Chapter 8: Celestial Realm (5)
The next day, after finis.h.i.+ng his preparations to leave, Chi-Woo told his parents around dinner time that he was leaving home for a possibly long time. He told them that he might have to even go overseas. He thought he would get permission from his parents easily; since his birth, they had often left home to stay elsewhere because of the strange things that happened around him.
But unexpectedly, his mother responded, “Do you really have to go?”
Chi-Woo thought he should tell them the truth so that he won’t have any lingering feelings and regret, so, he said, “This has to do with Chi-Hyun.” Straightening his posture, he added, “I want to look for him.”
“…Let me just ask you one thing.” His father, who had been listening silently, finally opened his mouth. “Is it only because of Chi-Hyun?”
“It’s not only because of him.” Chi-Woo shook his head and said, “It’s also for me.” His eyes didn’t waver as he spoke confidently. The silence between them didn’t last long.
“…I see.” His father let out a long sigh. Then he said the same thing he had told Chi-Woo before, “I understand.”
“Honey?” By contrast, Chi-Woo’s mother whipped her head around. Chi-Woo’s eyes widened in surprise. “Honey!” his mother raised her voice, and his father shook his head.
“I don’t know what to do either.”
“What?” his mother asked.
“I want to stop him too. I feel like I’m committing a huge sin just by telling him to go,” his father answered. “But,” his father looked at Chi-Woo with hollow eyes. “I also feel like I’m doing wrong if I tell him to not go…” His father sighed again and smiled faintly, saying, “If he wishes to go, he should.”
His mother held back her words and squeezed her eyes shut while crossing her arms.
“Don’t overexert yourself. If things get too difficult, you can always…” His father stopped his sentence midway and said with more conviction, “No matter how tiring or difficult things get, never give up.”
“Yes, of course.” A warm smile formed on Chi-Woo’s lips. “I will return with Chi-Hyun.”
“I believe you. Good luck.”
Chi-Woo bowed deeply. The conversation was over. Chi-Woo returned to his room with mixed feelings. After checking the contents in his bag one more time, he laid on his bed. He couldn’t go to sleep easily.
At the break of dawn, Chi-Woo woke up with the sound of a loud alarm noise.
‘When did I fall asleep?’
He took a shower with a dull pang in his head and came out to the living room. There, on the table, he saw a hot bowl of white rice and all his favorite side dishes filling up the s.p.a.ce. On one side, there was even a bag of freshly steamed corn that he could eat on during his travels if he got hungry. Chi-Woo turned and saw that the door to his parents’ room was firmly shut.
“Thank you for the food,” Chi-Woo said and stared for a long time before he took a seat at the dining table and began to eat. After he finished his meal, he went to his brother’s room. Although his brother had told him to not touch the snacks stacked in his closet since he was going to eat them on his return, Chi-Woo took many of them and put them into his bag. Then he flung the stuffed bag over his shoulder and stood at the entrance door.
“I’m going now, Mom and Dad.” Chi-Woo bowed towards his parents’ room and opened the door. Before he left, he looked around and stared at the empty house as the chill of dawn swept in.
“…I’m going to return,” he murmured while closing the door behind him and pus.h.i.+ng the elevator b.u.t.ton. As soon as he stepped outside and breathed in the morning air, he no longer felt the anxiety that had always tormented him for so long. Instead, he felt incredibly calm. It felt like he was finally going to work on the unfinished business that he had been putting off for a long time.
The sunlight felt warm on his body, and the fresh wind stroked the tip of his nose. It was his first time feeling this way. It didn’t feel bad. Chi-Woo adjusted the bag on his back and walked confidently towards the path where the sunlight lingered.
* * *
At port Chodo—a port located in Gangwon-do, Goseong-gun county in a town named Hyeonnae-myeon.
After arriving an hour earlier than promised, Chi-Woo occupied himself by wandering around the place. In hope that he might meet the guide early, he walked all over the port, but it was futile. Eventually, he stopped near the harbor, thinking that he would need to get on a boat.
With only five minutes left from the promised time, Chi-Woo began to feel nervous; then he noticed a boat approaching from far away. To make sure the boat was for him, he moved from his spot and saw the boat change direction to where he was. The boat arrived at the dock exactly at two o’clock.
The boat had no redeeming qualities; it was just big enough for seven people, and its hull was faded and worn out, showing the time it had lived through. An old man standing on the bow of the boat attached a longboard to connect the deck under his feet to the dock that Chi-Woo was standing on top of.
Every time Chi-Woo took a step, the board let out an anxious cry. Chi-Woo didn’t want to be soaking wet before he even got on the boat, so he tried to maintain his balance as best as possible and carefully walked forward. When he arrived in front of the bow, though, Chi-Woo had to stop moving. The old man was blocking his path.
Without saying anything, the old man stretched out his hand as if he was requesting something. Chi-Woo stared at the man’s hand blankly, but quickly caught up with a muttered ‘Ah!’ and took out a won bill from his wallet. That seemed to do the trick; the old man scanned the bill, folded it up, placed it in his pockets, and turned around. When Chi-Woo took a seat at a corner of the boat, the old man turned the boat around skillfully and headed towards the open ocean again. With a loud cranking noise of the motor, the boat quickly glided through the waters.
They were going. It didn’t feel real yet; it just seemed like he was continuing a dream he had a couple of days ago. As an introvert, Chi-Woo was able to quietly enjoy the ocean scenery. As time pa.s.sed by, however, with only the open ocean in sight and the fog growing increasingly thick, Chi-Woo became slightly concerned that he might have taken the wrong boat. While eating the corn his mom had packed for him, he took furtive glances at the old man, who was preoccupied with smoking his pipe. The old man’s hat was pushed down, but Chi-Woo could still see his indifferent expression and s.h.a.ggy beard. The sleeves of his worn-out jacket were rolled up and revealed his hairy forearms. He looked just like how Chi-Woo expected men from the sea to look like.
Chi-Woo thought the old man would say something on their way to the destination. Yet as the hour pa.s.sed, the old man simply sat in his seat without saying a word; all he did was stir the steering wheel. After hesitating for a bit, Chi-Woo took out an ear of corn from his bag.
‘Excuse me, sir.”
Chi-Woo scooched slightly forward and spoke from behind the old man’s back. “Would you like some corn?”
The old man didn’t completely ignore him, but instead of replying, he simply turned his head indifferently and stared at the corn quietly. Chi-Woo began to regret asking and felt his face flus.h.i.+ng when… the old man took his corn. A period of silence followed again. The old man fingered the corn for a while and turned it around this way and that. It almost seemed like he was reminiscing about some memory he had longed for.
“Could you tell me where we’re going?” Chi-Woo asked, unable to contain his impatience. “How much longer do we have to go?” Chi-Woo didn’t want to waste the corn he gave as an offering.
“…Quite some time more,” the old man replied after a moment of silence. He had a shaky, old voice.
Chi-Woo finally managed to hear the old man’s voice, but the reply he got was unsatisfactory to say the least. It was like catching a pale chub when you had been aiming for a big catch. Disappointed, Chi-Woo went back to his seat again; as he was about to sit, though, the old man took a large bite from his corn and asked, “Are you Mr. Chi-Hyun’s family member?” Chi-Woo remained half-standing, and the old man asked again, “Are you his younger brother?” The old man had turned his back from him again while munching on his corn.
“I am….how did you know?”
“Your name was on the bill. I thought you guys might be related because your names are similar.”
“And,” the old man said while swallowing down his corn, “Only three people gave me corn while I was on this job. It’s four people now.”
“Three people besides me gave you corn?”
“Mr. Chi-Hyun and his parents,” the old man said calmly. This statement came as a great shock to Chi-Woo. Chi-Woo was sure of it now: his parents and his brother also rode on this boat. In other words…
“Mr. Chi-Hyun especially gave me a lot. He gave it to me like he was trying to get rid of them and always grumbled that he got too many. He always shared them with me, saying that he couldn’t finish all by himself.”
Corn was Chi-Woo’s mom’s favorite snack. At home or whenever he needed to go somewhere, his mom packed him corn.
“Did my parents and my brother ride this boat often?”
“I’m the only guide for this destination in Korea, so I had been giving Mr. Choi Chi-Hyun rides since he was in middle-school.”
Hearing this, Chi-Woo recalled the picture he saw at the Celestial Realm. ‘It’s not that he went overseas or to some isolated dormitory.” His brother had left for the Celestial Realm riding on this boat.
“But besides that,” the old man abruptly said. “Must you go?”
Chi-Woo stopped thinking. It was such a direct question. “Are you asking if I have to go?”
“I have heard one or two things about you.” The old man took out the pipe in his mouth. “The last time Mr. Chi-Hyun was on this boat, he made a request. He never did that before.”
The old man shook the ashes off his pipe and stared straight at Chi-Woo. Chi-Woo also tilted his head forward intently.
“He told me, ‘Just in case that…’,” the old man began and arched his neck sharply while looking at Chi-Woo, “‘a guy with a similar name as him offered me corn’, I should kick him in the b.u.t.t and chase him away. He said he would take responsibility for what happened afterwards and pay me for the work.”
The old man’s tapping on his pipe sounded especially vicious. Chi-Woo glanced at the corn he was holding and blinked. “…Why?”
“I don’t know either.” The old man shrugged. “I was only asked to do so.” The way he talked, it seemed he was about to stand up from his spot.
“Are you really going to though?”
“…I can’t do that.” The old man shook his head. Then he said impa.s.sively, “since I already got this.” The old man tapped the pocket where he had placed the won bill he got from Chi-Woo and took another bite of his corn. Chi-Woo felt relieved for now but licked his dry lips. Why did every person he saw try to stop him from going to the Celestial Realm? In this awkward atmosphere, Chi-Woo opened his mouth again with difficulty.
“How was my brother?”
“What do you mean?”
“What kind of person…or being he was?”
“That’s a surprise. If you don’t know who that young man is in this world, aren’t you from the North?” the old man said bluntly.
“But how did he seem like when you met him?”
“Hm, personally, I thought he was a good buddy to talk to. Can’t say more.” The speed at which the old man chewed his corn significantly slowed. “Well…there was a funny side to him, too.”
“A funny side to him?” Chi-Woo spoke like he couldn’t believe it, and the old man laughed.
“After we met each other a couple of times, he would sometimes tell me about his adventures. When I listened to his stories, I couldn’t even feel time pa.s.sing.”
“What kind of stories were they?” Chi-Woo sat closer to the man and asked.
“Let me see. Once, just a couple days after your brother returned, I was contacted to drive him back to the Celestial Realm as fast as possible.” Unexpectedly, the old man continued his story without restraint. “I did what they told me to do. Two short days after that, though, they told me the young man was returning to Earth again. Even if time didn’t flow in the Celestial Realm, it was my first time driving someone back and forth in such short intervals.”
“So I asked your brother about it, and he told me that a queen who helped him save a planet in the past had purposefully caused a disturbance.”
“It was for a surprising reason. She wanted to see him again.” The old man clicked his tongue. “She made the recently saved planet fall into chaos again for some silly emotions. It was truly unbelievable.”
“How shocking,” Chi-Woo added.
“Yes, considering how busy someone like that young man is. But when he told me this story, his face became all red even though he was usually so stoic…”
A person’s mind worked in mysterious ways. Unlike when Chi-Woo was waiting quietly and bored, time seemed to fly quickly by as he began to hear interesting stories from the old man. It was to the point that Chi-Woo felt a deep sense of regret when the boat reached a nameless island. He wanted to hear more about his brother.
Chi-Woo went down from the board that the old man had connected from the bow to the island. It was a deserted island where he couldn’t feel any presence. The fog was so thick that he couldn’t tell what was in the place, or where everything was. When he turned on his phone, he saw that he could neither use the internet nor make a phone call.
“If you keep going this way, you’ll see a cave. Go inside that cave,” the old man told him.
“I can’t see because the fog is too thick.”
“You’ll be able to find it easily because it’s a small island.”
“That’s good news. Thank you,” Chi-Woo said politely.
The old man didn’t leave immediately. He hesitated a bit and opened his mouth. “If you are going to meet your older brother, could I ask you to do one thing?”
“What is it?”
“When he was on my boat last time, I had something I wanted to tell him…you just have to pa.s.s a couple of words to him.”
Since it was not a hard task to merely relay information, Chi-Woo easily nodded.
“Please tell him that I wish for him to come back safely. And tell him that I’ll prepare fresh sas.h.i.+mi and good alcohol, so he should tell me some fun stories about his adventures again.”
Chi-Woo got off from the boat and stared at the old man. He didn’t know exactly why, but he felt thankful towards this old man. It might be because there was someone other than their family that was waiting for his brother.
The old man asked, “Will it be possible for you to do that?”
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“What about me?”
“To the testing site.”
When Giant Fist spoke with a nervous tone, Chi-Woo also became slightly nervous. “When does it start?”
“There are probably some test-takers already taking the test.”
“Huh? But I came at the right time.”
“The test doesn’t start at the same time for everyone. Everyone takes it separately, but…” Giant Fist cleared his throat. “The acceptance is based on a rolling basis.”
“A rolling basis?” Chi-Woo wasn’t able to fully understand Giant Fist’s words. “Has the test already started? What if the first test is to arrive at the testing site at the correct time? It’s not like that, right?”
“Ahahah! No. Sir, it’s not like that at all.” Giant Fist burst out laughing and quickly shook his head. “Sir, you don’t have to worry about it too much. Even though the acceptance is based on a rolling basis, it’s still a conditional acceptance. From what I know, there have been very few cases of failure due to tardiness until the fourth or fifth recruitment.”
“Fourth or fifth recruitment?”
“Yes. There are groups that take the test in advance. There were a total of six recruitment stages. If you count the total number of test-takers who entered from all six stages, it’ll easily pa.s.s over thousands.”
“Then my brother…”
“He was part of the 1st recruitment. Honestly, rather than a recruitment, they called for him to take the test since he was the very first one to go in by himself.” Giant Fist sighed. “Even after he went, they selected a second group of test-takers. And seeing how they sent out the seventh recruitment announcement five times, the situation doesn’t seem to be looking too good.”
Chi-Woo organized his thoughts for a bit and asked, “Mister, you told me that everyone who comes and goes here are heroes, right?”
Chi-Woo looked at Giant Fist as he coughed and bunched up his shoulders before continuing, “Then it must not be a common occurrence for the Celestial Realm to organize a ma.s.sive recruitment like this to specially select heroes, who could all save a world, seven times.”
“It may not be unprecedented, but it’s certainly rare.”
“Then, what is the situation like?”
“Sir, I don’t know.” Giant Fist immediately replied. “I’m merely making predictions. Since they have tried to recruit heroes seven times and even made an announcement five times, the situation must be getting worse. As a result, the number of applicants is decreasing as well.”
Giant Fist breathed heavily. “In order to know what’s going on inside…”
“You’re telling me that I need to pa.s.s the test.”
“Yes. But honestly, regardless of whether you pa.s.s or not, the test itself is not very difficult.”
“Is that so?”
“You just have to stand in front of a round orb.”
Raphael had told him that even ordinary people could take the test, but Chi-Woo found it hard to believe that the test would be that easy.
“I only have to stand in front of it?”
“Yes. The orb will automatically make a judgement.”
“Hmm, it’s hard to explain this part of the process.” Giant Fist struggled to find the right words as he continued, “Let me put it this way, the orb will judge whether Sir Chi-Woo is suitable and necessary for the future to save a specific world in crisis.” When Chi-Woo only stared at him, Giant Fist groaned once more. Then he suddenly clapped and said, “Let’s imagine a toilet.”
“What did you say?”
“A toilet, toilet. And let’s say that our goal is to make the toilet perform its function in an hour.”
“And by performing its function…”
“A toilet’s function is to remove urination and defecation. In order to reach that goal, who should we send?” Giant Fist continued in high spirits, “We need to send those who ate a lot rather than those with an empty stomach. Or someone who drank a lot of water. We may also consider those with enteritis. So that they can p.o.o.p and pee as fast as possible.”
Chi-Woo looked disgusted, but he understood what Giant Fist was trying to say. There were two outcomes for a world in crisis: extinction or salvation. Thus, the test he was going to take was selecting those who were fit to save the world on the verge of extinction. That didn’t mean Chi-Woo wasn’t going to grumble inwardly about the disgusting metaphor Giant Fist had come up with as they walked.
Suddenly, Giant Fist came to a stop. Before Chi-Woo realized it, they had walked inside the pure white castle. Now that he was in, he saw that there were a group of creatures queuing in a long line on the path of light. By a rough estimate, there were easily over hundreds of test-takers.
‘There are a lot more applicants than I thought.’
“As expected, there are a lot less applicants. It’s really fortunate.” Unlike Chi-Woo who clicked his tongue, Giant Fist murmured calmly.
“A lot less applicants?”
“Yes. There were a crazy amount of applicants during the 2nd recruitment. If everyone stood in one line, it would have reached all the way to the Stranger’s s.p.a.ce.” Giant Fist scanned the line and snorted. “But I can a.s.sure you, sir, only one or two would pa.s.s out of all these test takers.”
“What the h.e.l.l? Who was the punk saying…” A hero who stood at the end of the line seemed to have heard Giant Fist’s words and turned back with angry eyes. “Ah, it’s you.” He snorted when he recognized Giant Fist. “Tch. You sure talk big as a five-time test taker.”
Someone added in, “Yep. Even though he’s going to take his sixth test soon.”
“Five-time test taker?” Chi-Woo turned around to look at Giant Fist. No wonder he knew about the test so well.
“Hm, hm. Let’s go, sir. Let’s get in line.” Giant Fist spoke as calmly as possible and quickly moved his feet.
Chi-Woo stood behind Giant Fist and fell into contemplation. Giant Fist told him that the Celestial Realm was where those who proved their worth gathered together. Chi-Woo could make a rough guess from the perspective of a Korean; it probably meant that all his fellow test-takers were heroes. However, most of them would be eliminated in this test. Moreover, he heard that the current situation was getting worse and worse.
‘Then that means…’
Where he needed to go to find his brother was a place very little could be done even if a bunch of heroes with the potential to save a world rushed in together. In other words, it was an environment presenting a trial of h.e.l.lish difficulty.
At that moment, he saw an angel quickly fly towards him.
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