He saw the desolate streets.
Something seemed a bit inadequate in that description of the scenery laid out before him, though. For one, he couldn’t spot a single person nor a moving vehicle outside.
What he saw was a dreary and bleak cityscape with nary a moving ant in sight. Even the sky above was the shade of dull grey.
‘Wasn’t a dream, but all real?!’
Realising this, Seol nearly flew towards the smartphone and picked it up. He realised that it wasn’t even his.
A robotic voice came from the device and the screen lit up next. He hurriedly tapped on the letter icon blinking on the corner, and texts appeared on the screen.
The contents were simple, but how considerate of them, there was an image attached to the message as well. It turned out to be a map. He checked, and found that his current location wasn’t too far from his new destination.
Seol slapped his own cheeks, hard. Of course, his face stung quite a lot. He was trying to see if he could wake up with that, but also wanted to use the pain to reaffirm that this was indeed happening for real, as well.
He rubbed his aching cheeks and cautiously pushed the front door open to leave.
While he walked, an unexplainable tension continued to rear its ugly head every now and then. Besides the loneliness born out of feeling like the last man on earth, it felt like he was walking around while the world around him had been frozen in time.
Finding his way around wasn’t difficult at all. He simply followed the direction indicated on the map, and needed only two minutes to arrive at the destination.
The eye-catching plaque shouting out ‘Nakwon High’ hung next to the wide-open front gates of the school. (TL: “Nakwon” = paradise in Korean)
‘What an ironic name.’ (Seol)
“That name stinks.”
An unexpected voice surprised Seol, and he quickly looked to his side. He didn’t even know when she had arrived, but there was a girl with a hoodie standing there.
Their eyes met. Her flawless pale skin indicated her young age, but her arched up brows seemed to indicate her rather fierce personality.
Just as Seol got this impression of uncaring disinterest from her expressionless face, she brushed past him. Both of her hands were shoved deep within the pockets as she quickly stepped past the open gates. She seemed to be in a hurry for some reason.
‘Anyways. The white roof, right?’ (Seol)
The attached map said this was the location, but that didn’t mean this very spot was the meeting point. Seol looked around and found the assembly hall over yonder. He approached it, and could hear the murmurs of people coming from within.
Seol climbed up the steps, only to come to an abrupt halt. An unexpected person was standing by the entrance to the hall, that was why.
To be more specific, a blonde woman wearing a full-on French maid outfit was graciously beckoning Seol over. It was as if she was saying, please, over here, welcome, sir….
“Uhm… Am I supposed to enter through here?” (Seol)
The blonde woman silently nodded her head and smiled brightly. But, when Seol tried to walk past her, she trotted to his front and blocked his path. She quietly stared at him and suddenly reached her hand out.
Seol tilted his head in confusion. Then, the blonde woman’s lips opened without letting out a sound. She used the index fingers and thumbs of her hands to form a rectangle and then, reached out to him again. It was as if she was telling him to hand it over. Unfortunately, Seol could only stand there, his eyes blinking in further confusion.
“What is it that you want from me?” (Seol)
As if Seol was making her frustrated, the blonde maid narrowed her eyes in an elegant manner. Her cheeks even puffed up, and her lower lip stuck out in a slight pout, too. This only caused Seol to fall further into the state of confusion.
“She wants your Invitation letter! Or your Contract papers!”
As he stood there wondering what to do, someone shouted out from the inside the hall. Seol took a look, and found a guy sitting on a chair inside the assembly hall, giggling out while spectating what was happening out here. Finally going ‘Oh!’, Seol pulled his Invitation letter out from the pocket and handed it over.
“Hng.” (the maid)
The woman received the letter and opened it while carrying a prim expression. While Seol stood next to her wondering whether that hng was her trying to say something or simply was her short snort, the maid’s expression gradually froze up.
She looked at the Invitation letter.
Then, she looked back at Seol.
Her wide open eyes slowly closed shut. She carefully folded the Invitation letter back, gathered both of her hands in front of her chest, and slowly lowered herself in a deep bow. It was an elegant yet dignified greeting.
Suddenly, the entire assembly hall fell into silence. The attentions of everyone who had arrived here before Seol focused on the newest arrival. Completely disregarding all those stares, the blonde maid pointed towards the left side of the hall and guided the flustered and even more confused Seol there.
The maid guided him towards an empty chair, and bowed politely once more, before smoothly retreating away as if she was riding on skates while never turning her back to him. She still didn’t say a single word, yet her attitude towards him had definitely changed.
“What’s the matter with her? Why is she acting like that all of a sudden?”
“I wonder. She didn’t do that when I showed up.”
The eyes of two particular men landed on the new arrival, Seol. But all he could feel at that moment was the sense of being confused and flustered.
Even though he had come here in that super-vivid dream, in reality, this was his actual first time. And certain things were progressing rather differently compared to the dream, too.
So, of course he was flustered. That was why he decided to divert his attention and try to suss out his new environment, instead.
The number of people gathered in the assembly hall was well over 30. What’s especially noticeable was that, they were divided into left and right sides, as if to separate the two.
The left side with Seol in it only had eight people in total – six males and two females. They were furnished with chairs to sit on, and the general atmosphere was relaxed and easy going.
On the contrary, the right side had almost thirty people, but they were either sitting on the floor or standing up. And he could see that they were anxious, too.
“It must be fate, meeting in a place like this, so why don’t we introduce ourselves to each other?”
A man of the left group suddenly spoke up, as if he found all this waiting around thing quite boring. He was the one giggling at Seol just now.
His loud and manly voice managed to attract the attention of everyone present. The front part of his hair was slicked back to reveal his equally manly face. A faint smile formed on his lips as if he enjoyed being the centre of attention.
“Nice to meet you all. Name’s Kahng Seok. And these two guys over here…. Hey, guys. Introduce yourselves.”
“I’m Lee Hyung-Sik.”
It was unclear if they were friends before coming here, or became friends after arriving. Two men briefly introduced themselves. Seol inwardly assigned nicknames to both of them, since their physical traits were rather distinct. The former was the ‘Skinny’, and the latter, the ‘Fatty’. As for the first guy to speak up, he was assigned the nickname, the ‘Rock’.
“What’s your name?” (Kahng Seok)
Kahng Seok’s next target was the woman wearing the hoodie, the one Seol ran into at the school’s gate.
She seemed to be completely uninterested. It was as if she wasn’t even listening to what was being said around her surroundings, only immersing herself on the phone’s screen. In other words, she was ignoring the question. Kahng Seok scratched his head and awkwardly smiled.
“She must be one of those chic modern women. Without a doubt.” (Lee Hyung-Sik)
Lee Hyung-Sik chimed in for a bit, there.
“It’s getting kinda embarrassing here… Isn’t there anyone willing to save me?” (Kahng Seok)
Kahng Seok’s gaze landed on the remaining woman of the group. She tightly squeezed the hand of a teen boy sticking close to her and awkwardly smiled.
“Oh… my name is Yi Surl-Ah.”
“So, it’s Miss Surl-Ah, then. And the gentleman next to you is?” (Kahng Seok)
“It’s my little brother, Yi Sung-Jin.” (Yi Surl-Ah)
Upon hearing the words little brother, Kahng Seok seemed to get more interested.
“You two are blood siblings?” (Kahng Seok)
“Yes, we are.” (Yi Surl-Ah)
“May I ask how old you are? I mean, you two seem a bit too young to be here and all. Oh, my apologies if I invaded your privacy.” (Kahng Seok)
“Oh, no. It’s fine. I’m eighteen and Sung-Jin is two years younger than me.” (Yi Surl-Ah)
Kahng Seok let out a surprised gasp as if he found this fact quite surprising. He quickly formed a beaming smile and offered his hand.
“Oh, that means I can drop the formal speech. I’m twenty nine this year. Since we all have received Invitation letters, let’s get along well. Think of me as a reliable uncle.” (Kahng Seok)
“Oh, uhm… Thank you very much.” (Yi Surl-Ah)
Yi Surl-Ah shyly shook his hand. Her graceful appearance and that shyness reminded Seol of a freshly picked beautiful flower, and he couldn’t take his eyes off her for a moment or two. Even Kahng Seok didn’t let go of her hand for a while.
The remaining two were Seol, as well as a man wearing a green cap and a pair of sunglasses.
The cap-wearing man was busy moving his lips up and down as if he was chewing on a gum, while listening to music via earphones stuck to his ears. His legs also moved along to the beat, it seemed, lending to an overall impression of him being a bit of restless busybody. He also didn’t introduce himself as if such things didn’t interest him.
Seol quietly gathered his focus and stared at Kahng Seok. The green light appeared on him for a brief moment, before dissipating.
The odds of nothing good happening by mixing up with him was high enough. In the end, Seol turned his head away.
He got pretty flustered when entering the assembly hall, but as time passed, he had gradually calmed down.
The Seol of the dream was standing on the right side of the hall, which meant that things were different now. Just what was that golden stamp and why did it warrant such a different treatment? He tried to go through the memories once more for answers, but he couldn’t recall anything.
‘I’ll get to find out, eventually.’ (Seol)
When he checked the phone for time, he saw the countdown tick from “00:00:01” to “00:00:00”.
Suddenly, a voice came from the front of the hall. On the stage, a tuxedo-wearing man walked up to the fore in a dignified, disciplined manner. Everyone present was quite surprised, since there was no one there just a second ago.
The stylishly dressed man sported a clean and neat hairstyle, as well as a monocle over his eye. He raised a hand towards the blonde maid standing by the entrance.
“Is this everyone?”
The maid shook her head softly, pointed towards the group on the right side of the hall, and then, raised four fingers up.
“Four people…. Well, it’s fine. We can’t wait any longer, so just close the door and unleash it.”
When the blonde maid showed some sign of hesitation, the man who kind of resembled the head butler narrowed his eyes.
“I’m the Guide. It’s not very difficult to get here. Which means, those who can’t even adhere to the schedule, aren’t needed here.”
In the end, the maid obediently lowered her head and quietly closed the door shut. She then produced a smartphone and tapped away for a little while.
Meanwhile, the man on the stage clapped his hands twice to draw the attention towards himself.
“Welcome. I am called Han, tasked with guiding all of you this time around. You can call me ‘the Guide’.”
Han spoke up to here and beckoned the maid with his finger. She quickly ran to his side, while her blonde ponytail danced in the wind.
“First of all, the Contract documents, please. How many do we have? A total of twenty eight…. Quite a lot, isn’t it? And we have eight Invitation letters this time?” (Han)
The Guide didn’t even take a look at the bundle of the Contracts and simply shoved them underneath his jacket. However, he still held the letters tightly in his hand.
The Guide played with his monocle.
“Ehh, firstly, let us confirm the identities of those present today. Although we have the Invitation letters here, it’s meaningless if we don’t personally confirm.”
The silence still remained inside the assembly hall. The Guide simply smirked.
“I’m sure that you’re curious about many things. But, let us follow the protocol, shall we? Everyone present here, please, think of bringing up your Status Windows, or simply yell Status in your minds. It’s fine to say it out loud, as well.” (Han)
‘Status Windows? Status?’ (Seol)
Just as Seol thought like this….
In the empty air right in front of his eyes, a sudden avalanche of texts came crashing down.
“W, what the hell is this?”
People began gasping out loudly in surprise everywhere. Seol was no exception. Although he had seen this tens, hundreds of times before in his dream, now that he was experiencing it personally, this did really feel quite a lot different.
“What is this ‘innate abilities’ thing? Hey, Hyung-Sik, what does yours say?” (Kahng Seok)
“Excuse me? Do you possess an Innate ability by any chance?” (Han)
The person who answered Kahng Seok wasn’t Hyung-Sik, but the Guide, Han. Kahng Seok didn’t expect his words to be overheard from so far, so he got flustered while he shook his head in denial.
“N, no, I don’t have one. I was just curious.” (Kahng Seok)
“Oh…. But, of course. It’s only normal for you to not have an innate ability. That’s how it is with humans all the time. You don’t have to mind that section in the Windows.” (Han)
Han smiled brightly as he spoke.
“Well, then. Let’s stop being surprised, shall we? This time, please reveal the grades of your Markings. Just like before, just think about it or speak it out loud, and it will be done. Do not worry, I won’t be able to see anything besides what’s been revealed.” (Han)
The assembly hall got a bit noisy. But, Seol was still intensely staring at his Status Window.
The Guide definitely said that it was normal to not have any Innate abilities. However…. the Windows in front of Seol’s eyes showed that he had them. Two, as a matter of fact.
‘Future Vision? And what’s with the question marks?’ (Seol)
He suspected that the ability to see the green colour was somehow related to this development, but why was there a pair of question marks?
“Let’s see…. Since we don’t have a lot of time remaining, I shall just directly move to the next step in the procedure. Miss Yi Surl-Ah, Mister Yi Sung-Jin, Mister Lee Hyung-Sik, Mister Jeong Min-Woo, and Mister Hyun Sahng-Min? You all have the bronze Marks, yes? Oh, indeed you do.” (Han)
Five people out of the left side’s eight, nodded their heads before staring at the Guide with somewhat befuddled eyes.
The Guide asked and answered his own question, then he threw five Invitation letters in the air. Suddenly, the letters shone brightly before transforming into five bronze-coloured bags that fell down to the ground. Just like a fancy magic trick.
“The bronze Marks will only receive one Random Box as per the regular bonus item rules. You could also have asked for the bonus of bringing along a helper, but I see that none of you have done so, regrettably.”
The blonde maid picked the five bronze-coloured bags and handed them over to their respective owners. Meanwhile, the Guide unfolded two more Invitation letters. While reading the contents, he carried on.
“We advise you to immediately activate your bonus items right away. The Tutorial will begin soon, so it’d be a pity if you died without using them…. Ohh?”
The Guide, Han’s eyes always maintained a level of disinterest, but a small glint of surprise flickered in them now.
“Hoh. We have two silver Marks. I’m genuinely looking forward to guiding all of you. Mister Kahng Seok? Miss Yun Seo-Rah?” (Han)
Kahng Seok shouted out energetically. The hoodie-wearing girl, Yun Seo-Rah, simply nodded her head once.
“For the silver Marks, two regular Random Boxes, and special bonus items unique to the Invited, will be provided. Mister Kahng Seok won’t receive the special bonus item, but there is one for Miss Yun Seo-Rah.”
This time too, the Invitation letters became bags as they fell down to the floor. If there was one thing different, then the bags were silver-coloured rather than bronze.
The blonde maid moved around quite a lot, like a busy worker bee. Meanwhile, the eyes of the Guide landed on one man. And that was Seol, still stupidly staring at the empty air in front of his eyes.
“Please, reveal the grade of your Marking, sir.” (Han)
Han’s voice sounded low, but it contained an undeniable power. Seol was too preoccupied with the whole Innate abilities thing until then, but when the voice powerfully reverberated within his eardrums, he quickly snapped out of his daze and asked back.
“R, reveal my Marking’s grade, is it?” (Seol)
“Yes. Oh, it’s fine now, so…. Hmm?!” (Han)
The Guide suddenly stopped his words and stared hard.
His eyes grew very large as he stared at Seol, or to be more specific, at his revealed Marking’s grade.
“It’s gold?!” (Han)
Just in time, the blonde maid finished distributing the bags. She lightly trotted to the stage and gently poked the waist of the dumbstruck Guide with her elbow.
Finally regaining his senses, Han lightly coughed and cleared his throat while lowering his gaze.
The remaining piece of paper in his hand – he became overtly cautious as he slowly unfolded the Invitation letter. He read the contents top to bottom without leaving anything out, and then, leaked out a long sigh.
“We have a…. very important guest this time.” (Han)
His voice was quiet. But, still – the noisy clamour came to a dead stop and dozens and dozens of eyes focused on one person. Seol could actively feel his cheeks reddening right about now.
“I’d like to apologise. It is my first time guiding a gold Mark, after all…. No, even in history, there has been only one prior event like today’s. I’ve only heard about it until now.” (Han)
Seol wondered if this gold Marking thing was such a shocking matter. Han’s words didn’t even sound like an excuse, just some babblings of a stunned man, instead.
When the blonde maid giggled softly, Han cleared his throat again.
“Alright, let’s carry on, shall we?” (Han)
He lightly threw Seol’s Invitation letter. The paper exploded into a brilliant shower of light before transforming into a single bag.
And there were six things written on the tag of the golden bag.
Three regular bonus items, plus three special bonus items unique to the Invited – quite unlike any other Invitation letters; Kim Hahn-Nah made sure to pack hers to the brim, it seemed.
“For the gold Marking…. Oh.” (Han)
Han’s jaw dropped after he read the list of bonus items.