Chapter 444. While He is Gone (1)

The second Imperial Oath expedition.

The series of incidents, which began with the Parasite’s surprise attack on Nur, ended when the expedition of 21 members infiltrated the Empire at the risk of their lives and achieved their initial goal.

The expedition seemed to have ended in success as the team retrieved the stele and its twenty members returned safely, but that was far from the truth because, as it turned out, the Parasite’s actual goal was not the stele. The Federation and humanity had been running circles on the Parasite Queen’s palm the whole time.

The expedition was over, but the team didn’t break up. Once out of the Parasites territory, they moved to Haramark’s base of operation, the Arden Valley fortress, all to wait for the last expedition member who had yet to return.

Chohong sat cross-legged at the highest guard post in the valley. She had been observing the road near the valley’s entrance since early in the morning without moving a muscle.

Kazuki, who was carrying a tray of breakfast, sighed when he saw Chohong. Today wasn’t the first time she’d done this. Chohong had been looking down the road ever since she arrived at the valley fortress. She ate at the guard post and slept at the guard post, even though she knew exactly what had happened.

And it wasn’t just Chohong. Everyone knew what happened to Seol Jihu. Teresa’s Observatio Vitae became a pile of ashes, and Eun Yuri confirmed his death with Roselle.

“Food’s here.”

Kazuki put the tray down next to Chohong, but she didn’t even look. Kazuki said nothing. He’d grown tired of persuading her. And it wasn’t like Chohong was the only one in this state. She’ll eat when she’s hungry. Kazuki muttered to himself and turned around.

“Ah.”

But he stopped just before he set foot on the slope because he remembered something.

“It looks like he’ll arrive tomorrow morning.”

Chohong flinched slightly.

“…Where?”

“We don’t know for sure. We’ve barely figured out his current location.”

“…”

“Wait for him. Don’t do anything rash.”

Kazuki said before continuing down the slope.

The next morning.

The rain had been falling since dawn. What began as a drizzle soon became a downpour that fell mercilessly over the fortress as if a hole had been punched through the sky full of dark clouds.

Chwaaaa—

Peering through the heavy rain, Yi Seol-Ah spotted a man in the distance approaching the fortress.

“Look! Over there!”

She yelled in surprise.

Although the figure staggered, he was very much moving. This could only mean one thing— he was still alive. Even Kazuki widened his eyes.

But after a closer examination, they realized that the black smoke surrounding the man’s body was the one moving him.

As the man got near, they could clearly see his drooping head, dangling arm, and two legs dragging on the wet ground, leaving long marks behind them.

The gate opened.

Flone floated through the gate with her left arm wrapped around Seol Jihu’s neck. As she slowly raised her head, everyone’s dazed eyes turned to her.

[We’re back….]

Flone was still crying. Her tears of blood mingled with the falling rain and spread like watercolor across her cheeks.

After a moment of silence, she carefully laid Seol Jihu on the ground before everyone. Then she placed the Spear of Purity and the red egg next to the body.

Finally, the last member of the expedition team had returned.

Everyone fell silent when they saw Seol Jihu.

The man lying on the ground hardly felt familiar after the rain washed away the blood covering his body and revealed traces of the struggle.

His wounds could only be described as gruesome. It was enough to make those watching shudder in horror.

Seeing his blue lips and dark bags under his eyes, Yi Seol-Ah began to sob. The condition of his body was proof of how desperately he fought.

Suddenly, a woman staggered forward. She flopped beside the body and began reciting holy spells. This woman was— Seo Yuhui.

Muttering cure spells over and over again, Seo Yuhui seemed beside herself.

“Arm…. His arm….”

Her fingers fumbled over Seol Jihu’s right shoulder, where his arm had been cut off. She soon raised her hand into the air, took out an altar, grabbed all the offerings she could find in her Dimensional Pocket, and placed them on the altar.

Philip Muller eyed Eun Yuri. Eun Yuri bit her lower lip and quickly cast a spell. When she finished drawing two circles with her finger, Seo Yuhui, who was about to bow to the altar, fell to the ground.

Had Seo Yuhui been in her normal state of mind, she easily would have resisted a simple sleeping spell like the one Eun Yuri just used. But because her mental strength had been significantly weakened, she could not resist the spell and thus fell unconscious.

“The Parasite Queen never cared about the stele…. I think she was after Oppa from the beginning.”

After Oh Rahee took Seo Yuhui inside, Eun Yuri began to speak.

“The entire Parasite army, even the ones that were supposed to come after us, went after Oppa…. They went as far as to perform the Wheel Tactic against him….”

In a small but clear voice, she told everyone everything she had learned from Roselle.

“After we parted… he couldn’t rest a second… surrounded by the enemy, he fought continuously, endlessly….”

For 12 days straight.

“Even against the army of tens of thousands of parasites… he just wouldn’t fall… so the Parasite Queen and the six Army Commanders had to step in….”

Eun Yuri paused while talking, then clenched her teeth.

“The truth is….”

There was one thing her teacher emphasized that everyone should know.

“Oppa… knew.”

Roselle told her they should be grateful to Seol Jihu. She said to her that even kneeling in front of him and bowing a hundred times wouldn’t suffice.

“He realized the Parasite Queen’s true intention the moment he escaped….”

Because….

“And he was relieved….”

There was no way Seol Jihu didn’t know that walking into the enemy’s trap would reduce his chance of returning alive to almost zero.

Nevertheless, Seol Jihu did not run away. He walked into the trap, knowing it was a trap. And it wasn’t to prove anything. He only wanted one thing and one thing only. He wanted his comrades to escape safely.

For that reason, Seol Jihu raised his spear without hesitation. Worried that the enemy would start chasing his comrades, he chose to confront the Parasites head-on, even at the risk of his death.

“Idiot….”

Phi Sora pouted, her eyes red from crying.

“I told you not to mind it….”

She wiped her tears with her hand.

Kazuki quickly approached Chohong from behind and grabbed her arms so she couldn’t move. Chohong’s breathing had become irregular and her hand holding the Thorn of Steel was shaking. Her bloodshot eyes filled with tears and she looked just about ready to storm into the enemy territory.

“Don’t even think about it.”

“Think about what?”

“You know what I mean. It’s too late to do anything.”

“Let go. Get off of me! Can’t you see that?”

Chohong’s body shook as if about to explode.

“Does that look like a human body to you? No, that’s a piece of butchered meat! I’ll do the same to the Parasites! Those fuckers…!”

Chohong screamed at the top of her lungs, struggling to escape from Kazuki’s grip. All of a sudden, a hand the size of a pot lid grabbed her arm. She tried to shake it off, but the hand only pressed down harder.

“Let go…!”

“Stop it.”

Just as she was about to explode, she heard a gloomy voice.

Chohong turned around.

A puzzled look flashed across her face.

It was Hugo who caught her arm. He looked calm and serious, which was unusual for him. The blood veins forking out over the whites of his eyes were proof that a myriad of emotions was flying through his mind, but she could see that he was holding them back with all his might.

Hugo spoke with his eyes fixed on Seol Jihu.

“…He’s here now.”

That was all he said. It was only three words, but when she heard them, Chohong felt all strength leave her body.

A drop of tear rolled down Hugo’s cheek and mingled with the rain. It wasn’t just Hugo. Marcel Ghionea was also crying. His face was wet with rain, but the streams of water trickling down his cheeks were, without doubt, tears of resentment toward the Parasites.

Thud!

The Thorn of Steel slammed into the ground and Chohong’s head dropped at the same time. Sadness contorted her face and she sobbed. As if that was a cue, stifled sobs slowly began to fill the fortress.

“The rain is getting heavier….”

King Prihi, who had been quiet until then, raised his head toward the sky.

“We should bring him inside before it gets colder.”

At Prihi’s words, Jan Sanctus opened the wooden casket that they had prepared beforehand.

Teresa lifted Seol Jihu from the ground and carefully laid him down in the casket.

Before closing the lid, she took Seol Jihu’s pale, lifeless hand in hers.

“Don’t you worry.”

Teresa whispered at Seol Jihu, who seemed sound asleep.

“We’ll protect Paradise until you return….”

She kissed him on his cold forehead and closed the lid. Then she covered the casket with a piece of white fabric.

“Our hero has returned to us.”

Prihi announced solemnly.

“Treat him with respect and courtesy that he deserves.”

Jan Sanctus and his soldiers marched deeper into the fortress, carrying the wooden casket on their shoulders. The hero’s comrades followed the procession with solemn faces.

The rain continued to fall, wetting the cloth covering the casket….

*


Haramark’s royal family sent Seol Jihu’s body to Eva. With that, the news of his death spread rapidly, and the Eva royal family, who was eagerly waiting for Seol Jihu’s return, was thrown into a frenzy.

According to the rumors, Charlotte Aria kept repeatedly fainting after hearing the news, and even Sorg Kühne had refused to come out of his room.

The situation in Valhalla was not much different.

“Who did you say was dead? Who? Impossible! That’s impossible!”

Jang Maldong’s shout echoed throughout the building.

“Master Jang! Please calm down…!”

Kim Hannah’s desperate plea was also heard.

“Out of my way! I… I have to go see him…. Cough, cough!

“Master? Master!”

Yi Sungjin, who was agonizing over whether to enter or not, quickly pushed the door open when he heard Kim Hannah’s request for help. He, along with Kim Hannah, forced Jang Maldong to calm down.

“Haaaaa….”

Her hair messy and loose, Kim Hannah gave a deep sigh. She looked less than ideal due to a severe lack of sleep during the last few days.

“Um….”

After a moment of hesitation, Yi Sungjin turned toward Kim Hannah. She had black bags under her eyes.

“Shouldn’t you hurry?”

Kim Hannah, who had been sighing without rest, threw a glance at Yi Sungjin.

“I know… I’m leaving soon. I already finished the prep work.”

“Prep work?”

“…Yeah.”

As she replied in an exhausted voice, a streak of worry crossed her brow.

“It should be happening around now….”

A few days ago.

It was past midnight and the air was chilly.

“Heuuuuu!”

Seol Jihu woke up with a start. His eyes shot wide open and he gasped and panted as if he had just escaped a nightmare.

His blurred vision began to clear and he saw a familiar pattern on the wall.

He was in his room.

For a moment, he lay in silence, blinking his eyes rapidly, but soon he kicked his blanket out of the way to get up. That was when a sudden wave of dizziness swept through him.

“Ugh….”

With a grunt, Seol Jihu flopped back on the bed.

‘It’s cold….’

Gritting his teeth, he wrapped his arms around himself. He couldn’t stop shivering, and his head was throbbing as if he was hungover. He had never felt so sick.

‘Did I drink too much last night?’

Lying sprawled on his bed, Seol Jihu only moved his eyeballs to scan the room. He couldn’t see any bottles or glasses nearby.

‘…Huh?’

Suddenly his head tilted slightly in confusion.

‘Was my room… always this clean?’

There was a thin layer of dust on the furniture, but overall his room seemed to be in good order. The ashtray in which he had built a tower of cigarette butts was also gone.

‘Did Seonhwa come by? Or… wait a minute.’

Seol Jihu’s eyes narrowed. Something felt odd.

‘I went to visit Seonhwa yesterday…. She gave me 2 million won and I came home with it, and then…?’

Seol Jihu frowned. He tried to keep calm, but the more he tried to remember what had happened, the more disorganized he began to feel.

He was dumbstruck. Why did he think something that had happened more than a year ago just happened yesterday?

Seol Jihu took a deep breath and tried to organize his thoughts.

‘No, I….’

That’s right. It wasn’t yesterday that he met Yoo Seonhwa. That happened much longer ago. And afterwards, he….

‘Hmm? Huh?’

No, after he came back from Seonhwa’s house… that day….

‘I had a weird dream…?’

Yes, he had a dream, though he couldn’t remember what it was about. After he woke up, he wandered around the neighborhood for a while. Then, in Tancheon….

‘I think… I met someone…?’

Holding his head in his hand, Seol Jihu whimpered.

‘The person I met was….’

When he tried to remember, an extremely powerful stab of pain jolted his brain, causing his eyes to jerk open.

“Aak!”

A scream burst again from his lips. The pain grew sharper as scenes from the past began to flash through his mind. The problem was that these scenes were only a segment of the whole, a still picture cut from a filmstrip.

‘What the….’

Seol Jihu clutched his head at the sudden jumble of memories.

‘What’s going on…!?’

The motive, the cause, he remembered none of it. All he could recall was the end result.

“Keuaaaa….”

With a groan, Seol Jihu rolled across the floor of his room.

‘No….’

He squirmed from side to side over the hard floor before suddenly raising his head.

‘Somebody, please…!’

His eyes caught the cell phone connected to the charger in the corner of the room.

‘Why do I have two cell phones?’

Even while feeling sick to his stomach, Seol Jihu managed to grab the right one. He tapped on the screen and clicked on the call icon with his shaking thumb.

“…Kim Hannah?”

Seol Jihu’s brow furrowed instantly.

“Yun Seora? Phi Sora? Who are these people…?”

Koong. He pressed his forehead to the ground. Seeing these unfamiliar names confused him further and his headache worsened as well.

“Who are they…?”

Seol Jihu’s voice began to shake.

“What the hell is going on…!?”

He screamed at the top of his lungs. In a fit of anger, he threw the cell phone in his hand across his room and stood up.

“It’s 2018? Not 2017?”

Pacing back and forth across the room, he muttered to himself like a lunatic.

“And what’s with this cell phone?”

He screamed after finding a cell phone he had no memory of buying. Eventually, he began banging his head against the wall to relieve the throbbing headache.

Something big had happened in his life, but he couldn’t remember any of it. He felt like he had just awakened from a decade of hibernation, but he knew that was impossible.

He knew just before all this happened that he was doing something. But whenever he tried to remember what that something was, his headache worsened, as if someone had intentionally erased that part of his memory from his brain. And that was driving him crazy.

“…Fuck!”

Seol Jihu slammed his fist against the wall.

“What is this!?”

Then he kicked the TV and knocked the desk over. He had to vent his emotions, otherwise, he knew he would lose it.

His neighbors seemed to have noticed the commotion he caused. Seol Jihu heard the sound of footsteps approaching.

Ding-dong! Ding-dong!

He heard the doorbell, he heard the knock, he heard the voice calling his name.

But those sounds were the least of his concerns.

“Uaaaargh!”

Seol Jihu was no longer his usual self, and it wasn’t just because of the psychological stress of not being able to remember his past. There were physical stressors, too. He had trouble breathing, the air felt stuffy, and he felt as though his heart was about to explode. Sharp stabs of pain accompanied by a headache, seemed almost to rattle his brain.

Seol Jihu’s eyelashes trembled as tears welled up in his eyes. He didn’t know why, but he felt empty and lost. These feelings further fueled his sense of incongruity, and perplexity spread like wildfire inside him. The pain was so severe that he wished he was dead. Because if his head really exploded, then he wouldn’t have to suffer like this anymore.

Drrrrk!

As it was getting harder to breathe, Seol Jihu unwittingly opened the window. The cold night air brushed against his face. Panting like a beast, Seol Jihu craned his neck outside the window and dropped his head. It was then that he noticed a black sedan parked in front of his apartment building.

When he saw the sedan, for some reason, he….

“Ah….”

Seol Jihu’s eyes momentarily dimmed as he gazed down below.

It was then.

KWANG! The sound of the door breaking open resounded in the air.

Four or five men dressed in black suits entered Seol Jihu’s room.

“What the….”

Seol Jihu, who instinctively turned to the sound, hissed in surprise.

“Who are you? What do you want from me?”

One of the men in black sunglasses quickly looked around to grasp the situation. The room was a mess and the owner of the room appeared unstable and even aggressive.

And if he wasn’t mistaken… Seol Jihu’s body was slightly leaning out the window.

“It’s worse than I expected. In that condition, even if we try to persuade him, he won’t listen.”

“What did you say? Persuade me? What the hell are you talking about?”

Seol Jihu shouted and the man smacked his lips.

“I’m sorry, but this is for your own good.”

“Get out! If you don’t leave, I’m going to call the police…!”

“Grab him.”

Seol Jihu flinched because the language that the man just spoke was not Korean.

The next moment four men in black suits came at him.

Seol Jihu struggled to fend them off.

‘Huh?’

When he succeeded in shaking off an arm, Seol Jihu flinched in surprise. He thought he would be no match for them, but he managed to push one of them out of his way without much difficulty. Even after that, he maintained a stalemate against four large, healthy men.

“Even without memory, he’s….”

Tension ensued between Seol Jihu and the group of men.

Suddenly, Seol Jihu heard a low voice from behind.

“It must be the fruit of all his hard training. His body remembers what his brain has forgotten.”

Startled, Seol Jihu quickly swung his arm toward the man behind him, but the man blocked it with his palm. At the same time, his other hand holding a handkerchief covered Seol Jihu’s nose and mouth. The handkerchief smelled of anesthetic gas.

“Uup! Uuuuep!”

Seol Jihu struggled to free himself, but the four men quickly grabbed his arms and legs and clung to them like cicadas on a tree.

After minutes of intense struggle, Seol Jihu’s body went limp.

Hao Win breathed a deep sigh and wiped the sweat off his forehead.

“We have to leave quickly. Be careful when you carry him.”

Two of the men grabbed Seol Jihu from both sides and stepped out the front door. They followed Hao Win down the stairs.

Not long after, the black sedan parked in front of the building rushed out of the alley and sped away, the sound of its engine fading.

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