I Alone Level-Up
Side Story 11
5. Your daily routine (6)
“That image of a monster, can I have it as a souvenir?”
A few hours ago.
As a souvenir for his reunion with Woo Jin-Cheol, Jin-Woo wanted the sketch of Beru the detective had drawn up on the spot.
‘Well, it does kind of resemble Beru, so I want it because of that….’
Of course, a certain someone hiding in his shadow didn’t think the same as his liege, though.
[Oh, my kinggggg!! I beg thee not to fall for that shoddy and crude doodling of a plebeian!!]
Beru desperately pleaded with his liege that he was nowhere near that ugly in the sketch, but Jin-Woo simply let that whining enter one ear and go out the other.
In the meantime, Woo Jin-Cheol stared at his own drawing for a bit as if to let go of all his lingering attachments.
….He cleanly tore the page off the memo pad. Woo Jin-Cheol extended his hand holding the drawing to Jin-Woo.
Jin-Woo gladly accepted the sketch.
And during that process, the detective’s hand briefly touched the tip of Jin-Woo’s finger.
It was surely nothing important in the grand scheme of things. However, massive events that left their mark in history books sometimes began with seemingly insignificant little things.
Woo Jin-Cheol turned around and hurriedly descended the staircase.
‘I knew it, this whole thing was a dumb mistake.’
Regret was rapidly filling him up.
Because he got too hyped up from the prospect of finding a clue, he ended up doing something that he’d be unable to explain even to the youngest detective in the squad with a straight face.
The sense of embarrassment and regret rushed in like the incoming tides, now that this was all he had to show for his efforts.
‘Stairs always feel so d*mn long only on days like today, don’t they?’
Detective Woo Jin-Cheol bitterly muttered to himself as he climbed down the staircase, but then, his steps had to come to an abrupt halt.
He suddenly heard a voice from somewhere, that was why.
– Association President. Do you trust me?
Woo Jin-Cheol froze up when a chill-inducing feeling crept up on his spine and he quickly scanned up and down where he was. He saw not one person coming down from the stairs or climbing up from below.
Classes were still ongoing, so the steps of the school were quite literally, quiet and still.
Woo Jin-Cheol tilted his head this way and that, before he tried to climb down the remaining few steps to the ground floor only to hear another voice again.
– Yes, of course, I trust you.
This time, it was his own voice.
‘W-what the heck is this?!’
A person with an easily-scared personality would squat down or start screaming from fear by now. However, Woo Jin-Cheol wasn’t one. He simply remained calm while he scanned his surroundings once more, before pulling out a memo pad and a pen as a sombre expression formed on his face.
‘I’m suddenly hearing auditory hallucinations. Could it be that the sense of loss I feel or the ant monster I witnessed were evidence of something wrong with my brain?’
The end of a brief observation was signed off with a question mark scribbled on with his pen.
Woo Jin-Cheol felt rather weirded out now. He stuffed the memo pad inside his inner pocket and hurriedly descended the rest of the steps. And with a speed far quicker than that, he escaped from the school building.
….Yet another auditory hallucination rocked the inside of his head.
– In that case, I hope you will believe everything I’m about to show you.
Woo Jin-Cheol gritted his teeth and covered both of his ears.
The voice he had never heard before and his own words that he never uttered before as well, began making a mess out of his mind. An intense bout of confusion crashed into him like an unstoppable tide.
“W-what the hell is this?!”
And then, out of all those voices swirling in his head, there was this one phrase that kept ringing so clearly in his head.
– Seong Jin-Woo Hunter-nim.
– In that case, what should we…. No, what should I do to help you, Hunter-nim?
– Seong Jin-Woo Hunter-nim!!
A name that didn’t want to leave his head alone. The name of Hunter Seong Jin-Woo.
‘If it’s Seong Jin-Woo, then…. Isn’t that the name of the student I just met?’
He heard that patients suffering from mental disorders often came up with crazy stories that featured people from their lives. Could such a thing be happening inside his head now?
Woo Jin-Cheol walked forward as his body swayed unsteadily. He kept frowning in pain as a migraine viciously pounded away at his temples.
Even then, even if the inside of his head had become so complicated and messy to the point that he didn’t know how to unravel all the tangled thoughts in there – every time he recalled the name ‘Seong Jin-Woo Hunter-nim’, it felt like the big hole in his heart was slowly filling back up for some weird reason.
Woo Jin-Cheol crashed down on a park bench and began murmuring repeatedly the name that continued to swim inside his mind.
‘Hunter Seong Jin-Woo, Hunter Seong Jin-Woo, Hunter Seong Jin-Woo…
That name holds the clue.
I definitely know that name, Seong Jin-Woo.
I must remember it.
I must drag it out into the open.
I must find all the memories of him, and the reason why those memories are erased from my mind.’
While still under an extreme case of a migraine, Woo Jin-Cheol fought hard to recall his memories and eventually, a certain scene popped up in his head.
“Association President. Do you trust me?”
“Yes, of course, I trust you.”
“In that case, I hope you will believe everything I’m about to show you.”
The tip of a finger belonging to someone approached his forehead. The moment it touched his skin, darkness dyed his view for a short while but during that time, a countless number of images flashed past his eyes.
Those were the memories that connected the past, the present, and the future. And they contained the stories of Gates, monsters, Hunters, Rulers, and Sovereigns.
“This, this can’t be…. Just how can such a thing be….?”
Woo Jin-Cheol couldn’t finish what he wanted to say, and Jin-Woo, now the Shadow Sovereign, replied with a lonesome expression.
“Well, a higher being’s memories aren’t affected by the flow of time, you see.”
Indeed, a Sovereign’s memories easily transcended the boundaries of time itself.
Woo Jin-Cheol panted heavily and with great difficulty after emerging from the flashback of the ‘past’. For a short moment in time that no longer existed, his consciousness was connected to Jin-Woo, who was a higher existence.
And it happened then; memories sealed tightly away somewhere within his soul had been unlocked through yet another contact with Jin-Woo, and were brought back up to the territory of his consciousness.
“Oh, my god….”
The sense of emptiness that felt as if there was a hole in the corner of his heart slowly filled back up, and warm tears began trickling down from Woo Jin-Cheol’s eyes.
He then remembered the question he asked Jin-Woo after learning of what the latter was planning to do.
– Seong Hunter-nim…. Are you planning to fight these things? All by yourself?
The answer to that question, it was right in front of his eyes now.
A young man whose name was unknown, walking past the park bench while listening to music through a pair of earphones; a pair of lovers brushing past him while whispering their undying love to each other….
An old man out to walk his dog, and people loosening their muscles near the exercise equipment in the park….
In this world, in this place, there were no Gates. No monsters. No battles.
Woo Jin-Cheol now bore witness to the miracle that man had created through his hands, this incredible peace, and thicker, hotter tears began flooding out from his eyes.
“Seong Hunter-nim, you… did it.”
Woo Jin-Cheol recalled the screams of so many people meeting their ends at the monsters and continued to weep for a long, long time.
‘….No, hang on. I, I shouldn’t be doing this.’
The veteran detective’s rough, calloused hands busily moved about to wipe away the tears.
Even if the entire world had forgotten about the truth, Woo Jin-Cheol had to go and tell Seong Jin-Woo that at least there was one person who knew the latter had battled for the sake of the world itself.
Such a sense of duty began welling up in his heart, but at the same time, a sense of uncertainty also entered him, wondering if what he was about to do was for the sake of that man.
‘He’s spending his time as a regular student now, having willfully forgotten about his past as a Hunter.’
If he wanted to remind Woo Jin-Cheol of the past, then there were ample chances to do so. Jin-Woo could’ve answered his questions, or just like before, transmit a whole section of memories through nothing but a fingertip.
However, the youth didn’t show any reactions when a detective showed up in this place through a series of coincidences, before quietly letting him be on his way.
Could it be that… he didn’t want his peaceful everyday life to be interrupted?
If that was the case, then wouldn’t them going back to their regular lives, while pretending to be none the wiser, be for the better for Hunter Seong Jin-Woo in the end?
Woo Jin-Cheol fell into a dilemma.
His dilemma grew heavier and harder to resolve and he remained stuck with it right up until students began leaving the school for the day. However, watching them cross the park one by one did help Woo Jin-Cheol with coming to a rather tough conclusion.
Rather than me deciding this, let’s leave it to Hunter Seong Jin-Woo.
I’ll call out to him, and if he pretends to not understand me, then I shall respect his choice.
Even if there is a small reaction, then I….’
Woo Jin-Cheol hurriedly returned to Jin-Woo’s high school. And then, he didn’t leave the side of the school gate even when no more students walked past him.
He was currently acting on this groundless assumption that Hunter Seong Jin-Woo hadn’t left the school yet.
And so, as he stood there for several dozen more minutes, while anxiously sucking on one poor cigarette after another….
“….I just don’t want to see problems suddenly crop up and prevent you from participating in the regional meet because of those idiots.”
“Don’t worry. I won’t let that happen.”
….He finally got to discover Jin-Woo walking out of the school gates. Feeling genuinely happy now, he took a large stride forward and called out the youth’s name.
“Seong Jin-Woo Hunter-nim.”
Just how much courage did he require to mutter out those simple words? Woo Jin-Cheol felt his heart madly pound away and waited for Jin-Woo’s reaction.
Sure enough, the youth turned around to look, his entire body now completely frozen stiff. There was an expression of genuine surprise etched on his face.
The light in Jin-Woo’s eyes told everything there was to know.
Having finally gotten his confirmation from Jin-Woo’s eyes, Detective Woo Jin-Cheol began tearing up once more.
“As I thought…. you are him.”
The two of them moved to the park in the vicinity of the school, the very location where Woo Jin-Cheol recovered his memories.
Sunlight reflected on the gently undulating surface of a small pond located in the middle of the park, creating ripples of ripe gold.
Woo Jin-Cheol stopped walking around there and opened his mouth first.
“I hope I didn’t cause a problem between you and your club seniors.”
Jin-Woo formed a thin smile and shook his head.
“They are good seniors. Sure, their competitive streak can be a bit much at times, but…..”
Woo Jin-Cheol asked Jin-Woo if they could speak for a while, and the latter had to ask his seniors for their understanding on this one. Since there was a prior engagement, the older kids could’ve easily gotten unhappy at this situation, but….
“Don’t be too late!”
“Until you show up to the welcoming party, we’re holding Young-Gil as our hostage, okay?”
The seniors from the track and field team didn’t sweat it and left for the party venue ahead. Jin-Woo recalled Young-Gil’s tearful face as he got dragged away by the seniors and smirked softly to himself.
“Still, the life of my friend is hanging in the balance here, so I can’t stay for too long.”
Woo Jin-Cheol broke into a gentle chuckle after seeing the youth’s expression that showed how much he was enjoying his current life.
“In that case, I understand. Let me get to the main topic, then.”
The smile was gone in an instant from the detective’s face after he finished those words.
“How long… how long have you been fighting against those creatures in the gap between dimensions?”
According to the records, Jin-Woo was missing for around two years.
However, Woo Jin-Cheol had seen the overall combat force of the Sovereigns through the memories of the Shadow Sovereign, and he knew that the two years were simply not enough to defeat them all.
Jin-Woo cautiously replied.
The moment he heard that reply, Woo Jin-Cheol sucked in his breath.
To think, he had to fight against over ten million enemies for nearly 30 years in the gap between the walls of different dimensions, where not a single thing could exist….
Woo Jin-Cheol couldn’t even begin to imagine how difficult and arduous the battles must’ve been. For a long while there, he failed to come up with something to say, but eventually, forced his lips to part just a little.
“…..You don’t regret anything?”
Jin-Woo’s reply this time was instantaneous.
“No, I don’t.”
He could say this with absolute confidence.
“If I were to be given the same opportunity over and over again, I will make the same decision every single time.”
Everything that happened – from when he and his father went to a baseball game while holding hands during the latter’s off day; the doenjang stew mom cooked with so much care and love; his little sister’s smile, bright and unclouded by the fear of the monsters….
….All of these were precious things that couldn’t be measured with any financial value.
If the price he had to pay for all of these things was to carry the weighty burden by himself, then he’d not hesitate to carry it over and over again.
“I don’t regret anything.”
Woo Jin-Cheol heard Jin-Woo’s composed voice and in that instant, felt his nose sting once more.
‘Thank you, Seong Jin-Woo Hunter-nim.’
He barely managed to swallow back those words that almost came out of his mouth. He knew that these simple words of gratitude could never convey his true feelings to Hunter Seong Jin-Woo, that’s why.
He took a quick look at his wristwatch while thinking about the ‘life’ of the hostage and raised his head.
“It looks like you’re living a wonderful life now.”
Jin-Woo smirked softly.
“It is satisfactory, yes. Well, other than my body not ageing anymore so I need to constantly modify my body shape, that is.”
‘Eternal youth and immortality.’
Hunter Seong Jin-Woo had now possessed god-like powers after becoming the Shadow Sovereign. However, even though he possessed such powers, he chose to live the life of a simple, normal person. If that was his decision, then….
“May I ask whether you thought about what you’d like to do in the future?”
“I haven’t thought that far ahead yet, unfortunately.”
“In that case…. How about, you know, joining this side?”
Woo Jin-Cheol displayed the police identification card inside his wallet.
“You mean… the National Police?”
“Recently, many hardened criminals visiting our offices are all whining about the exact same thing. They say that it’s hard to make a living with Shadow Monsters around.”
Jin-Woo studied the identification card for a while and returned the wallet with a grin on his face.
“But, if I become a police officer, other cops won’t have anything to do anymore, you know?”
“That’s precisely why we’re working very hard, you see – to create a world like that.”
He hadn’t changed.
From when he was the Chief of the Association’s Monitoring Division, and when he was the President of the Hunter’s Association itself, the expressions Woo Jin-Cheol had shown back then remained as he continued his life as a police detective now.
“I’ll think about it.”
Jin-Woo replied so and turned around to leave as he began to worry slightly about his friend’s safety. Woo Jin-Cheol quickly bade him goodbye.
“I shall wait for your favourable reply.”
“Please don’t. I heard that there’s a crap ton of work but the pay is pretty bad.”
Jin-Woo waved his hand as he walked away, and Woo Jin-Cheol smiled gently as his silent reply.
‘Lots of work, but rubbish pay, is it?’
A wry chuckle leaked out automatically from his mouth after hearing that wonderfully succinct assessment that left no room for a rebuttal. At the same time, he recalled the face of the youngest detective who actually volunteered to join such a squad out of his own free will.
‘Isn’t he off today, that kid?’
Well, so what if it was the junior’s off day?
While thinking that he’d just call out the youngest and treat the kid to a hearty meal, Woo Jin-Cheol politely bowed his head towards Jin-Woo’s departing back, now a faint silhouette in the distance.
As the only man who knew of that youth’s sacrifice, he stood for everyone in this world and expressed his gratitude, perhaps for the first and the last time.
< Chapter 254 > Fin.