Chohong didn't return to Carpe Diem's office immediately. No, it'd be far more correct to say she couldn't.
Seol Jihu turned around in a trance and left after the explanations came to an end. He didn't even suggest going back together. As a matter of fact, he didn't say anything. Chohong felt this heavy pressure from his back silently growing further away from her.
“God damn it.”
Chohong found herself pacing up and down the vicinity of the office for a long while before finally taking large strides up the steps to the side of the building.
She breathed in deeply and swung the door open, only to find Seol Jihu had already finished getting ready to leave. She stood there and vacantly stared at him neatly fill his bag up.
“Hey, you. What are you doing?”
“I've got a place I need to go.”
Seol Jihu didn't even bother to turn around as he answered. Chohong nearly jumped up in fright before a wry chuckle leaked out of her lips.
“No way. It's not that, right?”
“What's not it?”
“You're angry and just want to let me know about it, right? Okay, okay. I got it. Hey, let's all calm down and have a seat so we can talk like adults. Right? Let's talk for a second. Hm?”
Seol Jihu snorted derisively.
“What are you even on about? You think I'd rush into the enemy camp all alone?”
If not, that sure would be a big relief. Even then, Chohong's face was full of complicated, mixed-up emotions. However, Seol Jihu completely disregarded that, slung the bag over his shoulder, and finally, picked up his spear. One wouldn't normally dress like that unless he was planning to leave the safety of the city for a while.
“Where are you thinking of going, then?”
“No need to worry about it.”
“What was that?”
“I'll take care of this by myself. I want to do it with my own strength, you see.”
Seol Jihu walked right past Chohong. She squeezed her eyes shut and quickly grabbed his arm.
“Are you really gonna be like this?”
“What do you mean, be like this?”
“Hey, you!! Okay, wait. Fine. I'm sorry about not telling you anything, but….”
“No, that's not it.”
Seol Jihu abruptly stopped walking and made a curt reply.
“You did tell me something, alright. The problem is with you lying, that's all.”
Chohong faltered a little, then. His eyes were as icy and hard as the air permeating within the office. She gritted her teeth and shouted out.
“B-But, you, you also did that, too!”
“I know I made you worry, but even you….!!”
“At the very least, I told you beforehand, didn’t I?”
He cut her words off like a sharp blade.
“And also, I never lied to you.”
Chohong's face paled gradually. Seol Jihu yanked his arm loose and stepped outside the door.
“W-Where are you going?!”
He wordlessly climbed down the steps.
“Hey, Seol!! Heeeey!”
Her pleading voice echoed in the air but his figure soon disappeared from her sight.
Seol Jihu got on a carriage. Its driver was hesitant at first after hearing the request of getting to the destination as quickly as possible and to wait until the youth was done with what he wanted to do there. But when a silver coin was presented, there was an immediate change in the glint of the driver's eyes. The distance wasn't too far and there seemingly wasn't a good enough reason to refuse.
Thanks to that, Seol Jihu got to reduce the travel time by at least eight hours, but it was already dawn when he arrived in Ramman Village. But then again, every second counted, so he ran as if he wanted to fly and pounded on a certain familiar door.
“Village head! Village head!”
That was just like a sheer lightning bolt out of the blue; the village head had been deeply immersed in solving that riddle the whole day before barely managing to fall asleep. Now rudely awakened by this ruckus, he hurriedly yanked the door open in fright. After discovering a completely unexpected guest, though, his expression first became rather dumbfounded before rapidly shifting into one of annoyance.
“Fella, where did you forget your manners this time?!”
“Save it! You have any idea what time it is?!”
“I, uh, I'm sorry.”
Seol Jihu quickly bowed his head and apologized.
He couldn't finish the rest of the sentence, though. The village head quickly read the urgency in the youth, and he calmed some of his irritation.
“….Looks like you're facing a bit of problem.”
“Yes, you're correct.”
“And so, you came back to collect the debt, am I right?”
“Rather than that…. I truly need your help, village head.”
The old man arched up one of his brows. The young man before him was an Earthling who had uncovered his true identity. Compared to how he calmly analyzed every single point back then, his current atmosphere seemed rather different somehow. It looked like he had his reasons.
“Do come in. And please, I beg of you. Lower your voice.”
“I understand. Thank you.”
“Have a seat over here. And, take a deep breath. Now, explain what happened in detail. Even if the problem is urgent, trying to solve it too quickly won't ever result in a satisfying answer.”
Seol Jihu settled down on the chair the village head pointed at. He caught his heavy breathing and proceeded to explain what happened.
“What an idiotic plan.”
Those were the first words muttered out by the village head upon hearing the explanation.
“Let's forget about not being able to mobilize the army for a second here. Even then, to blindly infiltrate with only a small number of elites and destroy their facility? If you say they weren't underestimating the Parasites, then all I can say is that your friends are stupid fools.”
His criticism of their actions was savage, to say the least.
“Doing enough reconnaissance work beforehand is a must if you want to succeed in your infiltration. However, they blindly rushed in with no information at hand. It's only obvious they would fail. Tsk, tsk.”
Seol Jihu was about to loudly voice his opposition but had to suppress his anger. After all, the old man didn't say anything wrong just now.
“Well, still…. The appearance of these mutated Orcs sure is an unpleasant surprise. It's somewhat understandable why your people ended up making the wrong move in their haste.”
Hmm, the old man coughed to clear his throat and continued on.
“In any case, I'm guessing the reason you came to see me is because of my rudium, right?”
Seol Jihu urgently spoke up.
“I beg of you. I know it's a precious treasure, but….”
“No, not really?”
“If we are talking about the original ore, sure. But the raw material has been processed already to create rudium so it has no value anymore. And with my experimental Nest gone, it's completely useless to me.”
Seol Jihu blinked his eyes.
“What I'm saying is, you can have the rudium.”
“Thank you very much!”
Seol Jihu hurriedly bowed his head.
“Well, just think of it as me paying off the debt. Besides, it's still too early for you to thank me. Wouldn't you agree?”
The old man suddenly formed a wide-open smile.
“Alright, so. Say you take the rudium with you. What will you do next?”
Right at that moment, Seol Jihu didn't know what to say.
“Listen, young man. I've said this before, and I'll say it again. How about slowing down a bit?”
The old man studied the youth with wizened eyes for a little while before stating his observation.
“Although you try to look calm and collected, I can tell that you're burning up inside right now.”
“You think I can’t tell? Fella, you can't fool my eyes. You pretend it's not, yet I can see that your actions are hasty and disorganized.”
The moment he heard the word 'hasty', Seol Jihu felt an impact akin to a hammer striking his head. He instantly realized what the village head was telling him. The youth closed his eyes for a moment to collect his thoughts.
“You made the right choice to come and see me, even though you must be feeling quite urgent right now. However, don't you think there is something else you could get from me besides the rudium?”
When the old man gave out a free hint, the cogs finally clicked in Seol Jihu's head. That helped his nerves to settle down.
“Now that you mention it… Village head, you were once a Mage of the Delpinion Duchy.”
“And you worked in the royal laboratory, too.”
“I worked there for many, many years. I know that place like the back of my hand.”
The old man grinned and stood up from his chair.
“Now our conversation is finally going somewhere.”
The village head turned around to fetch the small box from the last time, along with a fairly large piece of paper.
“First of all, let's break down in detail the current situation.”
The old man was, once upon a time, a highly reputed Mage. His body may have aged, but that didn't mean his experiences and knowledge base would dissipate overnight.
“You need to consider that you no longer have any chance in infiltrating the enemy camp the old fashioned way. No, maybe I should revise and say that you never had a chance, to begin with. There is simply no way that Parasites wouldn't have prepared for an event like this.”
The old man's pen continued scribbling over the paper as he spoke.
“In any case… the first operation has failed, so the security should have been tightened up several times higher by now. So, the same tactic will not work anymore. If you want to succeed, you need to hit the Parasites from where they least expect it.”
“But, is there a way to take them by surprise as you say?”
“Of course, with this rudium.”
Click, the old man opened the small box. There it was, a murky, black-colored stone the size of a child's clenched fist.
“I told you that this thing is a consumable, right?”
“Originally, it wasn't this small. When I was making my escape with it from the laboratory, it was as big as a boulder.”
The old man spread open his arms wide.
“With that in mind, have you ever thought about this point before?”
“Look at me. I'm an old, decrepit man. And my physical strength is pretty poor too. So, how could I have stolen a big rudium and safely escaped from the strict security of the Empire and the Duchy?”
Now that sounded strange. Even if the order to shut the project down was given, the value of rudium ores still would have been rather considerable. In other words, every single one would have been strictly guarded, so how did this old man steal one away?
“The correct answer is magic. Indeed, magic is always superior to everything.”
“When you say magic….?”
“Fella, have you ever heard of a transfer magic circle?”
Seol Jihu's eyes opened up super-wide.
“What if there is a way to cross the border region without risking your life and limb and enter the laboratory straight away?”
“Something like that is possible?”
“Well, yes. I used that to escape, haven't I? So? Don't you think you can hit them from where they least expect it?”
Seol Jihu tightly clenched his fist. If what the old man said was all true, then…
Meanwhile, the old man finally finished jotting down with his pen and spoke up.
“Let me explain what I think. Now, look at this.”
The paper was already chock-full of texts and drawings. Even at a casual glance, it looked like the floor plan of the laboratory.
“The royal laboratory has two underground floors and two above ground for a total of four floors.”
The old man's artistic skill was rather excellent. Seol Jihu expressed his admiration and focused on the village head's words.
“I'm not some incredible Mage capable of using spells like Warp or Teleport, but when it comes to pre-installed magic circles, my story changes quite dramatically. Way back in the past, I used research as an excuse to come and visit Haramark so I could get myself a hideout deep within the mountains. That's where I installed the transfer circle.”
“If we use that magic circle, we can enter the laboratory's interior.”
“Correct. That is, assuming the hideout and the magic circle are still intact, obviously. And, when you use the transfer magic circle….”
The old man drew a circle on a certain spot on the floor plan.
“You'll be transferred to the first hidden space over here on the first basement floor.”
“The first one?”
“Heh, I'm a bit cautious type, you see.”
The old man scratched his nose.
“I prepared two hideouts just in case something unexpected happened. Well, I'll tell you about that later.”
Tap, tap. The old man lightly tapped the floor plan with the end of the pen.
“Let's move on. I don't think there will be a need to go above ground in the first place.”
“It might have been an open secret, but well, it was still a secret experiment. The floors above ground were used as sleeping quarters or served some other miscellaneous purposes. The actual experiments were done underground, you see.”
Seol Jihu nodded his head.
“So, you need to search the first and second underground floors, but…. According to my deduction, there's a good chance that your comrades are being held on the first floor. We used the entirety of the second floor as the experimentation area and used the first floor as a sort of a paddock. In other words, we used it mostly as a pen.”
The old man continued on.
“An operation plan needs to be simple. If possible, you need to be able to explain in one sentence.”
Tap. He put the pen down and pointed with his hand before drawing a line.
“Transfer to the first basement floor using the magic circle, use rudium to achieve your objective, return to the secret room to escape by using the transfer circle again. Those are gists of the plan I'm suggesting. You understand now?”
Seol Jihu stared at the village head with eyes of awe and envy. The youth had been feeling rather lost and hopeless, but now, he felt as if his eyes had been opened, and his blocked chest had been liberated.
“Village head… are you a god in disguise?”
“Stop spewing nonsense.”
The village head's nose clearly reddened somewhat as he opened his mouth.
“Well, my plan certainly has a higher chance of succeeding than that dumb initial plan you told me about. However….”
He hesitated a little before continuing on.
“I might as well come out and say it. There are a total of three variables for you to worry about in my plan.”
The old man raised three fingers before folding the ring finger first.
“First. It's the current state of the hideout.”
“Its current state, is it?”
“Not just the one in the Arden Mountain Range, but the one inside the laboratory itself, too. No one knows what they are like right now. I did hide them to the best of my abilities, but well, who amongst us can predict what'll happen in the future? In the worst case scenario, you may even find yourself right in the middle of the dang mutants as soon as transferring there.”
Seol Jihu's complexion hardened.
“You can only hope for the best on that one…. Lamentably, there is nothing you can do about that. If things do turn out that way, you need to escape immediately. Understand?”
“The second problem has to do with the transfer magic circle itself.”
The village head folded his middle finger next.
“I don't know the level of skill the Magicians in Haramark possess. But the thing is, that magic circle can only be maintained for 30 minutes, tops. Worse still, if the Magician's stamina runs out or if the mana supply is cut off deliberately, then the circle will shut down automatically.”
“Which means, everything needs to be taken care of within 30 minutes.”
“Correct. The important thing here is, regardless of whether mana is supplied or not, the circle will shut down after 30 minutes. And you'll need 72 hours to charge up a magic circle that had been shut down in that manner. Do you understand where I'm going with this?”
“Is there a way to increase the duration somehow?”
Seol Jihu's earnest inquiry caused the village head to rub his chin.
“Hmm, I wonder…. It might sound like I'm trying to make excuses, and I'm ashamed about that, but well, transfer magic itself is inherently a difficult magic to master. Even back in the Empire, there was almost no one capable of activating this magic with nothing but their own powers. Most had to rely on transfer magic circles. So, in all honesty, I'm not confident in improving the duration any further than 30.”
“I guess it can't be helped, then.”
Seol Jihu could only nod his head after hearing the old man's frank declaration on his limits. What could he do when it wasn't the case of not wanting to do it but being unable to do it, instead?
“And finally, it's the rudium itself.”
The village head folded the index finger.
“Mutated Orcs shouldn’t be high ranked creatures so you will probably be able to control them to some degree.”
“You mean I should be careful since I won't be able to control high ranked creatures.”
“That's blindingly obvious. No, what I'm trying to say is this. Look at it. It's just too small. Of course, I think you can use it plenty enough for around 30 minutes.”
Seol Jihu tilted his head a bit. What was the problem, then?
“That's why you need to make a choice.”
The old man spoke up, this time sounding a bit grimmer.
“Use the rudium to destroy the facility, or use it to rescue your comrades. This is a completely different problem unrelated to the magic circle's duration.”
“But, can't I do both….”
“You need to stop daydreaming. Fundamentally, this problem overlaps with the other two variables. One wrong move and you will fail to achieve neither of your goals.”
Chasing after two rabbits would result in missing both of them. Choose one, and focus on that.
“Very well. And then….”
The village head added some more detailed information and let out a long sigh of fatigue.
“With this, it seems that I have done everything I can do for you.”
Seol Jihu's lips parted but closed shut again. He wanted to express his gratitude, but the harvest this time was well beyond his expectations and he simply didn't know where or how to start saying thanks. As a matter of fact, he never even imagined that the door of possibilities would open up this much by coming here.
“Ehehe. I guess even you think this is a lot for a simple payment of debt, don't you?”
“You're right. Looks like it's me that owes you now.”
“How are you planning on repaying me, then?”
“What do you have in mind?”
Seol Jihu's reply brought about a shoulder shrug from the village head.
“Well…. Let's think about that later. I'll take my time on that.”
“Thanks can wait.”
The old man smirked.
“You need to come back alive first before you can repay me. So, don't you dare die on me.”
Seol Jihu left the village head's residence and directly climbed aboard the waiting carriage. On his way to the village, he felt pressed, harried, worried. But on his return trip, he was now a step calmer, collected – probably all thanks to the village head.
Now that his mind had calmed down, the first person he thought about was Chohong. Along with that, a sense of guilt rushed in.
In all honesty, he hadn't felt betrayal from her actions. Not to that extent, anyway. He could pretty much guess why Chohong tried to lie to him like that.
But back when he heard the truth, he became really angry at her. Should he blame that one on him feeling hurt and disappointed? He wasn't sure, but…. Anyways, it was a bit like that. The emotion he felt back then wasn't something he could properly nail down and describe in words.
'I'm sure Chohong was under a lot of stress, too.'
Regardless of what, his actions weren't what you'd call exemplary now that he had time to reflect on them. He made a mistake. Just what would've gone through her head after hearing that the fate of her long-time comrades-in-arms was completely unknown? He should've been more considerate towards her plight, for sure.
'Did I really go overboard….?'
….I need to go back for the time being. Seol Jihu decided as thus and held tight on to the stuff the village head gifted him.
The morning sun was already burning brightly in the sky by the time he arrived in Haramark. Seol Jihu paid the carriage driver's balance and ran back to the office building with all his might. He felt tired as he didn't get a wink of sleep, but he was too eager to show her the result of his work.
He ran up the steps and flung open the door to the third floor. He immediately ran into Chohong. She had been pacing up and down in the room, but her steps came to a halt right then. Her anxiety-ridden face crumpled in an instant.
Unexpectedly, she didn't open her mouth right away. And here he was, thinking that she'd start biting his head off. With her silently staring back at him, he was getting even more awkward just standing there. Trapped within this strange silence, the pair of young man and woman could only stare at each other, unmoving.
The first one to break this deadlock was Chohong.
“….Where have you been?”
Her voice was low, hushed – as if she was suppressing a lot of something. It seemed that she was a bit ticked off as well. Seol Jihu closed the door behind him and cautiously crept inside.
“Were you waiting for me?”
“That's right. I fucking waited for you, you dumb asshole.”
Chohong's voice became rather rough. In fact, it was trembling noticeably as well. Signs of her trying to suppress her urge to yell out loudly were all too clear to see.
“Are you happy now that you did the exact same thing back to me?!”
“Do what exactly?”
“Didn't you do this just to get back at me?! You narrow-minded fish-brained stupid bastard!!”
She finally let go and yelled out. Seol Jihu pouted as his response.
“If that's what you think, I'm a bit disappointed.”
“Disappointed?! Did you just say you're disappointed?!?! You, how can you even….”
Seol Jihu didn't say anything else, instead choosing to gather his hands together and apologize wholeheartedly. Keuhk! Chohong gasped out a sound of swallowing something back and spun around away from him. She breathed in softly for a little bit before wiping away the edges of her eyes with her clenched fists. It was Seol Jihu's turn to be surprised this time.
“What's this? You're crying? Are you really the Chohong that I know?”
“Who's crying?! You better let go! You stinking son of a bitch!”
Seol Jihu tried to gently embrace and soothe her, but she twisted her shoulders and slapped his hands away. Although, there was no strength in her resistance.
“I'm sorry. Really.”
“Damn it. You think I enjoyed lying to you? You don't know what I've been going through.”
“You're right. I really acted like a narrow-minded idiot.”
Seol Jihu continued to apologize.
“And, and, you dumbass. Stop being like that, too. You are always, like, giggling and happy and stuff all the time, but when you got all super serious, do you have any idea how surprised I was?”
Chohong poured out her dissatisfaction and sorrow like a dam bursting its walls.
“I know. I know. I won't do that ever again in the future.”
“You idiot. Stinking bastard. You didn't even know what I've been through.”
“U~ tsutsutsu~, my baby. My baby was feeling really hurt, weren't you~?”
“Stop screwing around. Or else, I might really beat the living shit out of you.”
“O-Okay, then. Let's sit down first. We'll talk after we settle down.”
Seol Jihu had to expend a great deal of effort to calm her down. Chohong rested her head on his chest and sniffled occasionally. She didn't really cry, though. Just her eyes became a bit reddened, that was all.
She might have been a woman seemingly made up of pure steel, but she was also a human being at the end of the day. And a woman, too. She had been under tremendous stress lately, so when Seol Jihu made her worry like this, she finally stopped suppressing everything and poured them all out.
A short while later, Chohong sneaked her gaze up at him.
“Where have you been?”
“There's something I want to ask before answering that.”
Chohong hesitated but still nodded her head. Now that things had turned out this way, it seemed unnecessary to hide stuff from him now.
“What did you guys decide to do?”
“We were planning to…. have another meeting today.”
“To discuss the strategy? When?”
“It's probably already begun, you idiot. Because of you, I couldn't go. What a mess.”
“Well, then. We should get going, even if we're late.”
“I guess you're right, but….”
Chohong let the end of her sentence drift away, before continuing on again.
“I don't know. I just don't know what we can do. We meet and talk and talk every day, but the end results are always the same. We want to rescue them, but we don't know how to.”
Since that was a story he could sympathize with, Seol Jihu nodded his head in a rather exaggerated manner.
“You shouldn't have kept everything to yourself, you know? In times like these, you should've come and asked your oppa right here.”
“Oppa, my ass.”
Chohong giggled slightly at Seol Jihu's good-natured joke.
“Okay, fine. Since we're on the subject, let me ask you. You have a good plan, then?”
He admitted right away.
Chohong stared at him blankly. Meanwhile, Seol Jihu got up from the couch.
“H-hey….? What did you just….”
Kiik… He opened the door to let the brilliant sunlight in and form a halo around his body. He turned to look at Chohong still sitting on the couch and grinned brightly.
“Let's go and rescue them.”Previous Chapter Next Chapter