Just before Jin-Woo was completely swallowed up by his shadow, he heard another message issued by the System.
[The dungeon’s interior will revert back to original appearance with the death of….]
The sensation of him falling didn’t last long. Suddenly, the gravity’s direction reversed, and he was now being lifted back up at the same speed as he was being sucked in.
His darkened vision reverted back to the original state in no time at all.
‘Isn’t this place….?’
Jin-Woo took a quick look around.
A street light that continued to flicker as if it was broken; a hand-pulled wooden cart leaning precariously against a wall; an electrical pole with a half-torn flier stiller stuck to it.
He found himself in a deserted alleyway he often had to walk past when heading back home.
‘….Hey, this is the suburb I live in, isn’t it?!’
Somewhat coincidentally, it was also the exact same spot where he issued the five shadows to start patrolling the district, as well.
‘My location really changed.’
Jin-Woo did feel deeply stunned at the moment, but still, he somehow managed to remain calm as he checked the shadow beneath his feet. Just like when he summoned his Shadow Soldiers, he too rose up from the shadow. He cautiously poked his shadow with the tip of his foot.
Back when he activated the skill, the shadow caved in as if he was stepping on the surface of water, but it was just a regular shadow now. Feeling genuinely impressed, Jin-Woo re-checked the Skill Window.
Just as the Skill description had stated, the ‘cool down’ period of three hours was in effect.
[Skill: Shadow Exchange Lv. 1]
….Can be used again in [02:59:57].
‘….I’ve struck gold.’
Having witnessed the awesomeness of this skill, Jin-Woo’s heart pounded faster and faster.
‘And it was so fast, too….’
He had been maintaining the peak state of concentration the moment he was sucked into the shadow. Considering the fact that the perceived time would greatly slow down when he was concentrating fully, the transfer to this location did really happen in the blink of an eye.
His saliva nosily slid down his throat.
This skill called Shadow Exchange – it possessed limitless application, depending on how he used it.
‘Ah, right. This isn’t the right time.’
Jin-Woo calmed his excitement down and withdrew his magic energy. He had finally managed to get his hands on a medicine that could potentially cure his mother, so he shouldn’t be wasting time here like this.
Feeling a lot more urgent now, Jin-Woo switched his Hunter-issue mobile phone and confirmed the current time.
‘It’s already this late….?’
Jin-Woo’s forehead creased up big time.
The touchscreen display showed ten in the evening. Although the visitation hours had long passed now, Jin-Woo didn’t hesitate once as he summoned the shadow of the Sky Dragon.
Answering the call of his owner, Kaisel yelled out in joy and pushed his head out of the ground. And soon, a huge lizard-like creature the size of a truck with no arms but huge wings revealed itself.
When Kaisel spread open its vast wings, the already-narrow alleyway seemed to get filled to the brim in an instant. It was a small mercy that there were no other people nearby, otherwise…..
Jin-Woo walked closer, and Kaisel lowered his body to allow ease of mounting. Jin-Woo duly did so.
Even though this was his first time, he already felt a sense of familiarity as if he had been riding on Kaisel for a long time. He figured that flying in the air wouldn’t pose any problems since he felt this way.
‘It doesn’t matter if someone tries to stop me.’
He wasn’t talking about the hospital staff – even if cops or the military tried to block him, he knew he had the power to break past them. And, at least for this moment, he didn’t want anyone to obstruct his path.
Jin-Woo formed a serious expression and issued a command. Kaisel began beating his huge wings.
Kaisel rose up in the air right away and quickly flew in the direction Jin-Woo pointed at.
A meeting was still taking place within the walls of the Hunters Association, even though the hours were getting late.
The Korea-Japan cooperative raid was already around the proverbial corner, and the Association was doing everything in their power to ensure the successful subjugation of Jeju Island’s ant monsters.
“Here is the data sent by the Japanese.”
The agent of the Association pressed a button on the remote. Soon, the giant screen was filled with the footage of the ant monsters, captured by the magic-power sensing camera attached to a Japanese satellite.
These were the records taken during the first, second and the third subjugation attempts. Goh Gun-Hui’s eyes narrowed to a slit.
‘Indeed, excluding the ant queen and its guards, every single ant did leave the ant tunnel.’
The ant monsters moved just as the Japanese said they would.
Although the existence of the guardian ants was a worrisome variable in the equation, it was also normal to find a few guardian-type monsters protecting their bosses within higher ranked dungeons, as well.
Still, it was hard to claim that there was no risk. The top man in the Korean side of the operation, Goh Gun-Hui, quickly thought of one of the worst case situations.
“What are the odds of the ants turning around quicker than anticipated after realising their queen is in danger?”
The Japanese had already thought about that too, however.
“They have said they would use ‘interference radio wave’ signal.”
“Radio wave signal?”
“According to their research, they discovered that the ant monsters use specific radio waves to communicate among themselves.”
Indeed, if one wanted to order an army of several thousands as one unit, then a method to send out commands should exist. Goh Gun-Hui nodded his head.
“And they can interrupt the communication of ants with radio waves?”
“That’s what they said, sir.”
“So, they want us to fully concentrate on killing the ant queen, is it….”
The subjugation plan itself was quite simple.
Even though it was simple, there was a higher chance of succeeding when compared to other plans, as well.
Yet, why did Goh Gun-Hui feel so anxious like this?
He rested his chin on his hands.
‘Could it be that I’m worried about…’
It was then.
Goh Gun-Hui spun his head towards the outside of the window, his brows shooting up high. Everyone inside the meeting room flinched at the sudden movement of the Association President.
Section Chief Woo Jin-Cheol, here to guard his boss from the side, rapidly walked in closer.
“Did something happen, sir?”
Goh Gun-Hui shifted his gaze over to Woo Jin-Cheol. The latter’s expression remained the same as usual.
“Haven’t you felt that?”
“Sir? I don’t understand what you mean….”
Just now, an astonishing wave of magic power flooded in from a faraway place beyond the windows.
Although it only lasted for a brief moment and quickly disappeared from Goh Gun-Hui’s perception, he still had felt the full brunt of that.
As their Association President continued to stare into the distance outside the window, the agents had to stop the meeting and cautiously ask their boss.
Only then did Goh Gun-Hui shift his gaze away, his head still tilting side to side.
He wondered about the possible origin of that powerful burst of magic energy, but for the time being, he had to concentrate on the current meeting. Goh Gun-Hui fell into deep thought, before throwing a question at one of the agents in charge.
“Have you succeeded in getting in contact with Hunter Seong Jin-Woo?”
Baek Yun-Ho asked, his head still looking over his shoulder.
“Did you sense that?”
Min Byung-Gu replied testily.
“I may be retired now, but my rank hasn’t dropped, you know.”
These two men had been sharing a bottle of cheap liquor for the first time in a long while inside a certain ‘pojangmacha’ until then, but now, only the heavy silence flowed between them. (TL note at the end)
Baek Yun-Ho eventually shifted his gaze back to his front.
“What was that just now?”
“Maybe Choi Jong-In and Cha Hae-In started fighting over the shares of the Hunters Guild. Who knows.”
Min Byung-Gu had been frozen on the spot with a shot glass in his hand, but suddenly broke out in a fit of giggles before emptying the soju down his throat. Baek Yun-Ho formed a dumbfounded expression.
“Don’t tell me you were trying to make me laugh with that.”
“But, wasn’t it funny, hyung?”
“….Never mind. Forget it.”
But, then again – including his sense of humour, Min Byung-Gu could be considered a bit strange in the head. No doubt about that.
‘I mean, he’s supposed to be the first rank S Hunter in the world to retire when he’s still all healthy and the like, isn’t he?’
Not only the first in the world, but he was also the only one so far, too.
Just how many people out there would willingly give up on the ridiculous amount of wealth a rank S Hunter could earn, simply because he wasn’t interested anymore?
Min Byung-Gu wasn’t even from a wealthy stock, to begin with.
Sensing Baek Yun-Ho’s questioning gaze, Min Byung-Gu asked back.
“Hyung. Are you really going to participate?”
“But, you saw how Eun-Seok hyung died.”
“That’s why I must go back.”
Min Byung-Gu looked at his drinking partner with a bit of confusion on his face. Baek Yun-Ho emptied his shot glass and continued on.
“If we leave the ants alone, the entirety of South Korea would end up like that place.”
“Since when did you become this patriotic….?”
“Well, we’re supposed to do it sooner rather than later, so might as well come up with a nice-sounding excuse while I’m at it. Don’t you agree?”
The Guilds could not decline the Association’s summons. The Association would accommodate the needs of the various Guilds, and the Guilds themselves simply had to answer the Association’s call in return.
If one didn’t want to, then there was the option of emigrating to somewhere else. How unfortunate, then, that there was no sane-minded nation willing to accept a Hunter running away from a high-difficulty raid.
Even if a country did accept such a person, could anyone actually be sure of that said Hunter not pulling the exact same stunt again in the future?
‘I don’t want to run away, anyways.’
Baek Yun-Ho smirked to himself. Meanwhile, Min Byung-Gu bluntly replied.
“I won’t be participating. I will never go back there. If you asked to see me, hoping to change my mind, you might as well give…..”
“That’s not it.”
Baek Yun-Ho put the cash down for the alcohol and stood up. The bottle was empty by then.
“I came to say goodbye, just in case. I don’t know if we’ll get to sit down for a drink again, after all.”
Min Byung-Gu gave up on changing Baek Yun-Ho’s mind, as he watched the latter wave his hand while walking away.
Baek Yun-Ho already knew full well the dangers of the subjugation plan, perhaps better than anyone else.
‘Even then, he’s still going…..’
Baek Yun-Ho’s expression wasn’t of someone being dragged away despite feeling deeply scared. No, rather, he carried the face of someone getting ready to step on and kill as many ants as he could with this opportunity, instead. Indeed, he seemed to be eagerly waiting for the day of the subjugation.
Min Byung-Gu could only chew on the snacks with a helpless expression on his face, only for his chopsticks to stop moving shortly thereafter.
‘Wait a minute….. I can’t think of that many Hunters who don’t like fighting against monsters, now can I?’
There were a few like that among the Healers, but on the flip side, those folks simply loved to heal others, instead.
Min Byung-Gu dazedly stared at the bowl of oden soup, before roughly scratching the side of his head.
‘Could it be that only those who like fighting become Awakened?’
Eii, there was no way that could be true.
Min Byung-Gu found something to be rather funny, and laughed all by himself while finishing the oden.
Jin-Woo quickly arrived in the hospital.
‘Let’s see…. It was room number 305, right?’
He wasn’t planning to enter the hospital through the front door, to begin with. While still riding on Kaisel, he searched for the windows of his mother’s hospital room.
The curtains covering the windows silently parted sideways. He saw the quietly-sleeping sight of his mother on the bed. She looked exactly the same as the last time he came to visit.
Jin-Woo used ‘Ruler’s Reach’ one more time to open the window and silently stepped into the hospital room. Kaisel had disappeared into his shadow by then.
He soon stood by the side of the bed. His heart was pounding madly now that the time he had been waiting for so long was here.
‘If something goes wrong, I won’t be able to do anything.’
His mother had been unconscious for a very long time. There was a chance that she might not even be able to swallow the Divine Water of Life, and even if she did, there was no guarantee that she’d be okay afterwards.
Jin-Woo got to witness plenty of miracles the System caused so far.
If it happened to someone else, he’d never have believed a word of it. One didn’t even have to look far for tangible evidence, either. Wasn’t he the walking proof of those miracles?
‘I was a rank E, yet now look at me standing here.’
All of his achievements, they were due to the System’s powers. Jin-Woo wordlessly stared at his two hands, before raising his head.
His mother lay right in front of his eyes, looking as if she’d wake up at any moment if he called out to her. He summoned the ‘Divine Water of Life’ from the Inventory.
On top of his hand, a wooden bottle materialised out of the blue. He read the item information over and over again, just in case he might have missed something important.
And so, by the time he had thoroughly memorised every word in the item information by repeatedly reading it over and over again, he managed to build up enough courage to pull the cork off of the wooden bottle.
His hands that stayed steady during the life-or-death battle against the Demon King were trembling greatly now. Jin-Woo took a deep, deep breath to calm his mind.
‘If I make a mistake here, my mother will bear the cost, instead.’
The moment he told himself there could not be any mistake whatsoever, he was able to regain the usual calmness right away. Even his hands stopped shaking.
‘….I’m fine now.’
Jin-Woo cautiously supported the back of his mother’s, Park Gyung-Hye’s, neck with his left hand. He then brought the mouth of the wooden bottle closer to her lips.
Soon, the ‘Divine Water of Life’ slowly trickled into her slightly parted lips. Jin-Woo didn’t rush it and made sure to let only a tiny strand enter her mouth.
He then noticed the burn marks on the side of his mom’s neck. The burns continued down the back of her neck, too.
Although he couldn’t see it from this angle, Jin-Woo knew only too well that the burn mark extended from the entirety of the back of her neck and her shoulders to some part of her head.
‘She got that because of me, after all.’
Back then, he only wanted to wash his mother’s hair, inside the public bathhouse. He wanted to emulate what his mother did, when she washed the hair of very young Jin-Ah.
However, the young Jin-Woo, who never had much of an opportunity to visit public bathhouses before, lacked the ability to tell apart the temperature of the water.
The very hot water, hot enough to bubble up, filled up the plastic wash basin. The young Jin-Woo did his very best not to spill any of the hot water and cautiously walked to the back of his mom.
He poured the water out of the plastic basin.
Mom flinched a little, but didn’t move from the spot even when her flesh was visibly cooked red. All because, she feared that the hot water might end up on Jin-Ah’s face. She simply held her daughter tight in her embrace.
She didn’t make any noise.
The belated screams came from not his mother, but from the mouths of the aunties nearby.
“Oh, my god!! Someone, help!”
Only then did Jin-Woo realise he did something bad. But, all he wanted to do was to help his mother.
Jin-Woo dropped the plastic basin and began crying, but his mom tightly grasped his shoulders. And then, asked him.
“Jin-Woo? Are you okay? Are you hurt anywhere?”
The young Jin-Woo thought that he’d be scolded for sure. He could never forget the events of that day and those words his mother said to him. Not even now.
‘And here I am, thinking that I don’t owe anyone anything….’
After their father went missing, it was mom alone who raised the siblings Jin-Woo and Jin-Ah.
He hated owing someone, or someone owing him, so he made sure that such a thing never happened, but still….
He owed his mother a debt that he could never possibly repay.
It was then.
The very last drop entered his mother’s mouth.
Jin-Woo put the bottle down and carefully laid her on the bed again. He stood quietly to the side as if he was praying to someone while waiting for the result.
Thump, thump, thump!!
His heart pounded so much that his chest actually ached. Nervous saliva travelled down his throat, too.
However, there was no visible change.
Just as a drop of blood from Jin-Woo’s tightly clenched fist was about to fall….
Her eyes still closed, mom sucked in a deep breath like a person getting rescued from drowning.
Jin-Woo’s eyes widened.
A little bit of colour was returning to mom’s once-slightly pale face. Like colour spreading on the black and white TV screen, a healthy complexion was spreading over his mother’s skin.
Every passing second felt like an hour to him.
How much time did pass like that?
Jin-Woo’s mother slowly opened her eyes. Her gaze wandered around for a moment or two, before stopping at Jin-Woo.
“Who…. No, wait, could you be… Jin-Woo?”
Jin-Woo’s heart nearly fell just then, but he managed to nod his head a little.
It was obvious that she didn’t recognise him right away. Four years had passed by already, and he had grown by a lot since then, too.
Jin-Woo didn’t rush things and quietly waited.
Like water slowly filling up an empty bowl, blurry memories of the past filled up the empty hole of the last four years in Jin-Woo’s mother, Park Gyung-Hye’s mind bit by bit.
It didn’t take her a long time to realise why she was lying on the hospital bed like this.
“How long have I been lying here, son?”
“It’s been four years, mom.”
He could’ve also added that it was four years and a few days, but he didn’t. His mother currently needed as much calmness, a sense of stability, so he did his best to sound and look normal.
But, mom was still taken back by the revelation of four years, and she hurriedly asked him.
“What about Jin-Ah?? Is your sister alright??”
It was then, Jin-Woo felt something powerful welling up from deep within his heart.
She had been teetering on the edge of life and death for the last four years, yet the first thing she asked after waking up was the well-being of her daughter…..
If he hadn’t bitten down on his lower lip, he might have broken down right there and then.
‘It’s no time to worry about that girl, you know.’
He wanted to say that out loud. But, he suppressed his emotions and formed a thin smile, instead.
“Yes, mom. She’s doing okay.”
His mother sighed, her expression one of genuine relief.
Jin-Woo was inwardly concerned, hoping that his mother would start worrying about herself soon, but at the same time, he began to relax somewhat as his mother seemingly hadn’t changed at all.
‘Things will go back to how it’s been, soon.’
Finally recognising that mom’s illness had been cured, his heart palpitated again. But then, he was jolted out of his thoughts. Mom was holding his left hand even before he had noticed it.
“Thank you, son. You kept your promise.”
‘…Ah, I forgot.’
Then again, he had always thought it was the most obvious thing in the world, so it was possible that he didn’t consciously see it as a promise.
The so-called ‘Eternal Sleep’ disorder, where you’d fall deeper and deeper into slumber, until you’d never wake up again….
It became harder for mom to carry on with her daily life as drowsiness frequently assaulted her without warning with every passing day. Out of the blue, though, she asked Jin-Woo for a favour.
“If mom can’t wake up one day, will you promise me to take good care of your little sister?”
She carried a smile of a mother asking her child for a simple errand back then.
That was why he had been enduring until now. He didn’t resent her at all. Because all he did was to take over the burden his mother had been carrying until then.
However, mom tightly squeezed his hand as if she knew everything.
“My son…. It must’ve been hard for you.”
Jin-Woo tried to smile like he had done before to assuage his mother’s worries. As if nothing of note had happened until then.
Unfortunately, he couldn’t do that.
All the tears he held back until then travelled down his face, and his lips parted all on their own.