virgin. Of course, feel free to refute me otherwise."

Seonha froze and then she turned a deep red.

...Goddammit Ian.

I wanted to curse him out. But before I could, my vision was forcibly shifted. The third person perspective I had shattered, and I was suddenly looking up into Yuhui's face.

She let out a gentle smile and said, "Drink up, Jihu... and please, get well soon." Saying that, she stepped back, raising the empty bottle.

...Empty bottle?

Was that why my vision suddenly shifted?

I started to wonder what was going on, but then Seonhwa spoke up.

"You never answered what that potion was, Mister Ian."

I wanted to turn and look at them, but my vision refused to move. Instead, it started to fade out, like sleep was reclaiming me.

"Ah. I suppose I should explain a bit. You see, my dear friend came up with quite the theory a long time ago about mana and the human soul..."

Before I could dwell on his words...

I woke up again.

Like a switch had been flipped, the scene suddenly changed. Before, I could see some natural light filtering into the room. But now it was lit by torchlight.

And I also wasn't alone.

"You stupid kid." Standing at the side of my bed, a familiar old man wearing a fedora glared at me.

Maldong.

He let out a deep sigh and said, "Why do you have to be like this? Most tyrants would let their comrades die for them. An uncompromising bastard like you should have just focused on getting stronger and letting everyone else bear the burden. You're smart enough to know that. So why the hell did you have to be so emotional and play the part of a hero?"

A scathing chastisement.

...He did have a point. But I couldn't accept that point. Even if I was uncompromising, even if I came off as domineering at times, when it came to the people I cared for...

"Come on, old friend. You know exactly why Jihu is like that." Ian's voice echoed and he walked into view.

Maldong sighed. "I suppose I do." And saying that, he reached into his coat and pulled out a tiny box.

Ian looked to Maldong and said, "Are you sure this will work? If you fail, we lose our chance. The princess talked to Lady Gula about it as well, and there isn't a way to revive him in the worst case scenario."

"I know." Maldong opened the box, revealing a set of glittering golden needles. Turning towards me, his eyes flared with determination... No, they were actually flaming. An azure light flickered, as if he was a man possessed. "And I won't fail. I can't." He set the needles on the side of my bed and then gently pulled off my shirt.

Ian watched him and said, "Even if it does work, old friend... Are you really sure? Using that on someone as powerful as Jihu... There really won't be anyone that can stop him if he goes down the wrong path."

"It's fine." Maldong put my shirt off to the side. After that, he rolled up his sleeves and picked up a needle.

Ian raised an eyebrow. "It's fine?"

"Yes." Maldong nodded and said, "It's fine. Because if he does go down that path... then that just means that we're to blame for pushing him down that path. He isn't the type of person to betray our expectations."

"...So expect the best of him and have faith, huh?" Ian chuckled and said, "Funny. Weren't you the one who said that those cheesy words were just fluff?"

"Shut up, you bastard and help me out here." Maldong sounded grouchy, but his ears were a bit red.

Ian's chuckle turned into a full laugh and then he walked over. "Fine, fine..." When he reached the side of the bed, his eyes became serious. "You'll have to work fast. Muto and I have determined that Jihu's magical formations are keeping his body together. The potion should have helped restore his physical body somewhat, but-"

"But it's still in tatters."

"Right. And the moment I cancel the formations, we won't be able to bring them back. We only have one shot at this."

Maldong nodded. "Don't worry." He picked up a few more needles, putting them in between his fingers, and said, "The kids haven't been the only ones training."

"Heh." Ian nodded. "Then I'll leave it to you, old friend."

"On three. One. Two. Three-"

Sudden darkness, and then *pain.*

It was impossible to describe. All I could say was that it felt like my bones were being scraped from the inside out, my veins were being knotted around before being ripped out, and my organs were melting into each other. Like being in a blender, burned, pureed, electrified, frozen, and then baked all at once.

Except I was conscious through every moment of it.

An experience enough to drive a man insane. Enough pain to ruin anyone.

But-

[Transcendent Insight nullifies the pain.]
[Karmic Eyes of Destiny activates!]
[Atma Refinement begins.]
[Fate Reversal activates!]
[Chaotic Resolution is fusing unnecessary skills...]
[All as One unifies the disparate forces in your body...]

-My carefully honed abilities forcibly kept me in place.

I didn't know how long it was. But somehow, I managed to persevere. And as a result...

[Trait: Invictus acquired.]

...I was all the better for it.

Eventually, the pain faded away. In its place, there was... nothing. But not 'nothing' as in a lack of sensation. No, I could feel my body again. But it was quiet. Silent and tranquil, like the glossy surface of a pond at night.

No energy. No mana. No divinity.

Nothing but a void.

But it wasn't. While it was a void, it wasn't empty. It was a gap in space and reality, but that gap was filled. Like how you could make a hole in bread by punching it through with a knife, or how jello could have bits of fruit inside that were within the jello but not really a part of the jello, my body was devoid of energy, mana, and divinity. But only because they had gone to a different place. Transmuted into a different form.

How or why, I didn't know. And it seemed like my body... My entire being actually, was still processing the changes since I couldn't use any of my abilities.

But I could sense what was around me better now than before.

I was clearly in the infirmary at the Temple of Luxuria. It was the same room that I saw Claire and Ian in last time. However, it had been changed around a bit with my bed being the only one inside. Not only that, but I was on the far side of the room, away from the main door.

Was that a recent change? I could have sworn I was closer before...

Either way, I was alone, probably kept in secret and guarded in the safest place in Haramark. After all, nobody would be willing to barge into a Temple of Luxuria and risk getting blacklisted by every Priest in Paradise.

Well, nobody except me. Then again, I was different like that.

Which was why I was in this state to begin with.

xxx

Time passed.

While my senses grew... It turned out to only be my vision. Maybe since my Transcendent Insight and Nine Eyes were fused together, I could see beyond the physical capabilities of my body. Even when I sensed my eyes were closed, I could see the world around me. But that was all.

Sounds, smells, scents, tastes... all of them were blank.

Probably because they all required a functioning physical body while my 'sight' was something that transcended that.

...There was probably a way to link them all together synesthesia style, but I didn't think that it'd be a problem, so that was something I'd have to do in the future.

Anyway, all I could do was look around my room and watch the time pass.

Fortunately, I somehow had the ability to skew my perception of time. Kind of like fast-forwarding on a video.

To that end, I mostly skipped ahead until interesting things happened.

Like getting visitors.

...Which I had a lot of.

Since my memory cut out after Maldong using his needles on me, I didn't know how long I was out. But the morning after I regained awareness, I noticed that I had daily visitors. And visitors that always came in a schedule.

At sunrise, Yuhui entered the room to check on me. Giving me a soft but worried smile, she would sigh and then pull out a bottle from her sleeve before feeding it to me. After brushing my cheek and saying something I couldn't hear, she left.

About an hour later, Seonhwa appeared. Walking into the room, she would always be in the form of Baek Haeju. But after securing the room, she would change back into the beautiful and kind young woman I knew with lightly curled brown hair.

Walking up to the side of my bed, she would look down at me quietly and then start talking with a faint smile. As always, I couldn't hear her words, but I could make out her saying Jinhee and my parents a few time, so she seemed to be giving updates on what was happening at Earth. And it seemed like she was helping cover for me... or something.

But it would also always end in the same way. After her chat, she would look at me and then start tearing up. She always seemed to be on the verge of saying something, but at the last minute, she would shake her head and then leave, turning back into Baek Haeju as she did.

Following her, Flone would show up. While it was a bit random when, my silver-haired Saintess would always appear an hour or two after Seonhwa. Like her, Flone chatted about her day. But unlike the others, she was genuinely happy and smiling.

I couldn't hear her, but she took the time to speak slowly and always in my view. As if she knew that I could read her lips... No, as if expecting that I could, she spoke close to my face so I could clearly see her speak.

Or maybe she was trying to be romantic. I wasn't sure, but I managed to make out the gist of things.

Going about her day, keeping everything together, waiting for me to wake up... And saying that she believed in me. And that she would wait, no matter how long it took.

After finishing, Flone would give a gentle kiss on my forehead and then leave.

...I definitely didn't deserve someone like that. But at the same time, I was too selfish to not accept that fact.

Knowing that Flone was waiting patiently for me while at the same time, only being able to do the same...

Was this how that wannabe defender of justice felt chasing his dream in the faint hopes of a miracle to meet the king waiting at Avalon...?

Either way, it was painful.

But I never had much time to dwell on it, because the moment Flone left, it would always be a barrage of random visitors. Well, 'random' in the sense that they changed every day, but they were all people I knew.

Cinzia visited once to wish me well... While ranting a bit to Claire, who came with her. Claire, who would turned red after Cinzia's words before shooing her away. Then, alone with me, Claire fiddled with the ring on her left ring finger and said that I had to take responsibility.

...At least, that was what I thought she said. Hopefully not... but knowing her...

Hao came by once, leaving me with a fruit basket and a get well card. 

Hannah showed up one time, going on a tirade before calming down and wiping away tears... Definitely needed to apologize to her.

Seora showed up as well. When she saw me the first time, she broke down sobbing. But after that, it seemed that she was determined, since her face was always focused afterwards. She also seemed to be giving me a report of some kind whenever she showed up... Something about waiting for my move and slowly removing corrupt executives?

...Was she serious about taking over Sinyoung then? No, with what I had done, that wouldn't be too hard. In that case...

Sora showed up every now and then. From what I could make out from her chats, she said that she was taking a break and staying on Earth to sort things out. I think she said that I had better wake up though... And I was fairly sure that she mentioned something about hunting me down if I didn't...

Maria showed up once to rant at me as well before breaking down into tears. But after that, she seemed determined and ran off, hugging the modified copy of the Proof of Chastitas I gave her to her chest.

...Worrisome, but nothing I could do. At the least, I knew she wouldn't be in any danger.

Ghio showed up with a beautiful silver-haired woman at his side. While the woman seemed a bit confused and had a haunted air about her, she lit up when with Ghio. And the two of them seemed genuinely happy, if not a bit weary.

Now, if it was just that, I'd be fine with it. But the two always visited with a bundle of incense sticks and then did a whole ceremony, kowtowing to the ground and everything when they did.

Goddammit, Ghio! That's what you do for dead people to send them off, not for people recovering from illness!

...That was what I wanted to tell him every time I saw it. Unfortunately, my words didn't reach them. But I appreciated the sentiment.

Kazuki swung by with his younger sister one time. They didn't stay long though, just wishing me well... probably. Although it looked like Yui was doing well. Her eyes were bright again and she babbled on and on, having to get dragged out by Kazuki. That was good. It seemed like she wasn't traumatized at least... and considering how she seemed younger than Jinhee... it was really great that she was fine.

Seol-Ah and Sungjin visited me too. But only once. When they saw me, they looked devastated. But then they immediately looked determined afterwards and walked off with fire in their eyes.

...Literally in Seol-Ah's case, which was worrying. Did she manage to figure out how to imbue her mana with elements?

Those were most of the guests that came by. My other friends and acquaintances visited as well, like Muto, Ian, and Maldong but their trips were always short.

Around sunset, Teresa showed up. When she did, she would bring a small basket of food and eat it with me. Well, 'with me' in the sense that she ate beside me. It seemed like I wasn't allowed proper food yet.

Like the others, Teresa seemed to chat about her day. And like Flone, she did so in a lively manner. But her pink eyes couldn't hide her concern. Neither could she hide her sighs whenever she looked at me.

But she would always stay with me until the moon rose. And when it did, she would fiddle with a pink diamond bracelet around her wrist and let out a sigh. Afterwards, she would let out a soft smile and give me a chaste kiss on my forehead before bidding me farewell.

And like that, time passed.

One day. Two, three...

A week. Two weeks...

And on the third week-

"It's so ridiculous, you know?"

-I could hear again.

Chohong sat at the foot of my bed, facing me from a chair flipped the other way so that she could lean on the backrest.

"Maria's been running around Paradise like a madwoman, taking on quests left and right. The kids have been going with her too... And they've been just as crazy, training from morning to midnight with Maria healing them when their bodies give out."

Dammit. I needed to scold those two when I got up... And Maria for enabling them.

"I'm sure you know this by now, but Ghio's been taking a break from Paradise for a bit. Since you killed Vulgar Chastity, his fiancée managed to break free from her control. ...She's a bit different now, and she went through a lot. But she's alive, and they're taking time back on Earth to help her get through it. Should be fine though. Marika Larisa was a pretty tough woman in the first place... She was pretty famous, you know? The only magician who used photons instead of other elements... You could probably learn a lot from her. It's weird though. I always thought Ghio was made of steel, but with her, he's practically putty!"

Haha... Yeah. I could see that. Ghio loved her a lot... It was good to hear that it didn't end in tragedy.

Chohong shook her head and gave me a faint smile. "You crazy bastard. Dammit, Oppa. You just can't help but keep pulling off miracles, can you?"

Sorry, Chohong. Can't help it. Bad habit from free lancing.

"I heard that Gramps leveled up recently. That perverted bastard Ian did too. And while they didn't tell anyone in public why that happened... They said it was because of you. Because you gave them both a gift before the battle just in case."

Oh, they did, huh? ...Must have meant my body was worse off than I thought in that case.

Chohong kept smiling at me. But then her smile dropped and she started to shake. "...Oppa. Did you know that this would happen?" She whispered and looked at me. "No. You must have known. Otherwise you wouldn't have set up so many contingencies. This battle... You were planning to die, weren't you?"

Hey, I was planning for the worst case scenario, not planning to make it happen. Big difference there!

...But of course, my thoughts didn't reach her.

Chohong stood up and then knelt beside me. Leaning over to look into my eyes, she said, "Hey, Oppa... How much longer are you going to sleep? Outside, all of Paradise is celebrating humanity's first victory. They're cheering your name down the streets, calling you the greatest hero alive. A miracle worker. So..." Her clear eyes began to tear up. "...How much longer do we have to wait?"

Chohong...

She shook her head and said, "D-Dammit...! You bastard...! Why did you have to do this to me? E-Every time... Every time I think you're going to die, you don't. But this time... The one time I think you'll be fine, you end up like this." She started to tear up and then got out of her chair, walking to the side of my bed. Staring into my eyes with tears running down her cheeks, she said, "A-Are you still mad at me about the first time we met? About me calling you Oppa? F-Fine. J-Just... wake up." Her legs gave out and she knelt to the ground. After that, she buried her face against my chest and muttered, "Just wake up. I don't care anymore. Yell at me, curse me out, tease me... A-A-As long as you're here with us again..." She trailed off, letting out muffled sobs.

I watched her for a bit and then sighed. Mentally, of course.

My body... should be fine now. My senses weren't all back, but if I could hear, that meant that I at least 'had' a body.

So I focused.

A crying and begging Chohong just wasn't right. So I had to fix that.

...Empty. My body was absolutely drained and felt like heavy steel bars. When I tried to move it, I couldn't. At least, my thoughts didn't connect with my body.

But that was fine.

If my body didn't want to naturally move, I'd just move it myself.

I focused again. This time, instead of my body, I focused on the void that took the place of my energy core.

A boundless expanse. My consciousness shuddered, almost sucked in. And if it was, I had a feeling it'd take forever to get back out.

But it seemed like my own abilities had a failsafe for that. No, perhaps responding to my will, the attractive force stopped at the last moment and reversed, giving me energy. A thin, gossamer thread of energy that looked like it could snap at any moment.

But energy that could cut apart those Army Commanders in a single moment if I wanted to now.

The moment I touched that, I 'felt' it.

A sort of secondary control system separate from my nerves. Or rather, artificial nerves in place of the ones that I currently lacked. You know, since my body had literally been just recently reconstructed from being vaporized.

With that, I opened my eyes and moved my arm to brush Chohong's hair with my hand.

She froze and then quickly raised her head. "O-Oppa?" Her eyes were wide in disbelief, tears completely forgotten as she stared at me.

I forced a smile and then opened my mouth to talk... Or so I planned. But nothing came out.

Chohong shook her head. "No! Don't strain yourself. Oppa... J-Just... Sit tight! I'll get some water- No, I'll go get Miss Yuhui! And Ian! And Gramps!" She stumbled backwards, landing on her butt. Even so, she didn't care and scrambled to her feet, running off.

Wait. Chohong, I don't-

Before I could manage to vocalize my thoughts by recreating them with soundwaves, she was gone.

...Dammit.

Note to self. Make a mental soundboard in the future-

Scratch that. Make automated tools to help out in these sorts of situations in the future.

But for now... I guess I could take a look at my Status Window? Just to see the damage...

xxx

[Your Status Window]
[1. General Information]
Summoned Date: March 16th, 2017
Marking Grade: Gold
Sex/Age: Male/24
Height/Weight: 180.5cm/82.2 kg
Current Condition: Recovering

Class: Lv. 5 (Karmic Blade)
Nationality: Republic of Korea (Area 1)
Affiliation: Carpe Diem
Alias: Jihu, Unyielding Emperor, Humanity's Hero, Miracle Incarnate, Sword Saint, Crazy Son of a Bitch, Insane Bastard, Vicious Heartbreaker, Stupid Oppa, Legendary Benefactor, Godslayer (and 10+ more).

[2. Traits]
1. Temperament:
- Analytical (Takes in all the information to consider the situation)
- Decisive (Once a decision is made, immediately acts with force)
- Invictus (You are the master of your own soul, the captain of your own fate. No one but yourself can determine your path.)

2. Aptitude:
- Immeasurably Insightful (Can perceive patterns and information from the barest of traces at a level that seems impossible.)
- Iterative (Continuously refines progress from quick reflection and contemplation)

[3. Physical Level]
Strength: EX
Endurance: EX
Agility: EX
Stamina: Transcendent
Magic: Transcendent
Luck: Transcendent

[4. Abilities]
1. Innate Abilities (6)
- Karmic Eyes of Destiny (Immeasurable)
- Transcendent Insight (Immeasurable)
- Enduring Soul (Immeasurable)
- Conceptual Manipulation (Immeasurable)
- Chaotic Resolution (Immeasurable)
- All as One (Immeasurable)

2. Job-Related Abilities (1)
Unbound Karmic Sword (Ungraded) - Cause and effect. Natural consequences. Order and Chaos, harmony and dissonance. A blade that defies all such concepts to sever and bind, unify and separate.

3. Other Abilities (0)
[5. Level of Cognition]
Miraculous (One who can turn dreams into reality)/Contemplative/Karmic Rule(Malice with Malice, Goodwill with Goodwill, and karma to rule it all)

xxx

Oh.

Well... I guess that was a thing?

25