Only I Level Up Recollections/After Stories
Part 2: Until we meet again
"Thank you for coming in, Miss Cha."
"Ah, yes. Hello."
Hae-In stepped across the doorway of the kindergarten headmistress's office with a tense expression on her face.
Soo-Hoh hadn't had any contact with kids of his own age until he turned five years old. And today was exactly a week after the worried parents decided to send their son to the nearest kindergarten.
The preschool educational institution suddenly called her up, asking her to come for a meeting today. Hae-In was really worried that maybe something happened to Soo-Hoh, or her son did something wrong.
The headmistress guided her to the couch on the opposite side and Hae-In settled down on the cushion as her complexion became even gloomier than before.
The middle-aged headmistress could fully understand what Hae-In was going through right now. That was why she worked hard to find the gentlest voice she could come up with in order to not worsen the other party's anxiety.
"It's not something to be that anxious over, Miss Cha. It's just that…. We have a few questions we'd like to ask you."
"Ah, yes. Please."
Hae-In nodded her head repeatedly with a hardened expression. The headmistress cautiously pushed forward a sketchbook.
"Here…. Would you take a look at this, please?"
Hae-In picked the book up as the headmistress continued on.
"It contains drawings by your son, Soo-Hoh."
The white paper within said book featured a rather-cute looking 'ant' as drawn by a little child's hands.
But, why was she being shown this? Hae-In couldn't immediately understand where this conversation was going and asked back with a puzzled expression.
"What's the matter with this drawing....?"
The headmistress hesitated slightly before letting a soft sigh escape from her lips. She then began explaining herself.
"The class teacher-nim asked the children to draw their close 'friends', you see."
Now that she looked at the drawing again, the 'ant' was standing on two feet. Only then did Hae-In realise that this was not a drawing of an ordinary ant, but Marshal Beru, instead.
"There are others after that page. When the class teacher-nim asked Soo-Hoh if he had any other friends, he drew those next."
Hae-In flipped one more page.
There was a drawing of a humanoid figure with a strip of red plumage attached to his head while holding what was clearly a sword, no matter who saw it.
Hae-In instantly recognised the protagonist of the drawing and slowly held her forehead with one hand. He might look like a trustworthy knight to those who knew him, but how would this situation look like in the eyes of strangers?
Her head began aching just from thinking about that.
After that page came the drawings of Bellion and his extending magic sword, as well as Fangs, busily putting on a magic show. Inevitably, Hae-In's head began developing a stronger migraine.
The headmistress interpreted Hae-In's speechless expression the wrong way and spoke in a worried voice.
"The next drawing is what Soo-Hoh drew as his family portrait."
The page of the sketchbook flipped again. What greeted her next was a drawing of herself, a man that seemed to be her husband, Jin-Woo, and innumerable black figures standing behind them.
Soo-Hoh grew up from his toddler days surrounded by the Shadow Soldiers and he must've thought of them as his extended family now.
'This is how we look like in Soo-Hoh's eyes.'
Hae-In thought that this drawing contained her son's innocent but warm gaze, and her nose stung with emotions.
The class teachers couldn't understand the meaning behind these drawings and fell into a rather considerable amount of panic and came to the conclusion that there must've been some sort of a problem with Soo-Hoh.
And of course, that included the headmistress herself, the person responsible for asking Hae-In to stop by at the kindergarten today.
The middle-aged lady formed a pretty grave expression as she spoke.
"The final page contains Soo-Hoh's drawing of his 'home'. And the reason why I requested you for today's meeting, as well."
What kind of a drawing would it be this time? With a pair of nervous eyes, Cha Hae-In flipped to the last page.
There was a cosy little house.
A normal-looking house was standing erect in the middle of some land.
The problem with this depiction was that the ground below was completely painted black.
Over 70 percent of the sketchbook's real estate was dominated by the black colour.
"We've been caring for many children over the years, but never have we encountered such depictions of friends and family by a child until now."
The headmistress pointed to the black portion of the drawing and spoke in a calm voice.
"The homeroom teacher-nim asked Soo-Hoh why he drew the lower half of the house like this, and the boy replied that that's where his friends, his family, as well as his giant father, are staying."
That explanation was puzzling enough to make Hae-In tilt her head this way and that, but still, she could more or less guess how this drawing came about.
"By any chance, do you know why Soo-Hoh is drawing these sorts of images?"
….It was really unfortunate that Hae-In couldn't reveal what she knew to other people. She could only shake her head.
"....As I feared."
The headmistress nodded her head as if she understood the situation.
Initially, the kindergarten was fearful that Soo-Hoh was being mistreated at home, but they couldn't find any evidence of abuse from the boy's jovial, good-natured behaviour he displayed every day.
Although rare, things like this did happen occasionally – young kids drawing the world as they see it through their eyes.
"Maybe... It's possible that Soo-Hoh possesses a great talent for art."
The headmistress convinced herself with this and smiled gently.
Hae-In stopped forming a gloomy expression, now that she knew the source of today's 'trouble', and smiled awkwardly, as well.
"Ah, yes. Yes."
What a relief that it was not a huge matter. She could finally relax a bit.
However, these drawings weren't the end of the headmistress's business today. She again deliberated on whether she should speak of this or not, before coming to a difficult decision and raised her head.
The look in her eyes was far graver than when she presented those drawings.
"Miss Cha, actually…. There is something else I'd like to speak to you about."
In the Central Region's Violent Crimes Unit.
After the results of the promotion examination had been announced, excited voices began resounding out and filled up the Unit's office.
"Senior-nim, congratulations on your promotion!"
"You should buy us all a round, don't you agree, Senior-nim? No, hang on, Seong Superintendent-nim?"
Jin-Woo had to spend quite some time being surrounded by the rest of the Unit's detectives, and was only able to extricate himself after his partner, Lee Seh-Hwan, finally showed up.
"Hyung-nim, shall we get going?"
Leaving behind the congratulatory words coming from here and there, Jin-Woo and his beaming smile escaped from the office.
Enough time had passed and Lee Seh-Hwan himself was a veteran detective now. He quickly congratulated his much-respected senior.
Jin-Woo used a wordless smile to sub for his reply.
He and Lee Seh-Hwan shared jovial banter as they walked side by side, but then, the younger detective cautiously scanned his surroundings before sticking real close to his senior.
"By the way, hyung-nim…. Why did you accept the promotion this time? I mean, whenever the brass pleaded with you to move up the career ladder, you always refused them, so why now?"
Jin-Woo looked at Seh-Hwan from the corners of his eyes with a look that said, "What's so important about that?" before breaking out into a smirk as he replied.
"I ran out of excuses for my refusal, you see."
Seh-Hwan laughed out loud at that rather remarkable answer.
"You're truly amazing, hyung-nim. I'm telling you."
Although what he said sounded like a joke, Jin-Woo wasn't joking here. Of course, Seh-Hwan knew that, too.
As it was the case with pretty much every profession out there, a detective would grow further and further away from field work the higher his rank became.
Jin-Woo wished to remain close to where the action was, and the higher-ups, especially Commander Woo Jin-Cheol, respected that. Unfortunately, that couldn't go on forever.
Now that all excuses that could stop a detective with a stunning arrest record from advancing in his career had been exhausted, even Jin-Woo was left with no choice but to accept the examination result.
"Hyung-nim, don't you have any goals or wants? I mean, like, better position or making lots of money, that sort of things."
Money, was it?
If Jin-Woo said that once upon a time, he made more than enough moolah to b*tch-slap a huge law firm and their deep pockets in the face all by himself at a younger age than his junior partner, would the kid even believe him?
Too bad, Jin-Woo could only recall the days when he operated the Ah-Jin Guild alongside Yu Jin-Ho and swallow back the words dancing on the tip of his tongue.
'Well, they've really become distant memories now, haven't they...'
He could swim in the reminiscence of the past for only a short while, though. As he was about to climb into the car with Seh-Hwan, his phone began ringing loudly, so he pulled it out to take a look.
The call was from Hae-in.
After talking on the phone, Jin-Woo returned home earlier than usual, and after checking out Soo-Hoh's drawings, could only chuckle softly.
"I had no idea that our son had such a wonderful talent in art."
Amongst them, the drawing of Beru especially caught his eyes. There should be no other five-year-old child that can draw an ant this wonderfully in the world.
Jin-Woo looked at the drawing in happiness, only to be pricked harshly by Hae-In's sharp glare and quickly withdrew his smile.
After seeing her husband changing his attitude really quickly like that, Hae-In just couldn't hold back her smirk from breaking out anymore. She then spoke to Jin-Woo as if she was trying to convince herself.
"It's not a laughing matter, you know? Take a look at the very last page."
"The last page?"
The last page in question contained Soo-Hoh's final piece, named 'My home'.
"Soo-Hoh said that the black ground is where his giant father is, so can you think of…. Why are you smiling?"
"N-no, well, it's just that I remembered something funny. That's all."
Jin-Woo recalled the 'Divine Liege' statue standing in the middle of the 'territory of eternal rest' and couldn't hold back his laughter anymore. Tears even began sneaking out of his eyes, so he quickly wiped them off and closed the sketchbook.
Wouldn't it be fine to let this slide with a simple chuckle? Expressions containing such thoughts flitted in and out of Jin-Woo's face. Hae-In let a soft sigh out and relayed what the headmistress had told her earlier in the day.
"Other kids are apparently scared of Soo-Hoh."
A little bit of the smile on Jin-Woo's face went away, then.
Hae-In nodded her head with a worried expression before continuing on with her explanation.
"Their complexions change badly whenever Soo-Hoh tries to get close to them. Even when he has never bullied or shouted at them, but still."
Now that was not something he could gloss over. Jin-Woo's expression hardened. The previous smile was long gone now. The thing he was worried about had really happened.
Young children were incomparably purer than adults. And he wasn't simply talking about their immature way of looking at things.
No, it was about the 'purity' of their senses.
Unlike with adults who, through logical reasoning and studying, got to overcome the primal instincts they were born with, children could feel the fear of death far more vividly.
The reason why other kids avoided Soo-Hoh was because they must've felt the shadow of death hovering above him.
'The power of the Shadow Sovereign....'
It became Jin-Woo's, and that fact prevented it from becoming a full-blown calamity, but that was about it.
In reality, this power was a horrifying weapon that the 'God of another realm' hid inside its most loyal soldier in order to destroy everything it had created.
If the powers of the Shadow Sovereign he didn't mean to give to his son continued to grow within Soo-Hoh, then….
'….It'll be impossible to carry on with a normal life.'
At the very least, there was a need to seal that power away until Soo-Hoh reached an age where he could exert perfect control over it.
Jin-Woo's gaze shifted over to all the photos hanging on the living room's wall. The biggest one was the marriage of Jin-Woo and Hae-In; surrounding it were many images of their son.
And most of those photos were shot alongside Shadow Soldiers.
Soo-Hoh and his bright smile, as he rode on Beru's shoulders and energetically yanking on the ant king's two antennae.
Soo-Hoh busy escaping from Igrit who volunteered to become the boy's home-school tutor, and then, Soo-Hoh busy performing a mock duel with Bellion using his toy sword.
There were so many others.
Jin-Woo quietly began storing them away in the subspace, one by one.
"Until Soo-Hoh can live among other people without any issues, I... I'm planning to temporarily seal away Soo-Hoh's powers and his memories of the Shadow Soldiers."
Soo-Hoh had to learn it.
He needed to learn how to coexist among regular people like a normal person, rather than with Shadow Soldiers.
Just as the final remaining photo entered the storage within the subspace, Beru emerged from the ground after learning of Jin-Woo's decision.
[Oh, my king....]
The heart of the Shadow Soldier, the one who looked after and loved Soo-Hoh like his own child, was transmitted in full to Jin-Woo.
However, the Sovereign's decision was resolute. Realising that there was no way to change his liege's mind, Beru's head drooped to the ground.
As the former ant king's gaze fell, a drawing suddenly entered his view. It was Soo-Hoh's sketchbook pushed forward by Jin-Woo.
'It's you, drawn by Soo-Hoh.'
Easily the best depiction of Beru he'd ever seen was drawn upon this white page. Thick teardrops formed on Beru's large eyes almost right away.
[My liege…. May I be permitted to say goodbye to the young Lord?]
After receiving Jin-Woo's permission, Beru cautiously entered Soo-Hoh's room.
The soft, rhythmic breathing of the deeply-asleep Soo-Hoh was like the sweetest and most soothing music to the former ant king's ears. He knelt down cautiously next to the bed, so as to not rouse the sleeping child from his nap.
[My Lord…. On behalf of all the Shadow Soldiers, I shall bid you farewell.]
His voice gently reverberated as if it was spoken within the dreams. In his sleep, Soo-Hoh shifted his body towards the location of the voice and mumbled softly.
"Boss ant.... boss ant...."
With an expression showing how proud he was of Soo-Hoh now being able to pronounce 'ant' more concisely compared to when the child was still chasing after him a couple of years ago, Beru bade his goodbye.
[It has been my honour to serve you, my Lord. Until we meet again next time, I pray for your good health....]
Beru lightly kissed the back of Soo-Hoh's hand perched at the end of the bed and stood back up. All the soldiers hidden within the former ant king's shadow also said their goodbyes.
[My Lord, even without me, I pray that you strictly adhere to your study schedules...]
[Please be healthy, my Lord.]
[Sobbbb, sniff, waaaail, waaah....]
With the goodbyes now over, Beru looked behind him. Jin-Woo was there, nodding his head.
He wordlessly walked over to his son and carefully pulled the blanket up to the boy's chest, tucking him in. Then, he placed his palm on the sleeping child's forehead. Powerful magical energy very briefly hovered near his fingertips before leaving him behind.
When Soo-Hoh opens his eyes again, all of his extraordinary power and memories would be gone.
'Have a good dream, son...'
Jin-Woo lightly kissed his son slumbering away like a baby angel and left the room, quietly closing the door behind him.
That night, Soo-Hoh dreamed of ants and knights and Orcs dancing happily together with him.
< chapter="" 266=""> Fin.