Chapter 369. The Awaiting One (3)

What Seol Jihu saw when he first opened his eyes was a boulder.

A boulder that had grown to the size of a house was filling his line of sight.

At that moment, Baek Haeju, who was standing in front of him absent-mindedly, stretched her left arm to the side.

Surprisingly, the boulder moved on its own as if it was remotely attached to Baek Haeju’s hand, and then it rolled down.

Only then did Seol Jihu’s vision clear up.

Seol Jihu’s breath paused while being astonished at Baek Haeju’s display of skill.

But then, he was shocked speechless when he saw what was in front of him.

It was the same for Baek Haeju. Her widened eyes were tinged with strong disbelief.

It was because the man sitting on the altar at the mountain peak with his arms crossed and looking down arrogantly… was none other than Seol Jihu.

Baek Haeju’s head blitzed to the side.

Seeing Seol Jihu standing dazedly behind her, she turned back to the mountain peak.

No matter how many times she looked, there were two Seol Jihus.

After a few seconds of being at a complete loss for words, Baek Haeju came to her senses and noticed the slight difference between the Seol Jihu standing behind her and the Seol Jihu sitting on the altar.

Their faces and outer appearances were the same… but they had completely different atmospheres.

There was a saying that an individual’s personality was reflected by their face.

The Seol Jihu that Baek Haeju knew was someone who was suited to a cheerful smile. His playfulness sometimes made him seem like a child, but this simplicity was what made him charming.

However, the Seol Jihu on the mountain peak was the opposite.

His face was dark like he hadn’t seen the light of day for a long time, and his lips were tightly shut as if he was a monk practicing asceticism.

His slightly raised brows seemed proud and sharp-tempered.

His pupils, which were tinged with inexplicable sadness, reflected weariness at times and a fierce, demonic resentment at others.

Most importantly, tremendous charisma emanated from his body in secret.

It was easy to see just from the reddish-black stains and dirt spots on his rusted black armor and faded spear that he was an experienced veteran who toiled away at gruesome battlefields for at least ten years.

It was at this point in time that Baek Haeju noticed where her feeling of déjà vu was coming from.

She had never met an Earthling, who gave off such powerful pressure. But thinking about it carefully, she recalled one person.

A man who not only showed no fear against the Parasite Army Commanders but also toyed with them as if they were mere children.

Right, it was at the Arden Valley war…

“Didn’t you hear me?”

As Baek Haeju’s thoughts continued, an annoyed voice rang out.

Black-armored Seol Jihu stood up from the altar.

He dusted off his butt and trudged over.

“Go back down. Don’t even dream about stepping onto the peak until you pass the trials.”

He spoke with his hands in his pockets like a local delinquent.

“…You.”

Baek Haeju’s eyes narrowed.

“Who are you?”

“Me? Well, how should I say this…”

Black-armored Seol Jihu scratched his nose.

“I can’t tell you the truth, to be honest, but I guess you can think of me as a helper.”

He spoke apathetically before twisting the corner of his mouth in a smirk.

“Though, I don’t really feel like helping yet.”

He was talking to the other Seol Jihu, who was staring at him blankly.

Black-armored Seol Jihu clicked his tongue and faced Baek Haeju.

“Anyway, take it easy.”

“…What?”

“I mean, don’t overdo it. Even a lion throws its cub off a cliff when the time is right. How long are you going to baby him? Are you going to spoil him your entire life?”

With a stern warning, black-armored Seol Jihu turned back to the dazed Seol Jihu and snorted.

“Aren’t you embarrassed?”

“….”

“You climbed up without passing the trials, collapsed like a bug, and then threw a fit. It wouldn’t be enough even if you clenched your teeth and crawled up, and all you could come up with was to scurry up while hiding behind a woman’s ass?”

Harsh criticism came out.

“Snap out of it, buddy. Have some shame.”

Strength entered Seol Jihu’s pupils.

He felt falsely accused.

He wasn’t trying to borrow Baek Haeju’s strength to pass the trials. He was simply trying to see how to get through them.

After all, the trials wouldn’t acknowledge him as passing if he didn’t complete them alone.

“!”

So just as he was about to say something, Seol Jihu felt his arm being yanked.

Pulling on her spear, Baek Haeju stepped on the peak.

“…Jeez, you know it’s of no use.”

Black-armored Seol Jihu spoke.

“Move it.”

However, Baek Haeju didn’t back down.

“As I said, it’s no use.”

“Did I not make myself clear?”

A somewhat threatening voice came out.

Baek Haeju fixed her grip on the Tathagata Spear as if to show that she wasn’t afraid of resorting to force.

Black-armored Seol Jihu dropped his head and smacked his lips.

“Do you really need to go that far?”

“This is the final warning. Helper or whatever, get out of the way.”

“Haeju, you know I hate repeating myself. How many times has it been now?”

“Shut up. Don’t talk like you know me.”

Blurting out in a threatening voice, Baek Haeju raised the Tathagata spear at last.

Black-armored Seol Jihu slowly raised his head.

“Haa. I don’t want to fight you, but…”

After a deep sigh, his hollow pupils suddenly flashed under the moonlight.

“I guess I have no choice. I can’t give up on this chance. I’ve been waiting a long time for this moment, you see.”

With an enigmatic murmur, black-armored Seol Jihu reached behind his back and pulled out a faded spear.

It was a simple spear that didn’t look all that special, but the moment it entered his hands, an inexplicable pressure emanated out.

Suddenly, the atmospheric pressure strengthened.

Struck with an indescribable sense of foreboding, Baek Haeju gulped unwittingly.

The air touching her skin was sticky.

The empty peak filled up with a sharpness that would cut anything that moved.

The energy that the black-armored Seol Jihu was furtively releasing had materialized and seized control as soon as he grabbed his spear.

Baek Haeju could tell that his energy easily surpassed her own. In terms of killing intent alone, it surpassed even an Army Commander.

What was even more unbelievable was that black-armored Seol Jihu did not seem to be using his full strength.

It was as if this show of power was only a preparation for battle.

“Are you going to just stand there?”

Black-armored Seol Jihu batted his spear.

Their eyes met.

Baek Haeju’s expression distorted, and the corner of black-armored Seol Jihu’s mouth curled up.

In the next moment, Baek Haeju kicked off the ground. Her white ceremonial dress fluttered like a flag in a rainstorm.

The Tathagata Spear suddenly forked three ways. The spear blade that shot out left and right curled like a whip and hurled towards black-armored Seol Jihu’s face and leg.

Of course, black-armored Seol Jihu didn’t just sit still.

He ducked down, revealing his teeth in a grin.

Pang! The figure that disappeared with an explosive sound reappeared in front of Baek Haeju.

Baek Haeju reflexively swiping her spear up and black-armored Seol Jihu rushing in like a ferocious beast happened at the same time.

Clang!

An ear-splitting metallic clang rang out.

Next, a spear flew into the air, spinning.

It was the Tathagata Spear.

Baek Haeju froze with her empty hands stretched out, and black-armored Seol Jihu leaped past her and stopped after three or four steps.

Seol Jihu, who was watching their battle, doubted his eyes.

In truth, it ended so quickly that he didn’t even get a good look.

A single exchange was all it took to result in a one-sided loss.

Baek Haeju looked more taken aback than ever before.

She stayed frozen as if she couldn’t believe what she just experienced.

“Surprised?”

A voice rang out behind her.

“I bet you’re curious about how I know the Jade Spear Technique’s weakness.”

Baek Haeju shot back.

At the same time, the Tathagata Spear came swirling down.

Once the green spear stabbed into the ground, Baek Haeju looked down at it before raising her head.

Black-armored Seol Jihu reached out his hand to the spear and shrugged.

Sparks flew from Baek Haeju’s eyes. She pulled out the Tathagata Spear and roused her mana.

“You’re not done yet?”

Black-armored Seol Jihu asked with a dumbfounded expression.

Regardless, jade-colored energy began to undulate around Baek Haeju.

“Aaaaaaaaaah!”

Along with a high-pitched scream, sword qi shot out of the Tathagata Spear.

It was the same technique she showed while crossing the second path, just on a completely different scale.

The bouquet of sword qi that shot out like waterspouts formed an encircling net in an instant and pounced on the enemy.

However—

“Let’s stop.”

When Seol Jihu swung his spear like a bolt of lightning, a gaping cut was made on the left side of the net.

“You must have felt it too, right?”

When he swung his spear a second time, the right side was torn open, and the net was reduced to a rag.

Baek Haeju took in a deep breath. Suddenly, a bleak look flashed on her face. She felt like she was facing off against an Army Commander who had released their divinity.

However, she did not let go of her spear.

She immediately retrieved her energy and fused it together, forming a huge hail of sword qi to rise up.

Black-armored Seol Jihu shook his head. He stared at the hail sweeping down on him before raising his spear up high at the last moment.

A red light flashed from his eyes, and a large pillar shot out from the speartip that was pointing at the night sky.

This wasn’t sword qi.

It was too large to be considered a creation of sword qi. Rather, it seemed like a form of energy that was compressed to its limit.

Feeling its unprecedented destructive power, Baek Haeju widened her eyes.

“No… Way…”

Level 8 Spear Demon, Secret Art — Reinforced Sword Qi.

A huge storm descended on the hail.

Baek Haeju’s hail of sword qi pounced forward like a never-ending waterfall, but it significantly decreased in number as it made contact with the storm.

Like a piece of paper that fell into a shredder, the hail reduced in size and count before ultimately disappearing into nothingness.

But unlike the hail of sword qi that vanished in an instant, the reinforced sword qi was still going strong.

It descended without weakening a bit and stopped in front of Baek Haeju.

Her eyelids trembled.

“Reinforced sword qi… isn’t a skill that can be learned with contribution points…”

She fell on her knees.

Black-armored Seol Jihu then struck down with his spear.

Kwang! The earth exploded.

Just by hitting the ground, he caused the entire mountain to rumble.

Swept by the aftereffect of the explosion, Baek Haeju helplessly flew into the air with other debris.

“…I’d rather not kill you even though we’re in this space.”

Muttering bitterly, black-armored Seol Jihu confirmed Baek Haeju disappearing down the mountain before turning around.

Seol Jihu was standing dazedly in his spot. He was just as shocked, if not more, than Baek Haeju.

Though he couldn’t be sure, the energy that shot out of black-armored Seol Jihu’s spear was something beyond his current comprehension. His instincts told him that it was a technique far out of his reach.

Black-armored Seol Jihu’s strength could be easily surmised by how easily he defeated Baek Haeju, who was currently the strongest Earthling in Paradise.

“Frustrated that you can’t do anything?”

Hearing his counterpart’s voice, Seol Jihu snapped out of his daze.

“Listen, pal. If I were Sung Shihyun, Haeju would have been taken from you right here. You know that?”

Black-armored Seol Jihu approached Seol Jihu and nudged his shoulder playfully.

“How can you be scared of that retard? I’ve never once lost in a fight against him. Well, him absorbing Diligence’s divinity was outside of my expectations though.”

Black-armored Seol Jihu smirked.

“Anyway, if you’re frustrated…”

He slowly raised his foot.

“Climb back up after you hear the message that you passed the trial three times. With your own strength, of course.”

Puk. He kicked Seol Jihu’s stomach.

Not down the slope, but down the cliff.

Seol Jihu blinked.

Black-armored Seol Jihu grew farther away.

The last thing that the falling Seol Jihu saw before he hit the ground…

“I’ll see you down there!”

…was the black-armored Seol Jihu running down the slope after peeking down the cliff to check on him.

Koong!

*


“Keuk!”

Seol Jihu found himself at the starting point when he opened his eyes.

He sat on the ground, trembling at the pain of falling to death, before looking up at the peak with a burning gaze.

He gripped the Spear of Purity subconsciously…

“…”

But there was nothing he could do.

Black-armored Seol Jihu had defeated Baek Haeju easily.

Someone like him would only be killed in a second even if he tried to climb back up in a rage.

He didn’t even know whether he would succeed in climbing to the peak again.

After gritting his teeth for a long time, Seol Jihu put the Spear of Purity down.

He had confirmed the contents of the trials and saw what he had to do to pass them.

All that was left to do was start over again.

Seol Jihu trudged over and stood in front of the boulder.

Clenching his teeth hard, he put his hands on it and pushed hard.

*


“Do you mind going back?”

Baek Haeju was lying down on the slope, vacantly looking up at the night sky, when she heard a familiar voice and glanced to the side.

Black-armored Seol Jihu was looking down at her.

He looked sorry, which contrasted the cold, proud impression he initially gave off.

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you beforehand, but if you help him climb to the peak, it won’t count as passing the trials.”

“…What?”

Baek Haeju blinked in confusion.

“Unfortunately, his trials are different than yours.”

“Different? How so?”

“You insisted on doing everything alone, so Ira purposely made cooperation a necessity in your trials. That isn’t the case with him.”

Black-armored Seol Jihu put his thumb over his shoulder and pointed at the slope below.

“He has to complete the trials alone. That was what he strongly wished for too.”

The trials of the Path of the Soul changed depending on the desires of the person taking them, as well as the situation.

So even if the overarching content was the same, the details might differ.

This was the first time Baek Haeju was hearing about this.

But that was only natural given that she was the only one to have taken the trials to receive a divine vestige.

“You don’t even know the conditions for passing the second and third trials. You should have noticed it when you pushed the boulder up for him and there wasn’t a message saying that he passed.”

Baek Haeju spat out an empty laugh. She seemed to have been struck speechless.

“Now if you get that, please go back.”

Black-armored Seol Jihu spoke as he peered down at Seol Jihu struggling to push the boulder up the first peak.

“This is an important time for him. If it’s not fixed now, he’s never going to fix it.”

“….”

“I’m not telling you to stay away forever. You can drop by if you’re that worried. You can talk to him and even help him so long as it doesn’t directly influence the trial.”

“….”

“But for now, no. He’s not even at the starting point and he’s got a long way to go. So… please.”

Black-armored Seol Jihu asked in a serious voice.

Baek Haeju slowly got up, feeling an inexplicable desperation in his voice.

“…I will if you answer one question.”

“I don’t mind, but if your question is who I am, I can only say that I’m a helper. That’s the truth too.”

“What did you mean back then?”

Hearing this, the young man crossing his arms looked back at Baek Haeju.

“What, me breaking through your Jade Spear Technique? Or my reinforced sword qi?”

“You saying you’ve been waiting a long time for this moment.”

Baek Haeju glared at him sharply.

Black-armored Seol Jihu looked flustered as if he didn’t expect her to ask this question.

“Mm… how should I say this…”

He took a moment to think while staring back down the mountain path.

“I think I’m partially responsible for him ending up so out of balance.”

“?”

“I didn’t think the side-effect would be this bad. I wouldn’t have bolstered his growth if I knew… Ah, you probably don’t understand what I mean.”

“Do you care to explain?”

“I can’t even if I want to. You’re not allowed to know, and I’m not allowed to say.”

“….”

“That’s all I can say. If you really want to know, hear it from that guy. Later, of course.”

Black-armored Seol Jihu winked.

Baek Haeju gave a look seeking an explanation.

However, black-armored Seol Jihu’s tightly shut lips did not open again.

After a moment of silence, Baek Haeju quietly sighed before disappearing.

She had left the Path of the Soul and returned to Paradise.

“See you.”

Black-armored Seol Jihu waved his hand, then trudged down the slope.

*


“Keuk…”

Beads of sweat began to form on Seol Jihu’s forehead.

As expected, the boulder stopped in the same spot about thirty steps away from the first peak.

“You’re doing well. Keep at it.”

As he was struggling in place for a long time, he saw black-armored Seol Jihu trudging down the mountain slope. Black-armored Seol Jihu then waved at the confused Seol Jihu.

“Ah, since you already saw me, I figured I’d come and watch. I was going to show up once you passed the first trial, but you were taking too long.”

He came all the way down before plopping down on the ground near him.

“By the way, Haeju went back.”

“…Got it.”

“Don’t be so tense. You can talk casually.”

“I’m not the type to do that to someone I meet for the first time.”

“What do you mean, ‘first time’. You’re me, and I’m you.”

Seol Jihu didn’t reply. He simply focused on pushing the boulder with a red face.

“Hmm.”

Black-armored Seol Jihu rested his chin on his hand. He looked a little surprised.

“Interesting. I thought you’d at least ask who I am.”

“…I think I already know.”

Seol Jihu said without looking at black-armored Seol Jihu.

“Smart. Still, you’re not going to ask what I’m doing here or what my purpose is?”

“Regardless of who you are or what your goal is, don’t I still have to get through this trial alone?”

“Yep.”

“Then do I need to ask?”

“Uh… I guess not. You really got me there.”

Black-armored Seol Jihu shrugged, then crossed his arms.

Seol Jihu focused on his breathing and went back to concentrating on the boulder.

“….”

“….”

After quite some time passed by in silence, Seol Jihu glanced sideways.

“…….Why’d you come out?”

“Kek—”

Black-armored Seol Jihu put his head down as his shoulders moved up and down. He seemed to be holding in his laughter.

“Alright, that was cute.”

Seol Jihu’s face reddened, perhaps from blood rushing to his face.

“Why I came out? To be honest, it’s to switch souls.”

Black-armored Seol Jihu said with a serious expression.

Seol Jihu jumped in a startle. His hands almost slipped from the boulder.

“Switch souls?”

“Yep, you were just too frustrating to watch, so Gula begged me behind the scenes to take over your body. Of course, that isn’t exactly easy, so I plan to strengthen your body through the trials before stealing it.”

“Gula-nim asked you to?”

“Yep. And since she knew you’d be shocked, she told me to let you know that she’s sorry. And also—”

Black-armored Seol Jihu cleared his throat.

“That it was a joke.”

“….”

Seol Jihu’s tension evaporated in an instant. A dumbstruck expression emerged on his face.

How could he joke in this situation?

“Hahahaha! I’m kidding, I’m kidding. I can’t, even if I want to.”

Black-armored Seol Jihu cracked up and clapped his hands.

“But it’s true that I thought about it on more than a few occasions. You have no idea how frustrated I felt while watching you. You have so many resources, especially compared to what I had, but you don’t know how to use them at all!”

“….”

“And that’s not all. I reaaaaally want to beat you up every time you say ‘pArdON?’, ‘yES?’, or ‘huh?’ If I were you, I would’ve banged Shin Sang-Ah, starting all the way back in the Tutorial.”

“….”

Seol Jihu looked back at the boulder with a snort. He decided it was no longer worth replying to him.

…He inwardly understood how Chohong and Phi Sora must have felt in the past.

“Oh yeah, do you wanna hear something interesting? Not all Level 8s are the same.”

When Seol Jihu didn’t reply, black-armored Seol Jihu laughed and changed the subject.

“Experience, ability, temperament, physical level, and the direction of growth… The level of an Earthling, you see, is only an indicator of the minimum standard. The same goes for stats.”

He continued smoothly.

“Just because two Earthlings have Intermediate (High) strength stat, doesn’t mean they’re equal in physical strength. Consider the ranks on a scale from 1 to 100, from Lowest-rank to Pinnacle-rank. Of course, there’s a rank beyond Pinnacle-rank, but we can ignore it for now since it’s beyond the realm of a human being.”

Despite trying hard to ignore him, Seol Jihu found himself paying attention to his alternate self.

“If you look at the stages within Intermediate-rank… Intermediate (Low) would probably be around 55 and Intermediate (High) would probably be around 85. You see the huge gap in between?”

Seol Jihu nodded his head.

He knew this already, but this was the first time he was hearing about such a detailed, quantifiable breakdown.

“Since your strength stat just reached Intermediate (High)… let’s see, I guess it would be in mid-to-late 70s.”

Black-armored Seol Jihu held his head straight.

“Work a little harder and raise it to early-to-mid 80s. It’ll still be in the Intermediate (High) rank, but you’ll see a noticeable difference.”

From mid-to-late 70s to early-to-mid 80s.

It probably wasn’t as easy as it sounded. Though the numerical difference was small, raising one’s physical level became harder the higher-ranked one got.

But it was still a good piece of advice.

Having progression be quantifiable was much better than simply knowing the different ranks and stages. It helped clear up the vague differentiation in the many ranks and sub-ranks.

“…I thought you weren’t allowed to help me.”

“I’m not supposed to provide help for the trials. I can watch and say a word or two… Also, I think you’re misunderstanding something.”

Black-armored Seol Jihu continued.

“I can complete the trials for you.”

“What?”

“Think about it. Who are you?”

“Huh?”

“Who am I?”

Seol Jihu wanted to ask if he was kidding once more but instead did a doubletake.

Thinking about it now, the trials had to be completed by ‘Seol Jihu’ alone.

Seol Jihu was obviously himself, but this black-armored Seol Jihu was also Seol Jihu.

“You finally get it? I’m not something like a doppelganger. I am Seol Jihu that existed, exists, and will continue to exist.”

He seemed to be saying that he was the only existence that could directly interfere in the trials.

“Not that I have any thoughts of doing that, of course… Hoit!”

Black-armored Seol Jihu hopped up.

“Anyway, hurry on up. Don’t get stuck on just this.”

He then turned toward the peak and left.

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