Chapter 76. Maria’s Sorrow

Seol Jihu couldn't win against Maria's pestering and forced himself off from the ground. He dragged Mikhail and Chohong, while Maria dragged Veronika out of the underground cavern.

They eventually left the hilly region altogether and returned to their initial campsite. Only then did he feel that he had indeed survived the deadly encounter. Tears threatened to burst out of his eyes, but he suppressed them.

However, Maria cried. Although her manner of speech was a bit on the rough side, in the end, she was still a human being just like him. Seol Jihu felt a sense of kinship from her and formed a quiet smile.

“What are you cracking that grin for?! Fuck you, is it funny watching someone cry?”

“….”

As it turned out, Maria's sorrowful tears were for the crucifix she had to sacrifice during the Ceremony. She said something about it being an item that no amount of money could buy, even if its cost was factored in the equation.

Maria had lost her invaluable artifact, and her appearance was beyond messed up as well. Perhaps it was only obvious that she'd start unloading her tears with how wretched her current state was.

Seol Jihu tried to console her as gently as possible with the words, “But we still got to solve the mystery”, but Maria was triggered immediately and yelled back, “Does fame put food on the table?!”

She then proceeded to spit out all sorts of blaming fingers and sighs of lamentation.

“I shouldn't have come with you lot, if I knew something like this would happen, forget about 15 silver coins, I wouldn’t have said yes even if you gave me 150 silver coins”

But Seol Jihu had something to say about this as well.

“Well if you sided with me during the vote….”

“I didn't know things would turn out this way!”

Maria grabbed his collars and began shaking him around in sheer madness. She shouted out, “Why?! Why couldn't you have persuaded me better?!”

She was no longer thinking straight. She breathed like a raging bull, shot up from her seating position, and strode to where Mikhail and Veronika were sleeping peacefully. She then kicked the living daylights out of them over and over again.

'….She's gone mad.’

Seol Jihu sighed cautiously under his breath and switched his attention off from her. He shifted his worried gaze over to Chohong. Somewhat mysteriously, her hair remained in the shades of brilliant silver even now. With this look, she came across as a different person altogether. She was quite beautiful to behold, like a slumbering goddess quietly lying on her back.

Seol Jihu wordlessly brushed her smooth hair for a little while longer before laying down quietly next to her, while he still held a strand of her hair.

*

It was already early morning by the time he opened his eyes. He also realized that he slept like a baby after completely forgetting about standing as the lookout. Something like that should have never happened, but he was too fatigued and it couldn't be helped.

The first to regain consciousness were Mikhail and Veronika. They were initially confused and unsure of what happened, but after Seol Jihu explained the situation, they understood the events that took place during and after the battle. They even began roaring out in anger when they heard of Gierszal choosing to run away right after they became incapacitated.

“Gierszal, that son of a bitch…!”

Mikhail huffed and puffed with a reddened face.

“That fucking bastard. We'll see! I’ll tell everyone, not just in Haramark, but every-freaking-where to make sure he's got no place in Paradise anymore!”

As the old saying went, bad news traveled fast. The impact of a fast-spreading rumor would be quite scary. Not one Earthling would welcome another who readily abandoned his comrades in the middle of a battle.

Seol Jihu would have done the same if he could. It was just that, there was no need to do so anymore.

“You don't need to do that.”

“What? Why not?”

“He's already dead.”

Just thinking back to that event pissed Seol Jihu off. The Nest absorbed Gierszal's corpse and recovered from the fatal injury both Maria and Chohong bet their lives to inflict. If his 'Future Vision' didn't activate in time, they would all have been killed right there.

“Serves him right.”

“Good thing he's dead. That son of a bitch.”

These two's reactions were slightly off from Seol Jihu's expectations. They came across as comrades who had worked together for a long while. Rather than feeling bitter or even sympathetic, they were busy clapping their hands in celebration. Mikhail opened his mouth after seeing the youth's expression.

“No need to feel sorry for a bastard like that, you know.”

“No, it's not that I'm feeling sorry for him.”

“He’s the one who threw away our bond of trust. He committed one of the taboos of Paradise. If he was planning to do whatever he wants, why bother entering a team in the first place? Why not fool around on his own, then?”

Those words certainly weren't wrong. Mikhail smacked his lips a bit and silently studied the youth's reactions. He then quietly gathered his hands together in a pleading position.

“I'm sorry.”

“?”

“Not just with Gierszal, but, well…. You were right. We shouldn't have gone inside, but we got blinded by our greed and….”

Veronika also lowered her gaze a little as if she too had nothing to say to defend herself.

If he were honest, these guys didn't really meet Seol Jihu's standards. Compared to the previous expedition, they definitely lacked in many areas. Samuel and Veronika were on a completely different league as wide as the distance between heaven and earth itself.

But then again, this was the level of team he managed to assemble in the first place. These two did their best. At the very least, they didn't try to run away like a certain someone, so that certainly counted for something.

Perhaps that was why Seol Jihu could laugh.

“It's fine.”

*

The team packed up the camping site and got on the road back to Ramman Village.

There was one problem though. Chohong hadn't recovered her consciousness yet.

Mikhail still felt sorry about what had happened and made a suggestion of goodwill regarding him carrying Chohong instead, but Seol Jihu immediately rejected the proposal. The youth's stamina hadn't fully recovered, but he still carried her unconscious frame without complaining once. In truth, he felt a bit uncomfortable letting another man touch her.

The team needed around two hours to get back to the village. The first thing they did upon arrival was to rent out the biggest room in the inn. Others might have felt okay, but Maria and Chohong were both in a state where they desperately needed to take proper rest.

Mikhail left while saying that he'd search for a carriage while Veronika went around to find a delicious meal after Maria ordered her to do so.

Seol Jihu also stepped out of the inn. There was one last matter he needed to take care of before leaving this village altogether.

He knocked on a familiar door and heard a voice telling him to enter. He stepped inside and spotted the elderly owner of the house. It was none other than the village head.

“How goes with the request?”

He didn't even bother to turn around from his seat to ask that.

“It's been resolved. Mutants won't appear ever again.”
)
The youth didn't miss that the complexion of the village head stiffening greatly in that brief moment.

“…I should thank you. However, it's only been one, two days since our last meeting, yet you seem to be very worse for wear. I guess the mutants were rather strong?”

“You haven't seen us fight, yet you seem to know pretty well.”

Seol Jihu grinned brightly and kept his gaze locked on the village head.

“Well, a famous mage such as yourself would easily figure out what happened.”

The village head maintained an expressionless face. He simply remained sitting in his chair, his eyes quietly closed. It seemed that he was swimming within the murky sea of his thoughts at the moment.

He showed not one sign of movement and remained utterly silent for a long while. Just as the impression of time itself having frozen entered the youth's mind, the old man finally broke the silence and addressed him.

“….Did you kill it?”

“Yes.”

Rather unexpectedly, the old man's reaction was rather tranquil. Or was it closer to being a mixture of relief and sorrow? It even came across as if a load was taken off his shoulders, too.

“I see.”

Even his manner of speech had become curt as well. But the change was so natural that Seol Jihu didn't feel too put off by it.

“Indeed, I kind of expected this. Back when you started talking about the research centers, I began suspecting it. Maybe you were just testing the waters because you had already figured out my identity.”

“I won't deny that.”

“How did you find out? Information related to my identity should have all been expunged by now.”

“Before I answer that, there is something I'd like to ask you first.”

The village head didn't say anything else. Seol Jihu pulled out a chair next to the old man and settled down.

“First of all….”

The youth took a little bit of time to organize his thoughts and only then, asked his question.

“What exactly was that cavern? Was it a laboratory?”

“A laboratory, you say…. In a way, you could say that. Well, the truth is, it's far closer to being a hideout.”

Seol Jihu nodded his head. Calling it a hideout certainly made more sense.

“Village head, you created a hideout for a Nest near your village.”

“I did say that a place like that had to be built. But I didn't personally construct it. It'd be more correct to say that it was built for me.”

“It was…. built for you?”

Seol Jihu tilted his head. Was this old man trying sophistry on him right now?

“The hideout was built by the residents of this village, actually.”

What did he mean by that?

“Are you implying that the residents of this village are your accomplices?”

“Be careful with what you say. These people are trying to find a way to survive, so how could that be seen as a crime?”

The old man put up a simple complaint. A way to survive, he said. Seol Jihu mulled over those words and slowly reorganized his thoughts again.

“So you escaped the duchy after the project was shut down and settled in this village. Afterwards, you continued on with your research. The adult villagers somehow learned of the truth and they decided to help your experiments.”

“Aren't you a smart one. I don't dislike smart fellas such as yourself.”

The village head smiled brightly.

“Well, our interests lined up pretty nicely, that was about it.”

He then sighed softly under his breath and carried on.

“I wanted to achieve a tangible result somehow and make my glorious return. And the villagers wanted means to defend this village at all times from a potential enemy invasion. Do you get it now?”

Ramman Village was located quite close to the border region. To put it simply, the villagers wanted some sort of a combat force that could defend them against the invasion of Parasites that might happen at any given day. Considering that point, it wasn't as if Seol Jihu couldn't understand their viewpoint, but….

“But, even then, I'm rather surprised that the villagers helped out willingly like that. Especially when there are a lot of kids around too.”

“What can I say. We're living in such a time.”

The old man carried on.

“There is no right or wrong in matters of survival. In this world, whether you are a righteous man or of a wicked persuasion, you have to gather under one banner and pool your resources to survive. That is the case, even now.”

“But couldn’t they have just moved elsewhere?”

“It's difficult to abandon the land you've been calling home for decades… Well, I won't say something so stereotypical like that.”

The old man formed a bitter smile.

“But the truth is, they have nowhere else to go. We aren't living out in the sticks because we like it.”

“Did your entry to the city get refused?”

“If it's something as simple as entering it, then no, it's not that difficult at all. However, it's the 'settling down' part that's the problem. Well, it's nothing to swear blue murder for. After all, regardless of which castle or city, there's always a limit to how many people you can take in. It's already a big task to accommodate all of you Earthlings, so how could they spare any energy to look after people like us?”

The voice of the old man certainly came across as thorny to the youth's ears.

“But that doesn't mean we plan to die without putting up a resistance. If you're a human being, then you'd want to live on no matter what. The people of this village are no exception. That is why they had accepted me.”

The way this old man spoke, he sounded as if he was trying to protect the village, rather than blame the people living in it. Seol Jihu asked his next question.

“Did you succeed in your experiments?”

“No, I failed.”

The old man replied immediately. His voice was thickly laden with remorse.

“The Empire knew what the issues with the project were. No, I also knew them. But I was just fooling myself with an empty dream, thinking that I couldn't let it end just like that.”

“Issues, you say….”

“It wasn't just one or two. You'd need quite a lot of time for a Nest to transform into a reliable combat force, and also, there was a limit to how much you could control it. Should I say that its efficiency was bad?”

The old man replied until then, before throwing a question of his own.

“You asked me this, didn't you? Why the level of the team I requested kept increasing.”

“Yes.”

“I felt a little scared when you did that, actually. The answer is simple. I wanted it to learn.”

“To learn?”

“A newly-born Nest is no different than a clueless child. The Parasites possess a unique command structure with the queen standing in the apex of their hierarchy serving as the center of everything. The whole thing is like a network of a spider's web. Their roles are clearly assigned and the information is transmitted to one another, but no matter how much we researched it, we still failed to uncover the inner workings of their organization.”

Now that Seol Jihu thought about it, the mutants born from the Nest were far closer to humans in appearance, quite different from how the Medusa, Bugs, or even Cockroaches looked. Feeling genuinely curious, he continued with his questioning.

“In that case, it sounds like the experiment was not a total failure? It's now proven that the Nest is capable of learning, so if the Empire seriously stepped up with their efforts, wouldn't they have been possible to shorten the gestation time?”

The old man blinked his eyes as if he didn't expect the youth to say something like that. Soon, though, he formed a bitter expression.

“Didn't I say it? There's a limit to how much control we can exert.”

He slowly got up from the chair and brought out a small box from somewhere. Click, he opened the lid to reveal a murky, dark stone the size of a child's fist.

Seol Jihu looked at it with some interest. He thought it resembled a black-ish jelly.

“This is?”

“This is 'rudium'. You could say it's the essence of alchemy. Well, just think of it as the core ore used to control the Nest.”

“Such a thing was really possible?”

Seol Jihu's eyes sparkled. Perhaps finding his interest not unwelcome, the old man began chuckling softly.

“If you want to hear it, then well, I'll tell you. If your level of magic engineering knowledge is at least a quarter of what I know, then I'm confident of teaching you within seven days.”

“….What if I don't have any?”

“Please, spare this old man. I don't wish to draw my last breath trying to make you understand.”

The old man replied without missing a beat. He looked at the box and sighed under his breath.

“And it has gotten this small already. I meant to conserve it as much as I could, too….”

“Is it impossible to control a Nest without this ore called rudium?”

“Yes. Not only is the manufacturing process very difficult, but more than anything, sourcing the ore that serves as its base material is truly the case of plucking the stars from the heavens. And on top of that, it's not even a permanent use item, but a consumable….”

The old man's voice trailed off at the end there, before he closed his mouth shut. Seol Jihu didn't need to hear the rest to make educated guesses, though. He urged on.

“You used what remained of this 'rudium' to control the Nest and continued on with your research.”

“That's correct.”

“And because of us, the hope of the village has disappeared now.”

“No, it's not like that.”

The old man shook his head.

“The research has failed a long time ago. I'm not blaming you for anything.”

“You haven’t given up on it though.”

“If I didn't have a choice on the matter, fine. But I hated the idea of giving up when I had already come so far. It's alright to ridicule me for being an obstinate fool. That was my reason, anyway.”

“….”

“This self-reproach thing doesn't work anyway and only makes me look more wretched than I am already, so please spare me from that. So, is there anything else?”

“I have two more questions.”

The old man gestured with his chin to signal ‘Go ahead’.

“The entrance hidden in the hills showed no traces of anyone using it for the past few years. However, my Archer told me that there were traces of people inside the cavern.”

“That's simple. Haven't you thought about the possibility of a secret entrance leading to the cave designed to avoid the eyes of Archers?”

The old man grinned and tapped the floorboards of the house with his foot.

“And what else?”

“What were you planning to do once the rudium ran out?”

“I was planning to hand myself over to the kingdom. However, I figured that it was still good for one or two more uses.”

The old man answered without holding anything back.

Seol Jihu thought that he had heard enough now. He got up, only to find a small pouch come flying his way. Upon catching it, he heard the metallic clings coming from it. It was the request reward.

“I should give you your due first.”

The village head gravely opened his mouth next.

“So, what will happen to me now?”

“…Hmm, I wonder.”

“Are you going to kill me? Or, alternatively, you could report me to the royals and have an arrest warrant issued.”

Seol Jihu studied the chuckling old man for a while. In all honesty, he came here to satisfy his curiosity and didn't really think about what he would do next. Sure, Chohong got hurt pretty badly, but to him, it was hard to blame this old man for that.

The youth contemplated his options for a bit before asking one last question.

“Village head. Actually, there is one thing I'm really curious about.”

The old man spat out a long groan.

“Fella. By any chance, are there people around you finding you rather annoying?”

“….”

“Tsk. Alright, go ahead.”

“Why did you do it?”

“Mm?”

“Both the Empire and Delpinion Duchy have been destroyed. There is no one chasing you down anymore. With your level of knowledge, you would have received favorable treatment no matter which kingdom you chose to go to, so why did you choose to remain in this small village?”

The village head pursed his lips. His hands were interlocked now, his index fingers lightly tapping on his knuckles. A short while later, he made his reply.

“Because this place needed me and my research.”

A soft smile suffused on his lips next.

“If it's here, then I have a place where I can stay.”

A place that needed him, where he could stay. Those words touched Seol Jihu in his heart.

“…I guess so.”

The youth nodded his head in agreement and turned around to leave. That answer was enough to decide on the old man's fate.

“Are you leaving?”

“Yes. Ah, by the way. You owe me a debt for this one.”

“What do you mean, I owe you?”

“I'm going to keep my mouth shut over this matter, you see.”

“But, I already gave you money.”

“Eiii, come on now. That was for the request Besides, let's be honest here. It's far too little, isn't it?”

The old man broke out in a genial chuckle from that good-natured reply.

“I don't mind you being strict with your calculations, but if we're playing by that rule, you also need to tell me something.”

“?”

“Your identity. Just how did you figure out everything?”

“I took a guess.”

“Stop with the bullshit that won't stick.”

Seol Jihu displayed some hints of being put under the spot.

“Mm…. Just letting you know doesn't sit well with me. I had to work pretty hard to solve the mystery, after all.”

“Are you really going to do this to an old man?”

“Why don't we do it this way? I'll give you a hint so you can figure it out yourself.”

The old man smirked as if he found the idea of the challenge itself ridiculous.

“Hah! Presenting me, the top genius of the Delpinion Duchy, with a riddle….. Interesting. Fine.”

“No going back on your word now.”

“Just hurry up and be out with it.”

“When there are nine eyes, what will it be?”

“Nine… what now?”

The old man formed a dumb expression, then.

Now that his curiosity had been satisfied, Seol Jihu sent a refreshing smile back to the old man along with a slight nod of his head and left the house.

*

The youth returned to the inn only to be greeted by a pretty unfortunate piece of news: Mikhail had failed in securing a carriage. But, then again, this was a small village, and there wouldn't be all that many carriages going to and from Haramark here. In the end, they had to settle for walking back home, instead.

The team set off from Ramman in the middle of the afternoon. Seol Jihu initially wanted to wait until Chohong regained her consciousness, but he also had to think about Maria's condition as she needed to get to her temple as soon as possible in order to recuperate properly there.

They marched on throughout the evening and well into the night before finding a suitable location to set up camp.

The dinner time remained rather boisterous. Chohong still hadn't woken up, but her condition had improved quite noticeably. Seeing that color of blood had returned to her once-pale cheeks and that her breathing had normalized, he relaxed just a little more than before. According to Maria's prognosis, she should be waking up before the day's end.

And then, the team also got to solve the mystery as well. As this could be considered a triumphant return in glory, the overall atmosphere was rather upbeat. With the exception of Maria feeling really depressed, that is.

When Chohong finally regained her consciousness, it was some time after the team ended their dinner and had retired back to their tents. She massaged her forehead while getting up from her sleeping bag, before discovering Seol Jihu sitting around as a lookout alone. Her eyes grew extra large.

After sensing the movement behind him, he looked back and his eyes also opened wide. He jumped up from the ground, and he quickly called out to her. An expression of happiness spread on his face.

“Chohong!”

“Wha, what happened?”

Chohong carried a confused expression.

“You were…..”

Seol Jihu hurriedly approached her, but then, a sudden suspicious light flickered within his eyes. H-Hmm! He coughed to clear his throat and spoke as if nothing was amiss.

“What do you mean, what happened?”

“Where are we? Weren't we inside a cave?”

“A cave?”

He asked back as if he didn't understand what she was saying.

“What's the matter? Are you still asleep right now? We're on our way to Ramman Village, remember?”

“Whaaat?!”

Chohong cried out in pure shock.

“We decided to take upon the Ramman Village's request, remember? To subjugate the mutants and if it's possible, to find out where they are coming from.”

“Wait. Wait, waaaait.”

Chohong frowned deeply and covered both of her temples with her hands.

“Fuck… what's going on here? We're still on our way to Ramman Village?”

She quickly scanned her surroundings and her brows contorted rather grandly. The signs of dumbfoundedness were clear in her expression.

Soon, her eyes shot open wide and she sucked in a deep, deep breath. Her once-dazed eyes began quaking noticeably.

“…So that's what happened….”

Time reversal? Or was it a dream? She began muttering to herself as if she had an epiphany, and then….

“Hey, let's go back.”

She took a big step towards him and spoke in a determined voice.

“If we keep going like this, we'll all die.”

“W-What? What are you talking about all of a sudden?”

“Just listen to me, will ya? I know that what I'm saying doesn't make much sense, and I also know it's coming from left field. But for the time being, let's go back to Haramark. We gotta go back.”

“What? I don’t want to. I'm still going ahead. You know how much I've been waiting for this request, don't you?”

Chohong suddenly began pounding on her chest as frustration took hold.

“Argh! Damn it, you're driving me crazy here! Really, listen to me!”

Chohong froze in the middle of her speech right then. She could see Seol Jihu doing his best, and failing, to suppress his laughter.

“You…?!”

Chohong's eyes grew wider and wider, and she hurriedly grasped her hair to confirm. Sure enough, it was silver.

“You….”

The youth rapidly ran away from there.

“…Bastard! Imma kill you!”

Chohong madly chased after him as well.

“Ahahahaha!!”

“Stop right there! I said stop!”

The back of his neck got caught soon enough, and he was yanked down to the ground on his back. She climbed on top of his waist as if she was riding a horse.

“Hey, you! Did you have fun making a fool out of me?!”

“I'm relieved.”

Seol Jihu panted heavily before forming a bright smile for the woman on top growling menacingly at him. Chohong hesitated after seeing that earnest, happy smile.

“It's a relief that you woke up. Do you know how worried I was?”

“Well, uh….”

His eyes were so serious, his voice full of his honest feelings. She could only blink her eyes at the gaze coming from below filled with his warmth. She sneakily shifted her eyes away as her neck reddened gradually. However, that lasted only for an all too brief moment. Her expressions crumpled and she yelled at the top of her lungs.

“How dare you try pulling a fast one on me? You think I will let you off the hook because of that?!”

“W-Wait…!!”

Kuk!! She roughly grabbed his collars and began shaking him around like a rag doll.

It was only obvious that the sudden outbreak of a commotion would wake the sleeping people up.

—Keuk! Stop, stooop!

—You better stay still, you hear?!

—S-Save me!!

—How dare you make fun of me?! Ah??

“….Why the heck is it so noisy?”

Mikhail was roused from sleep and, while rubbing his eyes, got up from the sleeping bag. Veronika had woken up before him and, even though she carried a sleepy face, her eyes were sparkling as she continued to sneak a long peek outside the tent.

—I, I'm getting killed!

—That's right! Why don't we die together, ah?! Don't worry, I’ll kill you for real today!

“Huh? Isn't that Chohong's voice?”

Mikhail took a look outside and gasped out in surprise. He could only see Chohong from the back, but well, he could also see her riding on top of Seol Jihu and violently rocking her body to and fro.

“Outdoor play, is it…. Keuh! Look at her hips move. Now that's something else.”

Mikhail stared at Seol Jihu with eyes of envy. He gulped down his saliva and sent a furtive glance at Veronika. She received that, but then, returned a prim, uptight leer back at him. However, the way the corners of her lips arched up, it seemed that she, too, was rather greatly aroused for the occasion.

And a short while later… the grunts coming out from a certain part of mother nature, as well as the one flowing out from a certain tent, became a harmony that resounded out within the land.

And then, exactly like a lightning bolt in the middle of the night….

Maria was staying alone in the other tent, and she was far too dumbfounded to go back to sleep now. As a matter of fact, she thought she could see her own shock materialize in the air and dance in front of her eyes.

Eventually, she buried herself in the sleeping bag with a depressed face and covered up her ears.

“…Fuck….”

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