Chapter 40. Glorious Shackles, Perilous Freedom

Salcido's group left as if they were running away, and the man Oh Minyoung was contracted to also disappeared from the view without raising a fuss.

They certainly did not wish to get on Sinyoung's bad side, but whatever the case may be, the end result was that the burly guy and Oh Minyoung had been abandoned by their supposed backers.

It didn't matter whether one was an Invited or a Contracted. Now that they had lost their backers, it was easy to imagine what would happen to them.

“Clench your teeth real tight, got it?”

Thwack!

Blood spurted out from the burly guy's nose.

Now that the situation was reversed, Hyun Sangmin was like a fish swimming in water. He begged Kim Hannah for a chance to get even, and as soon as hearing the words 'Don't kill them' came out from her mouth, he proceeded to punch the burly guy in the face.

The burly guy was already too numb to notice the punch, and he collapsed to the ground like a piece of falling paper.

“Hey, you fucking son of a bitch, how do you feel now, huh?”

As if that one punch wasn't enough to satisfy him, Hyun Sangmin straddled on top of the burly guy and began pounding on him.

“You never imagined this is how it'll end, right? You fucking piece of shit!!”

The fists containing all of his emotions crushed the burly guy's nose before completely turning the bone into soft mush. The punches continued to hit the mark; soon, the burly guy went limp while the whites of his eyes showed.

Hyun Sangmin breathed out heavily while wiping his nose. He wasn't done yet, though. With a pair of still-burning eyes, he looked around, and….

“Where do you think you're going?!”

“Aaaahk?!”

He ran like a wild beast and snatched the hair of Oh Minyoung, who had almost managed to inch her way out of danger zone.

“Weren't you stepping on my hand real hard just now? Ah?”

Slap!

With that clear slapping noise, her head spun around hard enough as if it wanted to fly away from her neck.

“You clench your teeth, too.”

Hyun Sangmin forcibly made her face the right direction, before headbutting her, hard.

“Euup!!”

Her eyes wide open now, Oh Minyoung covered her mouth with both of her hands and fell hard to the ground.

Her pained screams couldn't escape from her broken mouth. She rolled around on the ground before bursting out in tears.

And as Hyun Sangmin began kicking her like a soccer ball, Seol was inwardly wondering what he should do here.

How should he describe this….?

Those two were indeed in the wrong…. But, Seol thought that Hyun Sangmin was going just a bit overboard.

Even then, asking Hyun Sangmin to stop was a problem in itself, too.

[…Me, I can endure unfairness, but I can definitely not stand losing out.]

He said those things when they first met. One could technically argue that the reason why Hyun Sangmin ended up in the present situation was all because Seol asked him for a favor. So, trying to stop him now would be more or less like betraying him.

“Sangmin, stop. That’s enough.”

It was then, a middle-aged man came out from the crowd and hurriedly approached Hyun Sangmin to grab his arm.

“Eish, who the hell…. Oh, it's you, Ahjussi!”

Hyun Sangmin angrily shook his arm loose and shouted at the man.

“Why did you show up so late?”

“I'm sorry. Really. There was something I had to do.”

“Do you even know what happened to me just now?”

“I know. I understand, so let's stop for today, okay? She's a property of Sinyoung now, so if you damage her too much, we have to reimburse them.”

Seol didn't like the term 'property', but thankfully, Hyun Sangmin did stop his beatings after that. The middle-aged man quietly pushing Hyun Sangmin away was his Inviter.

“No need to feel sorry for her.”

Kim Hannah's voice remained icy cold.

“There should be more than a few people wanting to beat her up, you see.”

“Really?”

“Yep. That incident of Yun Seora getting beaten up? That woman incited the Cartel boys to do it.”

“?”

“You didn't know? I thought you already figured it all out. She was the one telling them her arm was damaged. She was the one leading them on, telling those idiots to attack Yun Seora, baiting the poor kid with the promise of some free points. That was all that b*tch's handiwork.”

“Seriously?”

Seol dumbfoundedly stared at Oh Minyoung, currently pouring out her tears on the ground. What little sympathy he had for her flew away in an instant.

“That wasn't all, though. Didn't she kill the other girl in the Tutorial to steal away her coins? One hit at the back of the head with a mop! Pop!”

The youth with the curly hair suddenly butted in. The way he kept on smiling, he gave off an impression of being a pleasant fellow, almost to the point where Seol found it scarcely believable that he destroyed the burly guy's hand with nothing but a dagger.

This youth saw Seol looking at him and began raising a big fuss.

“Ah! Hello there!! My name is….”

“Shin Hansung? Why don't you carry those two back to our carriage, mmkay?”

Just as Shin Hansung tried to weasel his way into the conversation, Kim Hannah suddenly assumed her characteristic prim and stiff expression.

“Che. Always making me do things you find annoying.”

“Oh, so should I do it?”

“Fine. I'm going.”

Shin Hansung complained as her sharp glare landed on him.

“That's why you haven't found a husband yet….”

“What did you just say?!”

But, before Kim Hannah could rage on, Shin Hansung quickly made his escape while dragging away the unconscious burly guy and the bitterly resisting Oh Minyoung.

Kim Hannah began gnashing her teeth as she glared at the curly haired youth, now already nothing more than a small speck in her view.

“That bastard….”

She must have sensed Seol's stare because she then suddenly calmed her heaving breaths and changed her expression.

“Have you eaten breakfast yet? Should we talk after you had something to eat first?”

Seol slowly shook his head. He lost his appetite after experiencing quite a few unexpected events right after leaving the Zone.

As if she was expecting this sort of response, Kim Hannah proceeded to sweep away the mess of plates off the table. It was here that she finally spotted Yun Seora standing there awkwardly near them and smiled quite brightly at her.

“Miss Yun Seora? I'm sorry, but we gotta have a bit of private chat between Seol and I.”

“…..”

“Shin Hansung should return pretty soon, so why don't you grab an empty table and wait for him?”

Although the bushes were beat, it was pretty clear what was being implied here. Yun Seora was no dummy, either. She didn't seem too satisfied, but after glancing at Seol for a moment or two, she quietly turned around to leave.

Kim Hannah waited and watched on as Yun Seora gradually walked further away, before latching herself tightly to Seol's side.

“!?”

And the youth got to feel the softness of her curves as she pressed against his elbow. Just before the flustered youth could pull his arm away….

“Listen carefully, okay? While we talk, I'll show you two sets of contract papers.”

Kim Hannah's voice became much lower in tone.

“Two sets?”

“That's right, two. And when I place my hand on top of a document and start talking, you gotta be skeptical of everything I say, okay?”

“What are you talking about?”

“I don't have the time to explain it to you. I was supposed to take care of Yun Seora's contract too, but I got a sudden order to let Shin Hansung take care of that, instead. I'll try to obstruct him, but what with his slick tongue and all, he'll definitely butt in, so be mindful of that.”

In the middle of her speech, Kim Hannah signaled to Seol with her eyes. He didn't think much about it and took a simple glance around him before his expression became weird.

Now that some amount of time had passed by, all of the survivors, as well as those who had invited them or signed a contract with them, were here. And even though most of them were in the middle of negotiating with other survivors, some were sneaking glances at him, and a few were openly staring at him from afar.

“And they are the ones wishing for our negotiation to fail.”

Kim Hannah narrowed her eyes rather prettily and whispered to Seol with a grave voice.

“You…. You should know of your worth.”

“Noonim! I'm back~!”

It was right then a joyful voice entered their ears.

'He's back already?'

Accompanied by Yun Seora, the curly-haired youth was walking closer to them while carrying an affable smile.

“And why are you sitting near us?”

Shin Hansung was about to occupy a seat on the opposite side to them, before an awkward smile crept on his face.

“Well, I just want to see the skills of the famed senior of mine?”

“You should stop the unfunny comedy routine and take care of your own contract signing, okay? Why are you trying to weasel your way into our conversation here?”

“Oww, come on now, there's plenty of space here, so please share~.”

“I told you to scram. You better listen while I'm still being civil.”

“Oww, don't be like that. In the end, both him and Miss Seora will sign with Sinyoung anyways.”

“And how do you know that?”

Hearing her icy tone of voice, Shin Hansung displayed a bit of surprised expression.

“It's not like that?”

“Don't you ever think that I don't know what's going on here. I've already figured out why the higher-ups sent you here with me. However, I believe I've already explained my position enough times by now.”

“Well, that is….”

“Of course, I'll do my utmost best today. But the final decision rests with him, understand? Don't forget, he's not a Contracted, but an Invited. Got that?”

“….I got it. Fine. I'll go away.”

'He gave up more easily than I thought?'

He was supposed to cling on incessantly, yet the depressed-looking Shin Hansung turned around to leave.

However, Seol soon realized that he was underestimating this curly-haired youth. He dragged another table over and placed it close enough to touch Seol’s.

Kim Hannah glared at Shin Hansung in a show of disbelief. Seol thought that, after witnessing the curly-haired youth sit down on his spot with a carefree attitude, this guy had to have a substantially thick skin.

There was one more thing Seol failed to figure out, though. And that was Yun Seora choosing a seat very close to him, rather than opposite to Shin Hansung's.

“I've kept you waiting, Young Lady. I'm sure you're curious about why I'm here instead of the Director, yes?”

With an attitude that seemed to imply he didn't mind whether the other party was listening in on or not, he began the contract negotiation.

“Well, the Director was embarrassed pretty badly. I'm sure you can guess the reason why….”

Yun Seora lowered her head a little.

“In any case, I'm also here to convey the message from the President.”

Those words caused her to raise her head; her eyes gained renewed light.

“….Directly from him?”

“Yes. It's not that long, though. Well, it's a no-frills, no-fat, refreshingly direct message, actually. You know what our President is like, right?”

Yun Seora nodded her head to indicate that he should go on.

Shin Hansung cleared his throat with a fake cough and spoke up.

“First of all, I congratulate you on entering Paradise. To be honest, I did not wish for you to step foot into this world, but now that things have turned out this way, I shall respect your choices.”

“….”

“However, your actions during the Tutorial and the Neutral Zone proved to be rather disappointing. Most likely, if you hadn't received that young man's aid, you wouldn't even have cleared the Neutral Zone. Your older sister is most embarrassed by you.”

Yun Seora's body flinched just a little, then.

“I won't say anything long. If you wish to remain in this world, then show me that you're prepared.”

Shin Hansung spoke up to here and placed a dagger on the table.

“When you get to the carriage, you'll find those two from earlier tied up and waiting. That burly guy and the woman. Remember them?”

“….Yes.”

“Kill them in front of the President and Lady Yun Seohui. With your own hands.”

Seol couldn't help but question his own hearing just then. She needed to do what now?

“The President added that you shouldn’t even dream about coming to Sinyoung if you're unable to do even that. He said he would even use force to make you go back to Earth.”

Seol thought that Yun Seora would at least take a second or two to make her decision.

Unfortunately, she didn't.

“I don't care about the man, but is there a reason for me to kill that woman as well?”

“Of course. If you want reasons, there are plenty. That much, I can tell you without holding back.”

“I'll do it.”

She didn't even hesitate as she picked up the dagger.

“In that case, it's all good.”

Shin Hansung smiled and pulled the contract out.

“This here is a temporary contract. As soon as you perform the task assigned to you just now, this contract will come into effect.”

Yun Seora took her time to peruse the contents of the contract before promptly signing on the dotted line.

“Then, right away, I should….”

“Ahh, wait a minute, please.”

Shin Hansung raised both hands while looking a bit troubled by her willingness.

“It's just that, there's the condition of you performing the deed in front of the President, so…. Although I can vouch for you, I'm sure you prefer to be certain, no?”

Yun Seora agreed with his notion.

Looking relieved now, Shin Hansung said his job was completed. Then, while resting his chin on both of his hands, he began gazing at the table next to his.

“….Ehew.”

Kim Hannah spat out a lengthy groan before producing two bundles of contracts as well as a pen.

“….First of all, good job.”

She then studied Seol for a bit.

“Also, thank you. For keeping the promise of negotiating with me first.”

“Well, it's…. Nothing.”

She noticed that Seol was kind of getting embarrassed by her words, so without further ado, she placed the two contracts side by side on the table.

If the contents of the contract on the left seemed neatly summarized, then the one on the right side had small texts utterly filling up the page space top to bottom.

When he took a quick glance at both, he couldn't help but feel a bit odd. Especially the contract on the right – the more he read, the more his head tilted at the oddly restrictive clauses.

If he were to be more specific, then this contract was choke-a-full with wordings that could be interpreted either way.

Just as he discovered the words 'Kim Hannah' on the left document and 'Sinyoung' on the right, he could hear her continuing on.

“You already understand why the survivors leaving the Neutral Zone must sign a contract right away, right?”

Indeed, he could more or less figure out why, without hearing an explanation.

No matter how well one might pass the Tutorial or the Neutral Zone, when facing the gigantic stage called the Lost Paradise, one would be no different to a lost child wandering the edges of a river. In other words, this was the time where one needed both support and protection.

Of course, even now, a clear difference between the Contracted and the Invited existed. If the former was one-sidedly 'do as told', then the latter was more like 'via mutual agreement'. If an Invited didn't like the terms offered, then he or she could simply get up and leave the negotiating table.

“Mm…. Well, then. Should I start with Sinyoung's offers, first?”

Kim Hannah started with her sales pitch.

“The moment you sign this contract with Sinyoung, the organization will immediately pay you 500 million won as a signing fee. Not in installments, but in one go.”

'500 million won?!’

Seol couldn't hide his shock at the amount. As someone who grew up in your typical lower-middle-class household, he'd never imagined having that much money.

“It's too early for you to be this surprised, you know.”

Kim Hannah crossed her arms in front of her chest and continued on with a business-like tone of voice.

“Sinyoung will support you in three key areas. First, financially. The moment you sign the contract, you'll become an employee of Sinyoung, whether it's here in Paradise or back on Earth. And every two weeks, five million won will be deposited to your bank account. In other words, you’ll have a monthly salary of ten million won. You will also receive performance and merit-based bonuses along with regular year-end bonuses based on the going rate set by the HR. You will also receive mission clear payouts as well as payment for any danger you beared during your missions in Paradise. These should easily exceed your monthly salary. Of course, that's provisional to you passing the on-the-job probation period first.”

Kim Hannah rattled off the offered terms quite quickly.

“Secondly, they promise to provide you with an entire set of matching equipment for free every time you level up. It's the same even when you go on a team exploration or on a military expedition. And, they also promise you that, if types of equipment that suits your needs drop during a mission, then they are willing to let you have the first refusal.”

Seol slowly swallowed his saliva. The more he heard the offers, the less suspicious he was becoming. Or, at least that's how he felt.

“And, it seems like you enjoy training.”

“Training? What do you mean?”

He wasn't expecting to hear that.

“Right. Sinyoung possesses a training facility that won’t lose to anyone in this world. If you want, Sinyoung's top Earthling will personally train you. And I assure you, that person's skills are a cut above Agnes's.”

He tried to listen while remaining skeptical, but it was getting harder and harder to do so.

“Let me assure you once more, these terms being offered, it's unprecedented in the entire history of Sinyoung. Even that legendary Sung Shihyun didn't enjoy this kind of treatment.”

Just as she said, these terms were ridiculously good. Honestly, Seol was deeply tempted. As long as he signed on the dotted line, he'd be able to walk on a firm, solid path, whether that be on Earth or here in the Paradise.

“And then…. As you can see, the contract's duration is for four years.”

It was at this point that Kim Hannah placed her hand on the Sinyoung's contract papers.

[….When I place my hand on top of a document and start talking, you gotta be skeptical of everything I say, okay?]

Seol was in the midst of a heavy dilemma, but his thought process came to an abrupt halt as soon as that happened.

From here onwards…. This would be the real thing.

“You might feel that this is more like a slave contract, but it's definitely not. It takes an average of around 4-5 years for a talented Earthling to rise up to higher levels. If you consider that fact, you can probably tell Sinyoung rates you very highly. In other words, Sinyoung is willing to throw everything and the kitchen sink to ensure that you'll rise up to the higher levels in less than four years.”

….So, this was indeed a slave contract. They would initially accept him while pretending to value him greatly, then observe his growth for the next four years before deciding on what to do with him.

“And, the terms of this contract aren't static. As long as your level rises higher, we can always change the terms contained within for the better.”

….Conversely, it could also get worse.

“Also, about that thing regarding them wanting to support you…. Well, let me be honest with you here. You can think of this as an advance payment. At a bare minimum, you gotta reciprocate as much as you've received in Paradise. This is human nature, after all. Sinyoung is a business entity, don't forget; a huge organization, a corporation no less, is investing so much into your future. So, wouldn't it be only right for you to reward them accordingly? Am I wrong?”

“….”

“Well, you don't have to worry about it. Remember, Sinyoung isn't a place where you'd end up having nothing to do but sucking on thumbs, anyways. Most likely, you'll end up completely overworked for the next one, two years.”

….What if he failed to reciprocate as much as he received?

“And finally… Sinyoung is indisputably the most powerful organization in Lost Paradise. I'm sure you've felt it after seeing what happened. Cinzia’s Sicilia? Salcido’s Cartel? They are nothing more than a bunch of stray cats in front of a real tiger. Sinyoung has swept everyone away once already, so even other famed organizations have no choice but to lower their heads and listen to what Sinyoung has to say."

“In other words, Sinyoung can become the most secure shield for you in your time of need.”

….And because of that, they would certainly have a lot of enemies as well.

“Kyah, oh my. Hannah noonim, your sales pitch is really great.”

Shin Hansung let out a squeal of admiration. His expression indicated how pleased he was.

Meanwhile, Kim Hannah gently lifted her hand away from the document. So, Seol shifted his gaze over to the other contract.

“Oh, and as for this contract…. Well, I don't have anything too particular to say.”

Seol decided to ask her instead.

“Now that I think about it, why are there two contracts for me?”

“Mm? Haven't I told you already? That golden stamp wasn't Sinyoung's property.”

Kim Hannah's eyes went extra round as she feigned ignorance.

“That Gold Mark, I got that directly from a temple.”

“From a temple?”

“Yeah. From the temple of Gula.”

“….What?”

This time, it was Seol's eyes that went much wider at the mention of a name he wasn't expecting to hear.

“Gula. She’s one of the seven gods supporting humanity in Paradise.”

“Wait a minute. Does that mean I’ll be signing directly with a god with you as a middleman?”

“Technically, yeah, something like that….”

Kim Hannah looked troubled as she lightly tapped on the table with her finger.

“Actually, even I'm not sure.”

“About what?”

“It's true that I did receive the stamp. But what I heard back then was that there will come a time when I will have to use the stamp so I should hold onto it carefully. It so coincidentally ended up being used on you. If you want clarification on this matter, I think it might be better for you to directly ask Gula.”

Kim Hannah shrugged her shoulders.

“In any case, that's not the most important matter right now. So, you've browsed through this contract already…. Right?”

At first glance, Seol could tell that this one didn't even contain half of what Sinyoung was offering.

“You'll see that what little support mentioned in there comes from under my name, but if you compare it to Sinyoung's, you should realize that it's not nearly as much.”

She was right about that.

However, one couldn't say that the offered terms were all bad. It didn't try to restrict him for instance, nor demanded anything from him in return, either. And he didn't have to belong to any organization as well.

Although Kim Hannah's name was included in the contract, it was only up to the point of her providing personal protection whenever she could. The biggest, and perhaps the only advantage this contract had over the other one was that it promised Seol complete freedom.

“It can't be helped, right? The support implied on this contract is no more than Sinyoung acknowledging all your accomplishments, past, present and in the future; they will also try to keep an amicable relationship with you for the foreseeable future. That's all. So, if you want more than that, then sign over here.”

Kim Hannah presented Sinyoung's contract papers.

“Well now, Noonim is making sure of everything, no? I'll personally make a glowing report back to the Director.”

“Keep your pie-hole shut. Can't you see I'm in the middle of something?”

“Yes, ma'am! I shall keep my hole shut!”

Disregarding Shin Hansung's noisy chatter, Seol deliberated on his choices.

The terms offered by Sinyoung were, no matter how much he dissected it, incredibly tempting. There were several traps hidden in the clauses, but after hearing Kim Hannah's brief persuasion, it seemed like that everyone else was doing something similar in Paradise, anyways.

So what if he had to go under someone's umbrella? They wouldn't dispose of him, just like that. Surely not. If he showed how diligent he is, wouldn't they at least acknowledge his efforts?

And since he didn't enter the Paradise with some lofty ambition driving him, only this insatiable curiosity instead, he couldn't help but think that way.

However, something just didn't feel right.

For some reason, his heart was saying no again.

A giant presence, one he couldn't sense too clearly right now, was trying to reach out to him from the depths of the hidden darkness. That's how he felt.

'Besides, Kim Hannah wouldn't have said those words earlier, either….'

Should he choose the path of glorious shackles or that of perilous freedom?

Seol remained confused and uncertain in front of this crossroads, both directions filled with boundless possibilities. So, out of habit, he activated Nine Eyes.

'….Damn.'

And for the first time since the negotiation began, he ended up in dismay. He couldn't help it, though.

Yellow, orange, red, black….

If any one of these colors showed up, he was planning to not even consider the contract. That was what his ability was for, no?

Unfortunately, both contracts didn't shine in the four hues of danger.

One shined gold.

The other didn’t have any color whatsoever.

This was a first for him.

“So, what will you do?”

Standing on the fork of crossing paths…

“….I…”

Seol realized that he was now facing one of the most important decisions in his life.

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