Even when he squeezed his eyes shut and opened them again… even when he deactivated and then reactivated Nine Eyes… it remained the same.
Kim Hannah’s contract was gold, while Sinyoung’s was colorless.
'And why are you shining in gold, of all things…?'
One thing he got to learn was that the ‘Golden Commandment’ applied to objects, not just people.
In any case, he couldn't be sure of what to do here, based only on what he was seeing and hearing.
He lacked enough information to make up his mind on one contract, while for the other one, he couldn't even figure out what it all meant.
He couldn't be sure of anything, but….
“I'll sign on this one.”
After a lengthy deliberation, Seol chose Kim Hannah's contract.
Shin Hansung's expression showed how stunned he was by Seol choice.
Meanwhile, Yun Seora was completely taken by surprise and became quite flustered.
“Can you tell us the reason?”
Shin Hansung raised his voice, and Kim Hannah didn't try to stop the curly-haired youth. Instead, she lowered her head a little as her expression hardened, showing how shocked she was at the moment. Of course, she was putting on a performance.
“Do you not like the terms offered?”
“No, that's not actually it. Your terms are so amazingly good that it's to the point where I'm feeling burdened by their weight.”
“It is alright if you are honest with us. If there's a clause that you don't like….”
“Not at all. I'm truly grateful that you have evaluated me so highly. But….”
As Seol blurred the ends of his sentence, he sneaked a glance in Kim Hannah's direction. He only continued on after confirming the corners of her lips arching up ever so slightly.
“….I have a certain personal reason for this choice. I can only feel remorse at refusing to sign such a wonderful contract. Not to mention, I should apologize to you as well.”
He tried to condense his explanations to as few a word as possible. His considered but firm refusal implied that they should stop here before things got any more awkward than necessary.
Shin Hansung knew that, but he couldn't back off like this. He leaned forward with a determined expression on his face.
“Please, hear me out. It would be a lie if we didn't consider your future potential, but more than that, we also truly appreciate what you've done for us.”
“Sinyoung is an organization that strictly rewards those who deserve it. Especially, your selfless actions of aiding Young Lady, the President’s youngest daughter, we will definitely not forget about it. In fact, there are quite a few of us looking at you favorably already. Myself included.”
The sweet words of temptation began pouring out from Shin Hansung's honey-dipped tongue. Too bad for him, Kim Hannah had already placed her hand on one of the contracts.
'Doesn't that also mean there are some people who don't want me there, too?'
He had roughly figured out that the relationship between Yun Seora and Sinyoung was a complicated one.
Out of the blue, Seol felt the sensation of touch softly wrapping around his right arm.
“Come with us, please….”
A pleading voice entered his ear canals. Yun Seora's stare trying to penetrate into Seol's soul was dyed in the emotions of anxiety.
“I, I'll do my best….”
'Your best in what exactly….?'
What could she even mean by that? Seol reined a fit of laughter almost breaking out of his mouth. Yun Seora's expression was far too serious for him to use a smile as his reply.
'This is a meaningless dilemma, isn't it?'
He didn't base his decision on Nine Eyes. He didn’t rely on his emotions nor his logic.
There was one reason that he couldn’t say out loud.
[Come closer, my child….]
….The lingering memories from that dream. By this time, he had almost forgotten most of the contents. But the last moments still remained vivid in his head.
The final moments. The man he suspected to be himself made a request, yet it was denied. But in the end, Seol received 'emotions' in the form of a dream.
He was curious. He wanted to find out how the request of his dream version was met.
Of course, that wasn't all. He took into consideration both the warnings of Kim Hannah, as well as the golden stamp belonging to the Temple of Gula.
Also, there was this hard-to-understand fear in his heart that, once he signed up with Sinyoung, he'd get to live a life that was not much different from the one he experienced in the dream.
He sure as hell didn't want to be abused like a slave and also didn't really feel like being used as well.
Even if the road ahead might get hard and arduous, he wanted to live this life on his own terms.
So, he just had to shake his head to say no.
“We, we can really treat you well….”
Yun Seora's voice entering his ears sounded more tearful than before. Shin Hansung let off a soft sigh.
“Why don't we do this, then?”
Just as Seol picked up the pen with some difficulty, Kim Hannah broke her silence and spoke up.
“Give us some time.”
“Yeah. Well, we will need some time to adjust the contract, and you'll also need more time to dwell on things, right? And, you also need to go back home, too.”
Seol was about to sign on the dotted line, but the mere mention of 'home' sobered him right away.
He realized that over three months had passed by already. What happened back home on Earth? His family? What about Yoo Seonhwa? Were they worried about him after he disappeared without telling them anything?
“That's right. It's not a bad idea to give yourself some time to think things over.”
Shin Hansung quickly voiced his opinion.
Seol nodded his head to express his consent. Kim Hannah pocketed the contracts and stood up from her seat.
“Seol and I will be heading to the temple, but what about you two?”
“I shall take Miss Yun back to Sinyoung's HQ. After all, the President is waiting for her there. We'll just go our separate ways at the city of Scheherazade.”
As Shin Hansung stood up, Seol too vacated his seat. He hadn't a clue on what this temple and that Scheherazade were all about, but it seemed that he could go home for sure.
When he looked around, the negotiation talks were still ongoing everywhere.
He couldn't spot Shin Sang-Ah anywhere; Hyun Sangmin was in the middle of an important-looking talk, his arms moving about to illustrate his points.
Yi Seol-Ah was also in the middle of a lengthy talk with an unknown male. When her gaze met Seol's, she tried to stand up from her seat, but he simply waved his hand at her to indicate she shouldn't. He didn't want to interrupt her negotiation, after all. She must have understood his intentions because she sat back down while giggling to herself.
“Should we wait for them?”
Kim Hannah asked him, but Seol slowly shook his head.
It wasn't as if he didn't want to be around them anymore, but…. Their own paths were being laid out now, and he didn't want to insert himself into their lives when it wasn't really necessary anymore.
'I'm sure we will see each other again.'
As long as they survived, they should, in the future.
Seol took in the sights of the Neutral Zone for one last time, before slowly turning around to leave.
Since he heard that the method of transportation was a carriage, he thought it would be nothing more than a wooden cart being pulled by a couple of horses. But he got a pretty big surprise after seeing the actual thing.
This four-wheeled carriage was far closer to a luxury coach as it was covered in all four sides.
Seol dazedly stared at the leather and velvet-like fabric covering the roof section, before shifting his curious gaze over to four strange animals tied to the front of the coach and studied them with some interest.
Their overall appearance was similar to a horse, but their sharp ears and humped back gave off an impression of a camel, instead.
Shin Hansung forced the two people tied up near the driver's seat of the coach to drink a certain substance, and in the meantime, Kim Hannah climbed aboard.
“What are you two doing? Come on up.”
Seol and Yun Seora exchanged glances as they climbed aboard the coach. There were two bench seats facing each other inside.
Kim Hannah parked her rear on the spot facing Seol, while Yun Seora sat down right next to the youth.
Shortly afterwards, Kim Hannah closed the door, and the body of the coach shook a little, indicating that they were setting off. It only shook around in the beginning, and once they were on the move, the ride had become much more comfortable.
When they gained some speed, Kim Hannah opened her mouth.
“We will need around 40 minutes to get to our destination. We just have to travel along Zahrah.”
“It's just the name of a road leading to Scheherazade. Don't worry about it though! I haven't heard news of monsters or other races attacking travelers on Zahrah for the past year or so.”
Seol tilted his head slightly. He still had no idea what was what, but these were things he had to learn about eventually.
The coach speedily crossed the barren wasteland. During the ride, Seol was kept entertained by his companions.
Kim Hannah told him to let her know the place on Earth he wanted to teleport back to as soon as they arrived at their destination, before explaining things such as what he had to do after arriving there, the method of coming back once back on Earth, etc, etc.
There were many things that caught Seol's interest among them. And one of those was the revelation that the flow of time here was different to that of Earth's with the ratio of 3:1.
Meaning, Seol spending three months inside the Neutral Zone would equate to a month on Earth.
Besides those, Kim Hannah also talked about stuff that could be brought back from Earth to Paradise. And, perhaps staying vigilant of Yun Seora's presence, she didn't forget to sell Sinyoung's advantages every now and then as well. Every time that happened, Yun Seora looked at him with pleading eyes and/or tried to encourage his decision making with her soft voice. Seol couldn't help but feel a bit of pressure from this approach.
“Looks like we're almost there.”
Kim Hannah opened the coach's door and peeked outside before muttering out.
Seol too peeked his head out past the open door, and as fierce winds whipped his hair about, his jaw nearly dropped to the floor.
The enormous earth-colored fortress walls blindingly reflected the sunlight as they stood tall.
After confirming Seol's expression, a smile crept up on Kim Hannah's face.
“Welcome to Scheherazade.”
The coach slowed down and continued on for another five minutes after going past the tall wall's entryway, before eventually coming to a halt.
They then heard light knocks against the door, and Shin Hansung's voice telling them that they had arrived.
“We should disembark here, then.”
Kim Hannah sent him a signal with her eyes and climbed out of the coach first.
Seol was about to follow after her, only to promptly realize why she sent him such a signal. Yun Seora was still holding onto his arm, that was why.
“I should get going now. Thank you for the past three months. It's been fun.”
How could she block him, since he was trying to go home? When he carefully extracted his arm, she didn't try to stop him. But, only until his wrist, though.
Just as Seol's right hand was about to leave her grasp, she carefully held onto him.
“M, Miss Yun Seora?”
“….I'd like to see you again.”
Unlike before, she let her desire be heard in a clear voice.
The first time he met her, her eyes seemed so cold and distant, yet for them to be this wet with emotions – Seol felt rather lost and hesitated slightly.
“Yes, me too.”
Only then did she let his arm go. She never stopped looking at him even until the moment he finally left the coach for good. Seol closed the door behind him while licking his dried lips.
'It's like I'm abandoning a kid or something….'
The coach started and moved away. Seol's gaze continued to linger on the back of the coach as it slowly gained distance, before turning away to take in the sights of Scheherazade, the most prosperous city within the territory controlled by humanity.
Kim Hannah was waving her hand at him from the top of a stone staircase. And Seol could see behind her a spire so tall and upright, it seemed to pierce the heavens above.
While mounting the steps, Seol realized that the spire, or the tower, was made up of a strange construction material that emitted this pale hue that didn't seem quite right to be called white.
“That is the Temple of Luxuria. Out of the seven gods, she's the one in charge of healing skills used by the Priests.”
Upon hearing this, Seol could see countless people going in and out of the entranceway supported by huge pillars. Most of them were wearing the same ice-white robe Maria wore when she prepared herself for the Ceremony.
“In that case, could Maria be still here?”
“I think she's already left, though? Well, her recovery has ended already, and she can't return to the Neutral Zone, anyways.”
“Okay. To where?”
“To the south.”
Kim Hannah waltzed straight past the entrance. Upon entering, Seol was greeted by long corridors to both his sides, and in front, a slightly darkened assembly hall. He spotted a woman sitting behind a counter of some sort before the hall.
That woman lifted her tired eyes and stared as Kim Hannah approached her.
“What brings you here?”
“We came to use the transfer gate here.”
Kim Hannah presented a piece of paper to this woman.
“A Level 1…. The place he's returning to is Area 1…. Oh, it's his first time using this service?”
“He exited the Neutral Zone today.”
“Aaah, that's right, today’s the day… In any case, we have to establish a new return point, then. Over here!”
The woman read the paper with squinting eyes, before suddenly raising her hand up high. An Asian man with black hair appeared from somewhere beyond the corridor and hurriedly came over. The reception lady(?) asked this new guy.
“You're from the Area 1, correct?”
When she asked while handing over a piece of paper, the Asian man nodded his head.
“Then help me calculate the coordinates.”
“Let's see. Area 1, Seoul, Seodaemun District, the suburb of Hongeun… Ah, this shouldn't be too hard.”
The Asian man smiled.
“I have a place in the suburb of Eungam, you see.”
“I'll be relying on you, then. And, also….”
The woman stared straight at Seol.
“You weren't planning to head back to Earth looking like that, yes?”
“We'd like to utilize the storage service.”
Kim Hannah replied as if it was par for the course.
“Since you're Level 1, it's for free. Here. Please use room number 8. You know how it works, yes?”
“I've explained to him already.”
“You're a commendable guide, then.”
The woman handed over a small key with a plaque while looking rather relieved.
Seol received the key and walked down the path to his right. The interior further in was divided into several tall floors with walls glowing in an amber hue. And he saw many doors, each easily exceeding over two meters in height. He found a door with a silver '8' shining on the front and entered the room.
The items of Lost Paradise couldn't be taken back to Earth, with the exception of a few. This meant that he had to store his things away before leaving, and temples happened to be the most secure place to do so. While the asking fee was exorbitant, as his stuff would be protected by divine power, the security was pretty much the best out there.
However, one could only use this service for free at Level 1 and 2. Once one became Level 3, at which point he'd be considered as an actual, true combat force, he'd have to spend something called 'achievement points' if he wanted to use either the transfer gate or the storage service.
He propped his two spears against the wall and took off his armors. He still had the clothes he wore from Earth, but they were far too tattered now. What a relief it was, since Kim Hannah and her discerning fashion sense brought along some clothes and underwear for his usage.
'I forgot to thank her.'
Seol finished getting dressed and checked his items one last time. He had to leave behind Elixirs as well as the Divine Stigmata. He was slightly worried about them being stolen, but since a god was personally protecting the temple, he thought he should believe the security of this place for now.
He finished sorting through his articles and left the storage room before locking the door. The silver '8' on the door then changed its colour to gold. From here onwards, only Seol could open this door. Even if someone else came in possession of the door's key, it would still not open.
While walking on the corridor, Seol fell into deep thought.
He couldn't really believe that he was returning to Earth this easily. Why? Back inside the dream, 'he' couldn't return to Earth even after a considerable length of time passed by since his departure from the Neutral Zone. The dream version of him missed home a lot during the early part of his life here. Was this yet another difference between Contracted and Invited?
Seol couldn't help but feel a bit of regret. He may have accepted the fact that he had to leave the Neutral Zone. But, leaving behind the attachments formed through interactions proved to be another problem altogether.
'What are the kids doing now, I wonder?'
Did they sign their contracts alright? They probably wanted to go back home, too. Should he have waited for them to finish and leave together?
At least, he should've said goodbyes before leaving. He only signaled to them with his eyes because he didn't want to disturb them, but now, he was feeling a bit of regret doing that.
When Seol got back to the reception, the Asian man was no longer there. Only Kim Hannah and the reception lady(?) were waiting for him.
The lady beckoned the youth to come closer.
“Show me the back of your hand, please.”
When Seol wordlessly presented his left hand, she placed another paper with a complicated diagram drawn on its surface there and pressed it tightly to his skin.
“And with this, your return coordinates have been set. Whenever you use the transfer gate from here onwards, you will always arrive at the address you provided us. If you plan to move house, you need to tell us right away. Or we might end up causing unnecessary chaos on Earth.”
Seol replied and returned the key. Kim Hannah explained previously that he needed to do that once he was done with storing his items. The lady opened her eyes slightly wider before giving him a slip with a number '8' written on it.
“Hmm…. I'm sure you heard the explanations already, but still, don't forget to take good care of this slip. And also, you know that, after retrieving your stored items, you need to confirm the color of the number on the door, yes?”
“Yes. From gold to silver.”
“Correct. If the color remains gold, that means you left something behind. Unless you wish to extend the period of the storage service, things will get mighty complicated for both sides, so please, check thoroughly.”
The reception lady(?) sounded rather resentful about something. She then handed two more pieces of paper to Seol.
“One of these is used when you wish to return to Paradise. You've performed missions back in the Neutral Zone, so you should know that when you tear this in half, a transfer portal will open for you. People who don't possess any Markings whatsoever won't be able to see the portal nor feel its presence, but still, I recommend finding a quiet place with no one else nearby.”
“What about the other one…?”
“It's the list of items you can bring back from Earth. It's your first time, so peruse the list and familiarise yourself with the contents.”
Seol carefully tucked both papers inside his pocket.
“Whew, whew, whew, whew! All finished! Now then, you just need to sign over here….”
The lady pushed forward yet another paper, a document this time, for Seol to sign while sounding as if they were finally near the finish line. It was a non-disclosure agreement, forbidding Seol from revealing anything even remotely related to the Lost Paradise to other people on Earth.
Such an agreement was also covered by the divine powers, so the moment it was signed, the god's powers ensured that the terms would be enforced no matter what. One could tell how much thought had been given to maintaining the secrecy.
He already knew as much from the dream. And Kim Hannah explained it too during the coach ride, so Seol signed the document without too much fuss. Honestly, there were a few things that irritated him slightly. But as these processes had to be performed for someone wanting to use the transfer gate for the first time, he said nothing and endured.
“Very good. Please head inside the assembly area behind me and use the gate there.”
Finally, he was allowed to leave.
“You finished much faster than I thought.”
“Well, there wasn't anything too complicated, after all.”
“Okay, let's go.”
Kim Hannah stepped forward first.
Just before he entered the assembly hall, Seol took the last lingering look behind him and sighed out softly. But, before he could enter….
Tap, tap, tap, tap.
Suddenly, echoes of hurried footsteps rang out, and….
“Wait for me!”
….And, a familiar voice called out to him.
Seol turned around in surprise. Kim Hannah too was rather puzzled as well.
“Why is she here….?”
They saw her leave with the coach not too long ago, so….
The woman supporting her body with her arm against the wall near the entrance while panting heavily was none other than Yun Seora.
She looked relieved after finding out that Seol hadn't left yet. She regulated her heavy breathing, swallowed her saliva, and shouted out a question.
“Please… tell me your name!”
Seol's expression hardened considerably.
His mouth opened reflexively, before closing shut again. His lips quivered uncontrollably.
“But that… Isn't that your surname?”
He was about to say his name was Seol. But suddenly, his eyes grew wider and wider.
His heart was beating wildly now. His sight blurred.
“When you entered the second floor in the Tutorial, there was an alert. I heard your name then, but I forgot…. The alert said, Mister Seol… something has arrived on the second floor.”
So, in the end, someone did hear the alert.
“I always thought it was strange. Your name was definitely three words, yet you kept calling yourself 'Seol' all the time….”
Her words hit the bullseye, and Seol began stuttering.
“You name…. Can you please tell me your full name?”
Seol closed his eyes shut.
Quite inexplicably, the days he spent in the Neutral Zone brushed past his consciousness.
In the mornings, he ate breakfast with Yi Seol-Ah, Yi Sungjin, and Yun Seora.
Then, he met with his teammates on the first floor and discussed the day's schedule and battle tactics.
They did their best to complete various missions.
When they successfully cleared missions, they would head off to a lounge and chat over refreshing drinks.
He sometimes met with Shin Sang-Ah and Hyun Sangmin and asked them how they were doing.
He then returned to his quarters, share the day's activities with his roommates, before falling asleep……
It didn't matter how many times he recalled them, those were good memories.
When he opened his eyes, he found Yun Seora quietly waiting for him, her breathing now normal.
“M, my name, it's….”
His throat dried up. If his heart pounded any harder, it might explode out of his chest.
It'd be three, maybe four years since he willingly revealed his full name.
An all-too familiar sensation of vertigo finally left him, allowing Seol to take a deep breath.
His trembling lips parted and let the air out.
“My name is….”
…Seol was now Seol Jihu.
“My name is Seol Jihu.”
He stared straight at Yun Seora and smiled dimly.
As he was walking past the assembly hall and towards the gate.
“Was there a reason to hesitate telling her your full name?”
Kim Hannah asked him.
“Now that I think about it, I was getting kind of curious, too. Why did you always say your name was Seol? I mean, that's your surname, right?”
Seol Jihu kept on walking resolutely for a while, before slowly opening his mouth.
“….I was Seol.”
“For the last 3-4 years, I was Seol.”
Kim Hannah's expression reflected how confused she was. She wouldn't know, of course. It was the story from the days when he was still addicted to gambling, after all.
His family disowned him.
His title gradually changed from 'son' to 'idiot', then to 'bastard', then finally to 'lying asshole'. In the end, never mind being referred to his name, he wasn't even treated like a human being anymore.
The distance between him and his love also widened.
And he even got called a son of a bitch by her.
Before he knew it, no one was calling him by his name.
And he stopped telling others what his full name was, too.
Only that, back in the casino, some people called out to him using Mister Seol, Seol Hyung, etc, etc.
And so, Seol began accepting that as his name.
“Mm… Okay. So, why did you decide to reveal your full name, then?”
Seol Jihu momentarily stopped walking.
His gaze drifted up to the ceiling, unable to come up with a sound explanation even though he tried.
“I'm not sure. It's just…”
“I thought that now I can… No, maybe I can't be certain of that, but…”
Seol Jihu slowly lowered his gaze back down.
“At least, I thought that, if it’s Miss Yun Seora….”
He swept up the back of his long hair and smiled wryly.
“…..I should be able to tell her my name without being embarrassed about it.”Previous Chapter Next Chapter