Dragon Ascending - Chapter 13 - Aeraneth - 나 혼자만 레벨업 (2024)

Chapter Text

Park Ryung watched the news about Korea’s tenth S-rank while sitting on the couch of the Sung apartment, dying of sheer embarrassment.

Korea’s tenth S-rank is a valued agent of the Association, and many Hunters today may recognize him,” Woo Jinchul announced on the podium. “Hunter Park Ryung, head teacher of the Hunters Association’s training program.” Park Ryung made a dying whale sound as his boring ID picture was plastered on the screen, hiding in his hands.

“Awww,” Sung Jinah cooed.

“Jinah, don’t embarrass him,” Jinwoo huffed, patting Park Ryung’s back. “It’s alright, Hyung. At least you’re not up there yourself, right?”

“T-That’s true…”

Chief Woo, i-isn’t this the training program that singlehandedly raised national performance rates of guild-less Hunters??” a reporter exclaimed.

Chief Woo! The head teacher of the training program was previously classified as a D-rank healer- is this possibly related to the agent that discovered the cure for Eternal Sleep Disease?!” There was a brief uproar and commotion that Woo Jinchul waited out patiently, and only when they calmed down did he lean to the microphones.

Due to previous circ*mstances, the Association has kept as much information about our agent private as possible,” he answered. “However, the circ*mstances have changed. Hunter Park is also the healer who discovered the cure for Eternal Sleep Disease.” Park Ryung hunkered down further.

Waaah,” he whined.

He is also the head teacher who personally reformed our training program, with the goal of reducing casualty rates for Hunters across multiple classes,” Woo Jinchul continued. “As a result, the Association is working with both the White Tiger Guild and Hunters Guild to expand our training program to educate and prepare as many Hunters as possible for their dangerous careers.” The crowd was losing it all over again. Park Ryung felt his blush spread down to his neck and whined out loud.

Why did I eat those stupid popcorn pills,” he wheezed.

“There now, Ryung,” Park Kyunghe soothed, leaning over to pat his head. “There, there.”

“Yeah, you’re just basically the most popular guy in all of Korea right now,” Sung Jinah agreed happily. “No big deal~”

“Jinah, please.”

Park Ryung experienced the very real event of actually not wanting to go back to work the next week. Usually it took a heck of a cuddle from Jinwoo to get the same thing. But sadly, Jinwoo was excited to leave for the Association himself, so. He rolled out of bed and crawled through starting his day, and just desperately hoped that it wouldn’t be too weird if he set foot outside.

It was fine. It was definitely fine, right? There were a thousand Parks in Korea, as the saying went, and outside of being a little taller than average, he didn’t stick out in any other way. It was fine!

“… That’s called denial, dude,” Sung Jinah replied.

“Wha,” Park Ryung managed.

“Have a good day, both of you,” Park Kyunghe soothed, handing over lunches. “Ryung, don’t worry about it, you’ll settle into the situation naturally.”

“Oh, um, I-I guess so…”

“See?” Jinwoo agreed. “It’ll be fine, Hyung. Thanks, Mom.” They set off with that, and Park Ryung could only hope he looked like any other office worker just heading to work.

… It definitely didn’t feel like that. It definitely- did not feel like that?? He was getting stared at from the moment he stepped onto the streets from the Sung apartment. Jinwoo, comparatively, walked along like nothing was wrong, holding his hand to make sure he kept up. Park Ryung was always happy to hold hands, yes, but the staring definitely didn’t let up on the whole walk to work.

It also outright turned into a small mob at the front of the Association, complete with flashing cameras and people shouting his name, so. They probably weren’t there for anyone else?

“Hunter Park!”

“Hunter Park, how did your research into Eternal Sleep Disease start?”

“Hunter Park, is this your, uh, friend-?”

“I’m his boyfriend,” Jinwoo answered shortly, and stared the asking man head-on. “Get out of the way, you’re going to make Hyung late for work.” The reporter flinched back, shocked. Park Ryung blinked hugely as he was pulled into the building by a very dignified, confident, and adorable tiny boyfriend.

“… You’re so cool,” he comprehended. Jinwoo snorted softly, leading him through the staring lobby.

“That’s my line, Hyung.”

“O-Oh, jeez…” Although, maybe he should actually get that car that Woo Jinchul recommended. Driving meant a lot less staring, probably.

Woo Jinchul was waiting for them past the front lobby, and nodded slightly when they approached.

“Hunter Park, Hunter Sung,” he greeted.

“Chief,” Jinwoo returned.

“H-Hi,” Park Ryung managed. “Thank you for the press thing, Chief.”

“It’s to be expected, of course.” He looked down the hall. “Hunter Song has already arrived, but our fourth member hasn’t been seen.”

“Oh, really?” Park Ryung blinked. “He replied to the message and said he’d be here.”

“Yes, and it’s past the designated time. It’s a bit concerning he hasn’t-“ Woo Jinchul paused. “… He’s stuck in the crowd,” he realized.

“He’s stuck in the crowd,” Park Ryung agreed, weary. Woo Jinchul sighed, then pulled out his phone.

“Excuse me,” he said, and walked away. Ah, the poor thing.

Apparently, other agents were called to help drive away the crowd of reporters. No sooner had they done so when a spindly guy barely out of high school burst into the front doors, huffing and puffing. He scurried his way to the front desk.

“E-Excuse- Excuse- ex-“ He wheezed, doubling over for a moment. Jinwoo glanced at Park Ryung, eyebrows high. Park Ryung grinned back, nodding slightly. “E-Excuse me,” Yoo Jinho tried again, panting. “I-I’m- late, I-I had an appointment h-here at- eek.” He jumped when Park Ryung walked forward, ignoring the stares from everyone else for a moment. “P-P-Park Ryung!!” Yoo Jinho blurted out. Ah, Park Ryung was kind of hoping he didn’t watch the news recently.

“Hunter Park?” the receptionist asked, unsteady.

“It’s alright, I know where his appointment is,” Park Ryung explained. “Yoo Jinho, right?” Yoo Jinho’s eyes went round. Ah, he was funny even in real life. “Just this way, you can walk with us,” Park Ryung assured him merrily, herding him away. Woo Jinchul joined them again, impassive as ever. “Look, here’s your fellow classmate~”

“C-C-Class- Wha- hiek,” Yoo Jinho squeaked again, taking in all of Woo Jinchul. Woo Jinchul looked him over impassively, clearly scaring the sh*t out of the guy. He shut up and scurried alongside them.

Park Ryung could tell this was going to be a lot of fun.

-

Yoo Jinho could tell this was going to be the weirdest day of his life.

“Hunter Park, over here!!”

“H-Hunter Park, who is your boyfriend? Is he also a Hunter??”

“Hunter Park, please at least answer some questions about your work as a teacher!”

“What will this mean for the training program?”

“How did you come to cooperate with Baek Yoonho and Choi Jongin??”

… It was neat that he got to see a real celebrity up close and all, but… How was he supposed to get inside the building?!

Once the tall, striking figure was inside, led away by who was apparently his boyfriend, Yoo Jinho had to focus back on the present. On a mysterious, but official offer from the Hunter Association, or at least- that was what it seemed like. He’d double-checked, and all the correct headings and official channels were used. A mysterious offer with a mysterious purpose, one offering him the chance to be part of a new program that was recruiting select members. All he had to do was show up with the signed NDA, and they’d take him.

His father immediately told him it was a bad idea. Jinsung was the one who was training to work with Hunters, and also told him to butt out. He was sure that offer wasn’t meant for him, anyway. And why would it be? He was the second son of his father, the third child of the family, nothing more than a graduate of the business track at his private school. To Hunters, he was nothing. To his father, he was a leftover.

Maybe it was Jinsung telling him to reject it that made him reply he would show up. Which didn’t mean much now if he couldn’t-

“Yoo Jinho?” someone asked, and Yoo Jinho nearly jumped out of his skin. A man in a suit with a familiar pin on it had approached. “Please make your way inside, we’ll be clearing the area,” he said. “Excuse the delay.”

“… Um, i-it’s fine…” Ah, so it really was the Association who invited him. Good to know.

Which didn’t entirely explain why it was Park Ryung himself who showed up to the desk to greet him.

Of course Yoo Jinho knew who Park Ryung was. Everyone knew who Park Ryung was since last week? Korea’s tenth S-rank, the healer who cured Eternal Sleep Disease, the government worker who personally taught countless Hunters how to survive in Dungeons. According to news reports, the performance rates for low-ranked Hunters had become outrageous compared to worldwide numbers, leading to many guilds no longer having entry requirements.

In person, Park Ryung was also a tall, handsome man who made office clothes look like a model for a hero’s secret identity. Yoo Jinho had been around enough models to compare it accurately, of course! Strangely, he actually looked much friendlier than when he had been walking through the crowd, smiling like that.

He then led him directly to one of the scariest-looking agents that Yoo Jinho had ever met and introduced him as a classmate??? It took Yoo Jinho a bit to recognize Woo Jinchul, the head of the monitoring department and chief inspector. In other words, a very important Hunter. By then, they were already following Park Ryung through the hallway, along with the boyfriend.

“… S… S-So, um,” he attempted, clutching at his backpack. “W-Where did you say I was s-supposed to go? M-Maybe I can just, um- Y-You don’t have to walk m-me personally…”

“Hm? Why not?” Park Ryung returned lightly, glancing back. “We’re going to the same place.”

“W-W-We are??”

“Of course.” Park Ryung crinkled his eyes with his smile. “I’m the one who made the offer to you, after all. Didn’t you read the email?” Yoo Jinho did remember it being signed by ‘Hunter Park’, but that couldn’t possibly-

Oh.

“Wha,” he choked out, but Park Ryung stopped at a door, using his badge to open it. He walked into a large, open space that looked like- a training room? Inside was a strange object sitting on a table against the wall, which had an older man inspecting it. The man looked up.

“You have some weird hobbies, Mr. Park,” he commented.

“Ah, you like my popcorn machine~? Ahahaha, that’s a joke,” Park Ryung added in deadpan. “That’s the thing responsible for this mess.” His expression changed so suddenly?! Yoo Jinho was pretty sure there were rules against pissing off S-ranks???

“Chief Woo, Mr. Sung,” the older man added amiably. “Who’s the sweaty one?”

“Ah, is he sweating already? That didn’t take much.” Park Ryung walked forward. “This is Yoo Jinho, he’ll be joining us. Yoo Jinho, ah- before we start. Did you bring your NDA?”

“U… Um,” Yoo Jinho managed, and belatedly remembered he was wearing a backpack. “Y-Yes…?”

“Great! I’ll take it, then.” He held out a hand expectantly. Yoo Jinho tried very hard to rip off his backpack in the most efficient manner possible, and only ended up collapsing on the ground. “… He’s funny, isn’t he?” Yoo Jinho sprang back up with the contract in hand, blushing furiously.

“H-Here, sir!!” he blurted out, handing it over in the lowest bow humanly possible. Park Ryung took it, checked it over calmly, then nodded.

“I’ll make a copy at the end of the day,” he promised, setting it on the table. “For now, welcome! Ah, everyone else knows each other, but let’s make this easy on you. I’m Park Ryung, and I’m the head teacher of the training program. This is Chief Woo Jinchul, head of the monitoring department and A-rank Hunter.” Yoo Jinho was very scared under the man’s stare. “This is Song Chiyul, owner of the Song Kwando facility and C-rank Hunter. And this is Jinwoo, adorable boyfriend extraordinaire and E-rank Hunter.” The same boyfriend that glared down all those reporters so fiercely- blushed???

“H-Hyung,” he complained shyly.

“Ah, cute…”

“… Am I- r-really supposed to be here?” Yoo Jinho attempted.

“Yes,” Park Ryung replied. He looked. “Mr. Song, since you found the popcorn machine, I’ll just explain this plainly. I’m starting a new class in the program, and I want the four of you to be my very first students.” Yoo Jinho was definitely not supposed to be here?! “It’ll be a program to- Ah, questions already?”

“I-I just- w-want to make sure of something,” Yoo Jinho attempted. “I-I, um- H-Hunter Park, sir, I’m not… a H-Hunter?” This was definitely a program for Hunters!! In the Hunters Association!!! “I’m not Awakened at all, t-that-“

“Oh, I know.” Park Ryung held up a hand. “I’m very aware of that, Mr. Yoo. That’s exactly why you’re here.” Yoo Jinho was ten times more confused. “Since you already signed the NDA, it’s fine to tell you that I’m not an S-rank through a reawakening,” Park Ryung explained. “Actually, I figured out a way to increase a Hunter’s rank through effort.” Yoo Jinho stilled, mouth falling open. Song Chiyul’s expression was alike.

“Mr. Park!” he spluttered. “Are you serious??”

“You four are here to learn this method with a variety of goals in mind,” Park Ryung agreed. “Mr. Song, I want to change you to a fighting type to match your skills.” Song Chiyul gawped. “Chief, Jinwoo, you two already know your goals. Which leaves Mr. Yoo, who isn’t Awakened.” Park Ryung turned on him. “I want to give you mana outside of an Awakening, and teach you to be a Hunter,” he said. “You’ll have to increase your mana and rank through your own efforts, and train diligently to get anywhere. All I do is teach you the method and provide the supplies necessary.”

“… W… What?” Yoo Jinho tried, unsteady. Awakening was by chance, and never could be forced. People had tried. People had died trying. “B-But how…?”

“It’s up to you if you want to join the program,” Park Ryung told him, picking up another stack of papers from the table. “You only signed an NDA agreeing to not talk about this. For now, until I’m satisfied with the results of this program, I’m keeping this method secret. If you really don’t want to, you can leave and just keep your mouth shut. Maybe you’ll even Awaken on your own someday, who knows?” He smiled in amusem*nt, then handed over the papers. “One free day of observations, Mr. Yoo. Give that back by the end of the day, signed or not.”

… Wait. If Park Ryung, the new S-class Hunter, was figuring out how to Awaken people on his own, how to increase the strength of Hunters-

Then wasn’t… wasn’t this going to utterly destroy the plans his father had for making a new guild?

No, more than that-

If Yoo Jinho was part of this, then wasn’t that the only option his father had left for stepping into the world of Hunters? Jinhee had already gone on her own path, and Jinsung was the one who was still scouting for an S-rank to recruit, even if he wasn’t Awakened.

… Did Park Ryung know that this was something Yoo Jinho desperately needed, this foothold in whatever changes he would bring?

“Can I… look this over, p-please?” he finally asked, unsteady.

“Sure, that’s fine,” Park Ryung agreed, turning away to his ‘popcorn machine’. It did not look like a popcorn machine in any capacity. “I’ll be preparing some materials until you’re finished reading.” He removed glowing crystals from his bag, setting them on the table. Yoo Jinho could only scour through the contract word by word until he was giving himself a headache from concentration.

… But- the contract was definitely to his advantage, was the problem. There was no guarantee of Awakening, but if he did successfully become a Hunter, he wasn’t obligated to stay in the program for more than six months total. After that, he could freely register for the appropriate license and do what he pleased. There was even a clause regarding his NDA, saying that it wasn’t- permanent?

Park Ryung really did plan to take this public after this trial run, then. Yoo Jinho wasn’t obligated to keep anything to himself once that happened, didn’t hold to any buying or selling restrictions of ‘mana pills’, whatever those were, and wasn’t even restricted from sharing the methods he was given. He was restricted from disclosing too much information on the manufacture of those mana pills, which meant they were especially important to whatever this program was.

There were further clauses outright stating that there were no expectations placed on the results of this trial, and the Hunters Association would be held responsible for any lasting damage to his person in any shape or form. Wasn’t that a dangerous addendum to put in there? S-ranks were dangerous, everyone knew that, but that was exactly why the Hunters Association simply backed off from liability with their hands in the air. Even his father had to be afraid of what could happen if he tried to set up his guild with Jinsung.

“Ah, so that’s why you call it a popcorn machine…”

“They do look like popcorn, right?” Yoo Jinho looked up, blinking. Park Ryung set down a large bottle of tiny white objects filled to the top. Were those his mana pills? “Ready to start, Mr. Yoo?” Park Ryung asked him. Yoo Jinho didn’t know if he was ready to sign, but-

But if this was something, he’d be completely stupid to let this chance pass by.

“Yes, sir!” he managed quickly, edging forward.

“Ah, just call me Mr. Park, that’s what everyone does when I teach them.” Park Ryung waved amiably, then waited until everyone else had gathered. “Alright!” he announced. “Let’s get started. Mr. Song, Mr. Yoo, this is your first time seeing this, so I’ll start from the top. This popcorn machine is what I use to turn these,” He gestured to the row of glowing crystals, “into these.” He gestured to his bottle of ‘popcorn’. Song Chiyul was visibly stunned.

“Even just making them into weapons is something,” he commented. “But what do these do?”

“Um… and what- are they?” Yoo Jinho had to ask.

“Ah, these are monster essence crystals,” Park Ryung explained, holding up the least complex and dim structure. “This is an E-rank crystal, it drops out of monsters of the same rank when they’re killed. Basically, it’s the condensation of their mana. No one really knows why the mana in their bodies doesn’t just disperse instead, but these are always the result. Sometimes anything that dies too gruesomely doesn’t manage to form one, so that’s why Hunters are encouraged to have clean kills.” Yoo Jinho nodded in understanding. Ah, so he really was a teacher. “This is D-rank, C-rank, B-rank, and A-rank,” Park Ryung continued, gesturing to each crystal. He picked up the last one. “This one is worth several million won at the very least.” Yoo Jinho balked. “The basic idea behind increasing a Hunter’s strength is very simple. Absorb mana into the body and strengthen it. Monster crystals are actually considered a less efficient manner of getting raw mana for machines and fuel, and that’s because they’re tainted by the monster they come from.”

“Tainted?” Yoo Jinho echoed.

“It’s considered a good thing, actually,” Song Chiyul answered, looking at him. “Crystals that carry some influence from the monster they came from actually can imbue a part of the monster’s abilities or nature into the weapon they make. A crystal from a B-rank savage fang, a giant venomous snake, can potentially create a dagger that poisons on contact.”

“That’s why mana crystals are considered more valuable hauls in Dungeons up to a certain rank,” Park Ryung added. “Higher-ranked monster crystals are close to guaranteed effects, but still have limited uses in weapons and armor. Mana crystals, though, are considered ripe for all manner of devices or even some experimentation. Still, they have their own limits.” He held up the A-rank crystal. “Truthfully, they’re not quite as pure as they’re made out to be. It’s a natural formation of mana, finding one with perfect purity is like finding a perfectly-pure diamond in the wild. It’s extremely rare even under the best conditions, and frankly, Dungeons are the worst conditions. So if you try to take in the mana directly from either type of crystal-“ He flexed, and that extremely expensive crystal shattered. Yoo Jinho spluttered incredulously, only to watch- energy? Mana?? It gathered in a cloud around Park Ryung’s hand, then pulled into his body as if drawn by a fan.

Park Ryung’s skin turned a sickly grey, then abruptly blackened as if rotting. The black rot began to ooze from his skin, dripping onto the floor with a faint, foul odor.

“You’ll die without fail,” Park Ryung finished calmly. “Because those taints are poison, even to the highest rank of Hunter.” Yoo Jinho felt sick just looking at it. He had heard stories of the idiots who tried eating magic crystals from Dungeons. Did they rot from the inside out like this? “So it’s incompatible, to put it lightly,” Park Ryung commented, and set his decaying hand in an open box of black powder. The poison abruptly began to seep out of his body and melted away into the powder, and behind it, his hand healed rapidly. “Most healers don’t know how to heal this, either. This kind of taint is actually the source of Eternal Sleep Disease. Just a fraction of this in an unawakened human will cause immense damage to their entire body. So all in all, please don’t eat strange sources of mana.” He held up his hand, now completely fine?? It looked sooty, though. “So now I’m going to teach you how to eat strange sources of mana anyway,” he finished cheerfully.

… Huh?

“I still don’t want to know how many strange things you put in your mouth,” the chief inspector stated, sounding incredibly stern.

“Ignorance is bliss,” Park Ryung returned lightly, only to blink as Sung Jinwoo took his hand. The smaller man huffed, using a handkerchief to wipe off the soot. Park Ryung blinked at him, then his cheeks- went rosy? “… C-Cute,” he whispered.

Yoo Jinho was briefly distracted from the absurdity of eating monster crystals by the absurdity of an S-rank melting for his small E-rank boyfriend.

Once Park Ryung was focused again, he cleared his throat loudly in his clean hand.

“Ah, s-sorry,” he managed. “What was I saying?” Song Chiyul snorted softly.

“How to put strange things in your mouth, I believe,” he replied dryly.

“Oh, right.” Park Ryung cleared his throat again. “W-Well. Anyway, pure mana is either impossible to come by naturally or just hasn’t been found yet,” he explained. “So I developed a method to create purified mana out of monster crystals. It technically also works on mana crystals, but it’s less efficient at higher ranks. These are E-grade mana pills.” He held up the bottle. “Each one contains the same amount of mana as an E-rank monster crystal, except that mana is completely pure and safe for the body.” He opened up the bottle and took out a tiny pearl. “Of course, just eating them isn’t enough even then. Mana disperses on its own and goes wherever the f*ck it wants, which usually means it won’t stick around in your body. It’s a little like trying to swallow radio waves by eating a TV. Weird and not at all effective.” Yoo Jinho realized he was reminded of one of his high school teachers. The man also told weird stories and analogies to drive his point home, but was friendly and kind to any student and their problems.

Even if he was an S-rank trying to change the whole world, Park Ryung was clearly someone who taught because he loved teaching. Yoo Jinho couldn’t help but relax a bit.

Park Ryung began to talk about mana systems inside the human body, about the effects of Awakening and their relation to- Chinese philosophy? He had an extremely detailed chart that he projected on a wall for them to see, and described the storage of mana in Hunters, the enhancement of their bones, muscles, skin, senses- It was all very technical in its own way, and Yoo Jinho was taking notes to try to keep up before he knew it. Fortunately, he wasn’t the only one. The terrifying chief inspector was also taking notes, gaze as impassive as ever. Though, was he there to audit the teacher or the students? The Hunters Association had to have mixed feelings about this kind of class.

“Of course, being able to manipulate mana in the first place is the core of this method, and it’s not something unawakened, or even a lot of Awakened have,” Park Ryung admitted. “So even for you, Mr. Song, I’ll display the method and ask you to feel it out yourself. We’ll start with the lowest grade of mana pills not just for safety, but to increase sensitivity and control. If you try to jump in with a high-grade pill and don’t know how much your system can tolerate, you’ll definitely die.” He held up a finger. “Popcorn for newbies,” he added. “Jawbreakers for pros.” Yoo Jinho wrote that down, even if he couldn’t begin to understand.

“Curing magic cancer really wasn’t enough for you, was it, kid?” Song Chiyul commented dryly.

“Nope~”

“Hm, fair enough.” The older man chuckled to himself. “Alright, color me curious, then. How do we start?”

“First, a taste!” Park Ryung shook out more pills from the large bottle, then handed out one to everyone, including Yoo Jinho. Yoo Jinho supposed it was fine if it wasn’t something he knew how to use, right? He gingerly put it in his mouth when he saw Sung Jinwoo do the same, and found it easily crunched between his back teeth.

It was immediately warm, a strange and intense heat that poured down his throat and pooled in his stomach. He shivered despite himself, only to feel the warmth spread outward not unlike a hot soup. The sensation eventually disappeared, but not before raising goosebumps on his arms and tingling in his very fingertips.

“W-Whoa,” he managed. That was mana? That was how it felt to have mana, even for just a moment?? Just that tiny pill had been so intense-

“Y’eh, ish pr’tty nea’, hah?” Park Ryung garbled, tossing another handful of pills in his mouth to chew on. As if they were really popcorn?!

“Hyung, you’re eating the teaching materials again,” Sung Jinwoo pointed out. Park Ryung stopped mid-chew, then looked down at the bottle. He balked.

“Mrgh?!” He quickly chewed and swallowed, face going pink. “U-Um. Habit.” Song Chiyul snorted loudly, and the chief inspector coughed lightly into his hand. “T-They really do feel like eating popcorn, though…”

“This is how you became an S-rank, Hyung. Gluttony.”

“Wha- unfair, how was I supposed to know snacking could lead to that??” Did he just- casually eat that much mana on a regular basis? Eat and digest and enhance and everything he’d been talking about?? “Ugh… I should find actual candy to replace these things,” Park Ryung grumbled, firmly sticking the lid back on. “… Anyway. Chief, did you feel something from that?”

“Very little,” Woo Jinchul answered coolly.

“Yeah, I figured. We’ll probably start you on the C-grades just so you can actually get a decent feel for it. Here, have one.” He handed over a little green pill from his pocket, and Woo Jinchul nodded slightly, then put it in his mouth without hesitation. He chewed for a moment, then stood still.

“… Mm,” he concluded.

“Right,” Park Ryung agreed, as if that was a full sentence. He then moved on. “Mr. Song?”

“Tingly, but I could feel a bit of a grasp,” Song Chiyul answered.

“Jinwoo?”

“Pretty intense, Hyung.”

“Well, it’s several times more mana than you have in your entire body, so that’s expected. Mr. Yoo?” How to describe it?

“Like… soup?” he tried. He then felt remarkably stupid at once, but Park Ryung nodded thoughtfully.

“That’s a good way to put it,” he answered. Yoo Jinho blinked. “Think of it like you’re trying to digest the warmth of the soup, instead of letting it spill all over the rest of your body like that,” Park Ryung continued. “It feels like an impossible concept, but it’s a muscle you don’t know you’re capable of using.”

“Oh!” That strange warmth that spread through him going downward to the mana core that Park Ryung talked about, cultivated internally until it was his warmth, and then able to use it as he pleased. “I-I see! That’s so neat!!” he blurted out. This really was- real, wasn’t it? It was real and it had been there, if only for a fleeting moment. “How did you even think of something like this??” he exclaimed. “If you figured this out to get stronger, what do you think the upper limit is??”

“In theory, there isn’t one,” Park Ryung replied cheerfully.

“That’s insane!!”

“Aha, yeah, it is.”

“Does that mean you can make S-ranks stronger, too??” Yoo Jinho gasped. “Stronger than even Jeju Island! Clearing out the Dungeon Break there would drastically increase the market value of all Korean magic items and Hunters alone, which would significantly boost the Hunter economy!! Which, well, I guess that economy would crash the moment you make this kind of thing public,” he admitted. “But even then, that would be a great way to showcase the results of this method!!”

“… Huh.” Park Ryung scratched at his head, thoughtful. “That would, wouldn’t it?” he mused. “While also increasing national strength and prestige, too.”

“Exactly!! Ah- and then you could teach your own school, and students could open their own schools in other countries, but retaining the manufacture of the mana pills in Korea means that there will be no choice but to acknowledge the origin point of them all! Even if that method was eventually stolen or copied, you’d still be the one to retain their quality and purity while other cases might have side effects or even long-term poison!” His eyes shone excitedly. “Have you figured out a bulk manufacturing method?? Make sure you also patent the machine’s design right away!! A private patent through the government would be the best bet! Have you considered opening a workshop yet??”

“Ah, you really are a little business nerd…”

“Oh!!” Yoo Jinho did his best to reign himself in, blinking hugely. “A-Am I just rambling on without reading the room?? S-Sorry, it’s a bad habit…”

“No, no, it’s fine,” Park Ryung replied amiably, waving. “Honestly, they’re all questions I need to address anyway in the future. Besides, it’s good that you’re getting interested. Learning something you’re not interested in is always such a chore. Ah, at least it’s that way for me, but I know I can be a serious meathead…”

“I think it’s like that for everyone, Hyung.”

“I think your grade average could beat mine with a hip check.”

“I don’t think anyone’s going to bring up your grades when you invented real cultivation, Hunter Park.”

“… Oh, I guess that’s true.” Yoo Jinho blinked, and he was back in reality for a moment. An S-rank Hunter was teaching a small class of four, while the chief inspector of the Hunters Association was commenting about his bad grades. His E-rank boyfriend was patting his arm soothingly. The C-rank Hunter was watching with an amused, fond smile.

… Even if he’d forgotten, nothing really… changed? Park Ryung was a famous and powerful S-rank, who definitely didn’t care for crowds of reporters, but he was a friendly and fun teacher like this, who went all gooey for his boyfriend. The chief inspector wasn’t being completely impersonal, and Park Ryung seemed comfortable and friendly with him. The C-rank Hunter and E-rank Hunter were equally friendly and comfortable.

This felt like a room full of friends that didn’t mind him hanging out, even with his rambling. Even if he wasn’t a Hunter, even if he was just the second son, the third child, the leftover scraps.

… Even if this wasn’t real, it was the first time he really felt like this.

Class was over soon, and Yoo Jinho collected the contract quickly. He approached Park Ryung.

“Excuse me, Mr. Park?” he tried. “I’d- like to talk to you about this contract.”

“Is it off?” Park Ryung asked. “I’ve never written a contract before, I had to get advice for it.”

“No, no, it’s-“ Yoo Jinho paused. Never written a contract before? “You wrote this?” he realized.

“With some advice, yes.”

“I mean…” There were specific clauses to Yoo Jinho and Yoojin Construction. If it was specifically written for him, did it have differences from other contracts? “Did you- write everyone else’s contracts, too?” Yoo Jinho asked instead. Park Ryung blinked. He blinked a few more times, looking baffled.

“… Ah,” he said. “It- probably would have been less weird if you weren’t the only one who had a contract in the first place, wouldn’t it?” Yoo Jinho spluttered uncontrollably. Park Ryung began to look embarrassed, rubbing at his neck. “Um. I didn’t think that through…”

“D-Did you even have any of them sign an NDA??” Yoo Jinho attempted.

“No, that would be weird.”

It’s weirder that you didn’t??” Yoo Jinho burst out. “You obviously know the value of keeping this secret!”

“Sure I do. But it’d be weird,” Park Ryung repeated. “I mean, Jinwoo isn’t just my boyfriend, I live with him and his family.” Yoo Jinho could acknowledge that one might be tricky given their relationship, but- “Mr. Song is also a regular Hunter around where I live, and one of my sword instructors. I’ve already gotten a lot of favors from him that involve secrecy, so. It would be weird to suddenly ask for that on paper…”

“I wouldn’t mind, Mr. Park.”

“I know, but it’s not even a permanent NDA in the first place, so it’s fine.” Park Ryung shrugged. “And Chief Woo’s the man who gave me my job offer here at the Association in the first place,” he continued. “He has an internal NDA on every one of his own thoughts, he’s fine.” There was a muffled snort. Yoo Jinho blinked back to see the impassive man’s mouth twitch faintly, just a fraction of an expression of amusem*nt.

“Whoever told you that is violating an agreement, Hunter Park,” he stated severely. It was so serious-sounding that Yoo Jinho didn’t even realize it was a joke for a second.

“It’s probably fine~ Ah, but that does make it a little weird to offer you a contract,” Park Ryung added towards Yoo Jinho, who blinked back. “I just thought it would make you more comfortable accepting into the program. Business-minded people like to have their limits and the like written out.” He’d written a contract as a friendly gesture??

… But- it was true, the contract was friendly. It was very generous towards Yoo Jinho and even his family, if he wanted to make it that way. It even promised liability, which was a dangerous and overt gesture at once. Park Ryung really extended the contract towards him not to get benefits, but to show his intentions.

“… Why- Why was I reached out to, Mr. Park?” Yoo Jinho tried. He’d been about to ask why there weren’t any clauses about business advice in the contract. If nothing else, he could offer that much to an S-rank, right? It wouldn’t be much compared to what he was capable of getting, but it would be from within a previous NDA agreement, which could be just as valuable. Surely a contract had to involve some profits for both parties, not just Yoo Jinho.

But now that he heard this, he had to wonder what Park Ryung was getting at all. He’d asked people he was close to and trusted dearly, and then he’d asked Yoo Jinho. Someone not at all overlapped with the world of Hunters.

“Well…” Park Ryung cleared his throat, then smiled a little. “For now, that’s a secret,” he answered. Yoo Jinho blinked.

“… Huh?” he tried.

“I know- a little bit about you,” Park Ryung told him, folding his arms. “Not much, just a bit. I also know your father’s trying to put together a guild of his own with another S-rank Hunter.” The other three in the room looked surprised. Yoo Jinho balked.

“How-?”

“And I know your brother doesn’t understand why he’s doing so, which means he’s going to fail, even if he was a Hunter himself,” Park Ryung continued. “Maybe you don’t even understand why. Your father’s afraid of Hunters, Mr. Yoo, and especially high-ranked Hunters. He wants to put together a guild with profits as a second benefit, and select an S-rank not with capabilities, but with character he can trust. Candidates like Min Byunggyu, Cha Haein, maybe even Ran Eunsook- those were his initial choices, right?” Character? Yoo Jinho remembered- his father did talk about guildmasters and the likes of Hwang Dongsoo with more than a little disdain. He complained about the balance between the major guilds and their own government, said there was no reason to trust anyone trying to get more power than their own overseeing agent.

Yoo Jinho had heard his father complain about various things his whole life, and rarely gave it a second thought. He was a grouchy man in general. But- was that really the point of making his own guild?

Making a guild of Hunters he could trust?

“I don’t really think he’ll succeed,” Park Ryung continued thoughtfully, not waiting for an answer. Of course, he already knew- those were the exact names that Yoo Jinho had heard. “Hunter Min and Hunter Ran avoid guilds for personal reasons, and a company guild won’t be much different to them. Hunter Cha isn’t the kind of person to care much about guilds or balance or the like. She joined the Hunters Guild because she was offered training to be the best S-rank she could be, and Choi Jongin is kind to her. The kinds of people your father likes are the same kind of people who hear ‘company guild’ and immediately shy away. They don’t understand his reasons.”

“What about- you?” Yoo Jinho tried. Park Ryung blinked.

“Hm? What about me?”

“You’re the only other name he’s mentioned aside from those three,” Yoo Jinho insisted, puzzled. If he knew everything else, why didn’t he know that? “The one he’s been talking about all week. If you already know his reasons, would you be someone who accepted the offer he’s going to make?” Park Ryung stared at him with genuine shock and surprise. At long length, he turned slightly.

“… You see what I mean about useless knowledge?” he muttered nonsensically. “How was I supposed to guess that?”

“It’s not something you would understand, Hunter Park.”

“Ouch.” Park Ryung looked forward. “Well, no,” he answered bluntly. “Not because it’s a company guild or even because I don’t think your father has the best intentions in mind, but I’m an Association agent. Everything I’m doing here, I want to have the Association itself backing and controlling. I want the legal government authority to improve Hunters, to blacklist Awakened that don’t fit the criteria, and to handle international relations. I work best as a teacher, so I’ll stay a teacher.” He shook his head to himself. “And besides, I haven’t heard great things about your brother’s own character, no offense.”

“N-None taken.” Yoo Jinho was deeply concerned about that himself. “But… if the guild wasn’t the point of recruiting me, then…”

“Oh, well, the point was just that I knew something about you,” Park Ryung reasoned. “You really care about doing things the best way you can, which is why you would have wanted to show your father that you should be the one helping start that guild, not your brother. You can get overexcited, but you’re honest, hard-working, and resilient. I needed an unawakened person to join my class, and I needed someone I wouldn’t regret teaching how to gain power that theoretically doesn’t have any limits. I happened to know about you as a person for unrelated reasons.” He shrugged. “It wasn’t a hard choice.”

… It was obvious he did know about Yoo Jinho and his family, a lot more than most strangers would. It was still a secret that Yoojin was making their own guild in the first place. Yoo Jinho still hadn’t made it known that he wanted to replace his brother as potential vice-guildmaster. No one should know about the exact candidates that his father was considering, except Park Ryung’s knowledge wasn’t perfect even then.

It was- entirely possible that his knowledge of Yoo Jinho was flawed. Yoo Jinho didn’t know how resilient he really was, he only tried to be honest, and tried to work hard. He was just- always overshadowed throughout his life, and never seen for that. It probably didn’t mean much, but…

“… Mr. Park, if I- asked if I could join this class without a contract, a-and I just promised to not say anything until you were ready…” He bit his lip, uncertain. “W-Would that be okay?” Park Ryung blinked once.

“Absolutely,” he agreed, with no hesitation. The contract was a gesture, and even if everything in Yoo Jinho’s business sense was screaming about it-

He ripped the gesture in half, then crumpled those halves. He bowed.

“Please accept me as your student, Mr. Park!” he insisted. He immediately felt great embarrassment color his face. Was that- too much??

“… You see? I told you you’d like him,” Park Ryung said above his head. “Isn’t he neat, Jinwoo?” There was a faint huff, and then Yoo Jinho felt his head being patted. “Yeah, of course,” Park Ryung told him. “You can just call me normally outside of class, alright? Welcome to the secret club to upend the world.” Yoo Jinho couldn’t help a startled laugh, straightening quickly with bright eyes.

“T-Thank you,” he managed. “I-I’ll do my best!”

“That’s all I need,” Park Ryung accepted. Maybe his perception of Yoo Jinho was still flawed, but.

Yoo Jinho would be damned if he was the first one to prove him wrong.

Dragon Ascending - Chapter 13 - Aeraneth - 나 혼자만 레벨업 (2024)
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