When Seol Jihu regained his consciousness, he realized he was comfortable.
The burning sensation over his entire body and the rampaging pain tearing up his insides had vanished without a trace.
Everything was silent.
Suddenly, he realized that it was because he was held by someone that made him so comfortable.
Even in a semi-conscious state, he could feel the thighs supporting his neck.
And there was a fragrant smell.
The warm scent of flesh caressed his nose.
Seol Jihu sniffed and instinctively snuggled into the fragrant comfort.
When he felt something soft against his cheeks, he chose to bury his face in it.
A small smile bloomed at the corner of his mouth as a soft, squishy sensation enveloped his face.
He knew he was acting like a spoiled child.
Nevertheless, Seol Jihu didn’t want to separate from the warmth he felt after a long time.
One of the hardest things about training alone was loneliness.
Climbing a mountain day and night with no one to talk to or lean on was more lonely than he’d expected.
With every step he took, his longing for Jang Maldong’s scoldings kept growing.
He missed the voices of his comrades and the way they filled the air.
In the end, he just wanted to talk to someone, anyone.
Put simply, he missed people.
And so, like a spoiled child, Seol Jihu continued to snuggle into the warmth.
He didn’t want to miss the scent of another human being.
He felt so good that if this was a dream, he never wanted to wake up.
Just as his consciousness was about to slip, Seol Jihu’s eyes suddenly twitched.
He felt a hand brushing his forehead.
At first, he thought he was mistaken. But then the hand began to rumple his hair gently.
‘It wasn’t a dream…?’
Seol Jihu slowly opened his eyes.
He saw a pale face and black hair melting into the night sky.
His vision was blurred and he had trouble recognizing the face, but even through the haziness, he could tell the pouring moonlight was definitely contributing to the dreamlike atmosphere.
He blurted out when his eyes caught a glimpse of a white garment resembling a priest’s robe.
And then, he blinked rapidly a few times.
He realized Seo Yuhui couldn’t possibly be here.
Then, just who was this person?
Seol Jihu’s vision sharpened and his eyes opened wide.
He sprang up and broke away from the warmth, kicking the ground with both feet.
He then saw a green spear and a white robe.
A mystical woman, exuding a vibe similar to that of a martial arts expert, was looking at him with calm eyes.
“…Miss Baek Haeju?”
Baek Haeju, who was staring at him, sighed quietly.
She got up slowly, adjusting her clothes so that her front was no longer exposed.
Flustered, Seol Jihu got up with her.
Looking around, he could still see the huge mountain, so high that its peak was lost in the clouds.
He also saw the boulder that, whenever he failed the trial, would roll down the mountain and stop at the same spot every time.
It seemed that he had returned to the starting point.
Seol Jihu desperately tried to recollect what had happened.
He remembered failing right before he was about to pass the first trial.
He sat there for a while in frustration before collecting himself and crossing the first checkpoint without pushing on the boulder — that is, without passing the first trial — wondering what the second and third trial would look like.
‘As soon as I passed the first checkpoint, all restrictions were lifted, and I easily passed the second trial. And then….’
When he stepped onto the path leading to the mountain peak past the second checkpoint, the world around him changed instantly.
Darkness surrounded him, and his brother and sister were….
Seol Jihu’s face darkened as he recalled each and every moment of his experience at that time.
It was a terrible experience, especially when his body and mouth moved on their own and reenacted the past. He never wanted to have such an experience again.
That was the last thing he remembered, and when he regained consciousness, he had returned to the starting point, his head resting on Baek Haeju’s lap.
Either he died and was automatically moved to the start, or Baek Haeju moved him herself.
He thought it might have been the former, but he was more concerned about how Baek Haeju was able to enter this space.
“Are you really… Miss Baek Haeju?”
Seol Jihu asked curiously. Part of him still had doubts that she could be an illusion.
Baek Haeju spoke slowly.
“The Path of the Soul is a place that only those with the Divine Stigmata can enter. So there is no reason I wouldn’t be able to.”
Seol Jihu stood in a daze, unable to wrap his head around her words. Baek Haeju let out a deep sigh.
She then pulled up her robe and revealed her fair skin.
At first, Seol Jihu was taken aback by her sudden exposure, but then he noticed something across her stomach.
Above her small but shapely navel, he saw a thin scar.
The scar had a faint blue glow.
“I entered this space at Ira’s discretion when I was level 5.”
Baek Haeju explained, pulling down her robe to its original position.
“At that time I chose to receive two trials and passed them after a long suffering.”
Only then did Seol Jihu give a small gasp.
Come to think of it, Sacred Empress was the first Level 8 in the history of Paradise.
Even though she wasn’t an executor, she was a receiver of the Divine Vestige.
This meant she had walked the Path of the Soul before him.
He already knew that. It only slipped his mind because of the stress the trial had put on him.
“Does that mean you came back for me? Or….”
“As soon as I returned to Paradise, Miss Kim Hannah asked me to meet her.”
Baek Haeju said.
“She told me she’d set aside my share of the loot, and that… you wished to talk to me. But you were already gone when I got there. That’s when she told me the details.”
“Ah, so that’s why….”
As much as it sounded like a prepared answer, it made sense, and Seol Jihu didn’t object.
“Yes, I told her to tell you that. But before that… Thank you for your help. I don’t remember what happened, but I feel like I was pushed into a pretty dangerous situation….”
Seol Jihu smacked his lips and bowed down his head.
“Are you all done?”
However, instead of recognizing his gratitude, Baek Haeju raised her voice.
“Now can I ask you a couple of questions?”
She sounded a little angry, and Seol Jihu unwittingly nodded his head.
“What on earth were you thinking?”
Baek Haeju’s eyes narrowed.
“Why did you ask for three trials?”
“…How did you know?”
“Back then, the mountain wasn’t as high as it is now. I could see the peak from here.”
The words danced out of her mouth without a moment of hesitation.
“But now, the peak is invisible. One trial is hard enough, and you asked for three. How exactly do you plan on passing them?”
She was right.
Now that he had some experience with the trials, he understood why she was so concerned.
“In a space where time passes ten times faster than normal, training alone without anyone to interact with is enough to drive a person crazy….”
Baek Haeju bit her lower lip.
“The Spirit Realm Expedition was inevitable, but this could easily have been prevented. Didn’t Gula stop you?”
“And you still pushed ahead with it even though the goddess stopped you? It was your choice?”
When Seol Jihu didn’t answer, Baek Haeju furrowed her brows slightly and glared at him.
“Are you that greedy? Or do you enjoy danger?”
He couldn’t tell whether she was worried or angry.
‘And she speaks casually from time to time.’
This woman really was hard to figure out. He’d felt the same way when he fought with her against Raging Temperance.
From Seol Jihu’s perspective, Baek Haeju had no reason to worry about or criticize him.
Still, she did help him and take care of him.
“That’s not it.”
Seol Jihu spoke, scratching the side of his head.
“I just wanted to become stronger.”
Baek Haeju frowned further.
“The expedition and the war made me realize that I can’t stay this way. I need more power to defeat the Parasites.”
“I know I’m being greedy. And I knew the trials would be difficult. Of course, I never imagined that it’d be this bad, but… Anyway, that’s all. I’m not doing this because I enjoy danger.”
His reason was simple but sincere.
“I understand what you’re trying to say, but….”
Baek Haeju gave a small sigh and softened her face.
The end of her sentence faded because she realized he was telling the truth.
She didn’t know what else to say.
“…But it’s all meaningless if you get hurt in the process.”
After a moment of silence, she muttered with forlorn eyes.
“If you eat in a hurry, you’re bound to get an upset stomach.”
A small burst of laughter escaped Seol Jihu’s lips.
As a confused look crossed Baek Haeju’s face, Seol Jihu explained with a smile.
“I never imagined I’d hear that from you.”
“‘If you eat in a hurry, you’re bound to get an upset stomach.’ My childhood friend used to say that, too. She said that I was too impatient….”
“She sounds wise.”
Baek Haeju remarked calmly.
A momentary silence descended.
Talking was fun, perhaps because he hadn’t done it in a long time, but he couldn’t just sit here forever.
Seol Jihu recalled the purpose he was here for.
It was time to get back to the trials.
He knew he’d fail and become frustrated again. Still, after talking to Baek Haeju, he felt much better.
‘Should I ask her to come visit me from time to time?’
It’d take quite a long time for him to reach the top of the mountain.
So having no choice but to consider a prolonged stay, he thought it would be of great help if Baek Haeju could visit him occasionally.
Relieving his loneliness would certainly boost his morale as it did now.
Seol Jihu agonized over whether or not to ask her.
It was then.
“The trials are set in stone from the moment you start walking. From then on, you’re given only two choices: to reach the peak, or to quit.”
Baek Haeju’s voice rang out.
What she meant was that once the trial began, he couldn’t increase or reduce the number of trials he wished to receive.
“As long as you’re human, you have your limits. Sometimes determination alone isn’t enough to achieve the impossible. As you climb the mountain, the difficulty of the trials will also rise. They may break your mind and disrupt your head.”
Seol Jihu listened to her attentively, for he had already experienced all that she was warning him.
“Knowing that, do you still want to proceed?”
Baek Haeju raised her eyes and stared at the young man.
Seol Jihu answered without hesitation.
Baek Haeju shook her head lightly as if she’d expected his answer.
“And you’re not going to quit?”
When she asked again, Seol Jihu thought for a moment before replying.
“Giving up… seems like a waste. More importantly, I won’t be able to raise my head in front of everyone if I quit now.”
He spoke with emphasis.
“I’d like to give it another try. I know it’s dangerous. I can’t say for sure that I’m going to pass, but I’ll try to my heart’s content. And if I am still unable to pass after that, I’ll quit.”
Baek Haeju blurted out.
Seol Jihu’s eyes widened.
“What do you mean nothing? You just said ‘very funny’.”
Vexed, Baek Haeju opened her mouth and closed it again.
‘I know that for you, trying to your heart's content means taking any risk to achieve your goal,’ was what she seemed to want to say, but she averted her eyes.
“That wasn’t me. That was the Tathagata Spear.”
“Tathagata Spear… You mean that spear?”
“Yes, this spear has consciousness. ‘Very funny’ is what it said to me when it heard your answer.”
“I said it out loud by mistake. I apologize.”
The Tathagata Spear buzzed.
For it to react like that, what she said about the spear must have been true.
But for some reason, the spear’s buzzing seemed to protest its innocence.
‘I guess it makes sense since the Spear of Purity also has consciousness…. Anyway, what a strange person.’
Seol Jihu gazed at Baek Haeju suspiciously, recalling Little Chick’s words about her ‘mask’.
“Anyway, I understand what you’re thinking.”
Baek Haeju let out a dry cough.
“The goal of the first trial must be to push that boulder up to the first checkpoint.”
She ignored Seol Jihu’s gaze and turned her body around, casually changing the topic.
Slowly, she approached the boulder.
And then she spoke.
She began to push the boulder.
“Miss Baek Haeju. Wait a minute.”
Seol Jihu called her, but Baek Haeju quickly moved away from him.
She was incredibly fast, even as she pushed a boulder as big as an adult man.
“…I’m supposed to face the trial alone.”
Seol Jihu grumbled but changed his mind the next moment.
‘Wait a minute. Maybe she’s trying to show me something?’
He couldn’t exactly figure out Baek Haeju, but it was true that she had passed the trials before him.
Perhaps by observing her movements he would gain a decisive hint on how to climb to the top of the mountain.
Just watching her would help him greatly.
Thinking so, Seol Jihu followed after Baek Haeju in a hurry.
Baek Haeju climbed the slope with little effort, perhaps by using mana.
She pushed up the boulder with one hand, reached the first checkpoint, and looked back at Seol Jihu.
“What’s the second trial like?”
“Mister Seol Jihu?”
“…I don’t know.”
Baek Haeju blinked in confusion.
Seol Jihu slowly averted his eyes from the woman.
“Does that mean… you didn’t even pass the first trial, and you climbed up?”
“Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t trying to cheat. I was just curious about what was next. Also, I felt really frustrated and thought maybe I could get a hint if I climbed up.”
Seol Jihu confessed and Baek Haeju closed her eyes.
She had a lot to say but suppressed the urge to criticize.
Baek Haeju opened her eyes again and stared at the slope leading to the second checkpoint. She thought to herself for a moment, and then pushed the boulder up the road.
Soon dozens of boulders began rolling down towards Baek Haeju, both in front and beside her, as she had expected.
But Baek Haeju didn’t stop.
She kept pushing up the boulder, raising the Tathagata Spear towards the sky.
‘How is she going to get through here?’
Seol Jihu watched with anticipation before his eyes widened in surprise.
Dozens of green sword qi shot out from the tip of the Tathagata Spear.
Like a fountain, the sword qi shot up towards the sky and exploded like fireworks in the air as they flew towards the boulders raining down on them from all sides.
Seol Jihu’s jaw dropped in awe as he watched Baek Haeju crush the boulders into million pieces.
He couldn’t help but admire the way she controlled her sword qi.
Baek Haeju waited for the debris to sink then started pushing the boulder again.
‘Will I be able to do what she did when I come here again after passing the first trial…?’
After much thought, Seol Jihu shook his head.
Even if he could somehow split his sword qi, he couldn’t control it as precisely as Baek Haeju.
‘Should I train my sword qi…? No, before that, I have to find out what the second trial is about.’
As Seol Jihu passed the second checkpoint, he was lost in deep thought. But when he felt something against his chest, he came to his senses.
The back of Baek Haeju’s head was touching him.
He wondered why she stopped. Then he noticed that her shoulders, no, her whole body was shaking.
Seol Jihu soon realized why.
Baek Haeju had already set foot on the trail past the second checkpoint leading to the peak.
‘This place is….’
This was where everything darkened and his past traumas began hunting him.
“Miss Baek Haeju.”
There was no answer.
Baek Haeju opened her mouth wide and quickly closed it.
A drop of saliva from her clenched lips fell to the ground.
Seol Jihu reached out his arm to grab her, but Baek Haeju quickly raised her hand and gestured for him to stop.
The way she reacted to his movement was evidence that she was still conscious.
In fact, her other hand was still firmly supporting the boulder.
But it scared him that her whole body was trembling uncontrollably.
After one minute, which felt more like ten, Baek Haeju exhaled.
She immediately took a step back and lowered her head, wiping the saliva near her mouth.
“Are you alright?”
Baek Haeju didn’t answer.
“Reenacting past traumas through illusions… and even reproducing physical pain, torturing both the mind and the body… Gula, you asshole….”
She muttered to herself before spinning around to face Seol Jihu.
Her eyes flashed with resolution and defiance.
“Hold onto this.”
Baek Haeju swallowed her breath, held the Tathagata Spear upside down, and pointed it towards Seol Jihu.
When Seol Jihu grabbed the spear without resisting, suddenly an enormous stream of energy gushed out of Baek Haeju’s body.
Likewise, a burst of green energy shot out from the Tathagata Spear and gently embraced Seol Jihu.
It was a strange feeling.
One might call it ‘clear mirror, still water’.
Refreshing energy seeped into Seol Jihu’s body, helping to calm his body and mind.
“Close your eyes and focus on the energy.”
Seol Jihu closed his eyes as told.
He held tightly onto the Tathagata Spear as Baek Haeju led him up the slope.
His fears weren’t completely gone, but he tried to stifle them and concentrate on the energy.
Feeling a steep slope beneath his feet, Seol Jihu exclaimed inside his head.
Something was definitely different this time.
Earlier, he had lost all his senses before he even felt he had stepped on the ground.
But this time the energy surrounding him seemed to be protecting his mind and body.
‘So this is one way to pass through here.’
Judging by the color of the energy, Baek Haeju seemed to have used the power of the anti-evil attribute, also known as holy water.
Seol Jihu’s energy was similar, only with different colors.
‘I’ll ask if she can teach me when we get to the top.’ Seol Jihu thought and hurried his steps.
Suddenly the sound of the rolling boulder stopped.
At the same time, Seol Jihu stopped because he felt a slight push in his hand, which was clutching the spear.
Baek Haeju seemed to have stopped climbing once again.
‘What’s going on?’
He wondered if he should open his eyes.
It was then that he heard a sharp voice from above.
Seol Jihu doubted his ears.
He hadn’t spoken.
And it wasn’t Baek Haeju’s voice either.
He’d never heard this voice before. No, wait— but had he? For some reason, the voice sounded familiar to his ears.
“That guy behind you, he doesn’t deserve to be here yet. Go back.”
Seol Jihu opened his eyes.
Previous Chapter Next Chapter
Sorry for the late upload! I dozed off... haha.