#16. Hoya, The Night Tiger
The whole passage was covered in red blood. Its ghastly color, clearly visible even in the dark, stretched along the narrow passage. Many small beasts had their heads buried in a chunk of flesh. They hissed viciously at Kim Jin-Woo but immediately scurried back into the dark, frightened by something unknown.
“What on earth……” Kim Jin-Woo mumbled as he squatted down on the sticky floor and inspected the corpse the small beasts had been feeding on. It was completely disfigured; not only had its hand been torn away from its forearm, but its shin had also been broken into tiny pieces. Although the corpse barely had any features left, Kim Jin-Woo could guess its identity.
It was a human; an explorer, to be precise. The pair of bloody gaiters and the piece of rough cloth on the corpse were identical to the ones that Lee Jun-Young and her comrades had.
Kim Jin-Woo confirmed his suspicions when he discovered a broken shield fragment in the corner. He had been able to observe the distinct traces even though the whole ceiling was covered in blood. Afterward, he began to cautiously move forward.
The footsteps belonged to a team of at least dozens of explorers, as was evident from the many torn gaiters and broken weapons scattered across the floor.
Kim Jin-Woo glanced briefly at his surroundings and imagined what could have happened here.
There must have been about forty explorers and ten to fifteen dungeon babies, who were all strong and experienced enough to reach this far. They had stepped onto the seventh floor, and were attacked by something.
Judging from the direction of the arrow stuck in the wall, the first monster must have attacked at this point. This would be where the first clash must have occurred.
The broken fragments of shields, compressed and stuck into the ground, allowed Kim Jin-Woo to visibly picture the impact of the collision. His face began to stiffen as he followed the traces.
The explorers had been well-prepared. Kim Jin-Woo didn’t know much about tactics, but he had seen Lee Jun-Young and her team’s battles several times. He could tell from the traces of battle that the sacrificed explorers had fought extremely well.
However, they had all been massacred in the end.
A team of this size could even defeat the blood leopard couple on the 9th floor. Furthermore, Kim Jin-Woo failed to find any traces left behind by the predator in the scene. There should have been claw marks carved onto the wall or heavy footprints on the floor, but none of them could be seen. It was almost as if the explorers had fought with each other.
Where are the survivors?
He scanned for any traces of survivors and shook his head. Judging from such an appalling scene, he preferred to hope there weren’t any survivors. Even if someone did make it out, they would fall prey to the other predators that were attracted by the scent of blood.
Moreover, the fact that the small beasts were around scavenging the leftover chunks of flesh indicated that the larger and stronger predators had left after filling their stomachs.
“Shit, the smell’s going to linger.” Kim Jin-Woo sniffed his clothes and grimaced. He had no reason to stay in this terrible scene any longer, as he had finished investigating whatever he could. He passed by the pool of blood and eventually arrived at the white stone floor. He quickly erased the scent using a special liquid then left the scene.
“What could have happened?” Kim Jin-Woo mumbled to himself. There was no one to answer his question, but he simply couldn’t suppress his curiosity. At that moment, he stumbled upon another horrifying scene.
This was the fourth time he had come across a pile of dead explorer corpses. Although one might argue that all of the victims belonged to the same team, Kim Jin-Woo knew that they all belonged to different teams.
He now had to decide whether to continue the investigation or to turn back. He had no reason to put himself in danger, after all. However, he decided to take the risk, as he had the skills to overcome any obstacle.
Now was the time to activate one. “Camouflage,” Kim Jin-Woo whispered, causing his body to blend into the dark and vanish completely.
“Let’s take a break!” a man standing at the front line bellowed while the explorers moved busily to unpack their equipment and install motion sensors.
“Isn’t this place too open?” an explorer asked, noticing how the passage was wide open both forward and backward.
“Are you new to the seventh floor?” the man tutted. The explorer had a look of embarrassment as he continued, “On the seventh floor, a wide passage like this is safer than a closed-off cave. We’re stepping into the territories of vicious monsters now. If a creature decides to block one side and fight us, we may all get annihilated.”
While predators hunted in packs until the fifth floor, those from the sixth floor onward worked alone or in pairs. In particular, the number of creatures from the seventh floor onward decreased significantly, but each one of them was incredibly powerful.
“We may be the top dogs among humans, but we’re mere prey in the underground world. Always remember that.”
“But we have so many level 8 dungeon babies in our team. And to think that we’re being this paranoid on the seventh floor, not even the eighth…” the unconvinced explorer grumbled.
The other man scowled. “You bastard. In the past, you didn’t make it up to the surface alone, did you? I’m guessing you were lucky enough to receive help from the military halfway.”
“Why does that matter?”
“Hah, I thought you had the fundamentals in check even though you only hang around the shallower floors, but I never expected you to be this atrocious. Hey, Kim Chan-Soo! Were you the one who brought this retard along?” the man bellowed.
Another explorer, who was setting up a tent in the distance, shouted back at him, “Of course not! That’s the bastard who joined the team using his connections with the association!”
“What? Oh, so this is the lad Jong-Chul sent. This isn’t even funny.” The man scratched his cheek for a second, then snarled at the explorer, “Oi, Mr. Level 8. Don’t let the number get to your head. It doesn’t mean that you dominated the 8th floor; it only means you’ve escaped from it. Understood?”
“It’s been more than ten years since the end of the war, yet you’re so clueless. Have you collected down gems before? Have you explored the lower floors before?” The man sounded genuinely furious, causing the explorer to tremble in fear. “Mark my words. You won’t survive here with that atrocious attitude. Even those bastards from the deep floors can lose their lives if they get cocky. You hear me?”
The man gave the explorer a good scolding several more times before speaking softly to the dejected explorer. “But thank your lucky stars we aren’t here to catch creatures. Run for your life immediately if you encounter one, alright? Don’t try to be a hero. What are we here for again?”
“That’s right. We only need to catch the beastfolk. A lot of teams have swarmed into this place because of some screwup in the schedule. Let’s try not to leave this place empty-handed.”
The man was now caring for the explorer, even though he was raging about having the novice in his team a minute ago. He was elaborating on the dangers lurking on the seventh floor when a few explorers returned from their recon mission, stirring up a slight commotion.
“What? You sure about this?” he asked.
“Duh, I’m no newbie. I’ve already been to more than twenty beastfolk hunts, you bastard,” one of the scouts in the recon team claimed confidently.
Without delay, the man gathered the rest of the team. “Pack up the equipment! We’re moving again!”
“Damn it, why again?!” the explorer cursed.
“You want to laze around here when the beastfolk are just around the corner? Do you have any idea how much we might lose if they run away, huh?” the man replied. The explorer kept his mouth shut and nagged at the ordinary explorers instead. The man called out, “Beastfolk about half an hour away! Let’s move!”
Although the team had to move again right after setting up, the ordinary explorers were the ones in charge of repacking the equipment, while the dungeon babies just grumbled and watched.
“Inspect the equipment again. We’re going to move as soon as that’s over, so don’t complain later,” the man ordered.
The explorers made a fuss as they hurriedly checked their equipment. It took them about five minutes before they began to move again.
“Hmm, something’s weird,” the dungeon baby who had returned from the recon mission said as he led the way.
“What now?” the man asked
“I’m talking about the beastfolk.”
“What about them?”
“Since they have keen senses, they usually run away if something approaches them.”
The dungeon baby kept beating around the bush, which made the man impatient. “So what?” he growled.
“Such impatience. Okay, I’ll go straight to the point.” The dungeon baby sulked and continued, “This beastfolk is coming toward us instead of running away.”
“Good. That saves us some trouble.”
“That’s true, but something’s not right.”
The situation was in their favor, but the man couldn’t just ignore the experienced dungeon baby’s words. He turned around and shouted at the rest of the team, “Something’s fishy, he says! Brace yourselves for battle and keep a lookout for anything suspicious! Run away if anything happens, understood?”
As expected from an experienced team, they inspected their surroundings meticulously.
“Well, where are the other teams anyway? There are only a few routes around here.” the man mumbled to himself, wondering what was going on. At that moment, the recon team notified him that the beastfolk were nearby. The man gave out orders to rearrange their formation.
“Prepare the nets! Vanguards, get ready to set up a bunker! Those who are good with knives, keep your guard up! We’re going to speed up our pace!” the man commanded. The explorers took out their equipment and began to move cautiously forward.
Kim Jin-Woo had been following the team from behind the entire time thanks to his ‘Camouflage’ ability, which he had obtained from the blood leopard’s heart. He had heard from Mr. Baek that there were professional teams hunting beastfolk, but he had never imagined them to be so prevalent.
Judging from the way the explorers and dungeon babies talked, Kim Jin-Woo could tell that they had been on many hunts thus far. He felt his heart sink when they whipped out their nets and scurried busily around.
He was wondering whether to intervene when the beastfolk appeared in the distance. However, she had a rather alarming appearance.
Unlike the Lycan and the Feline Kim Jin-Woo had met, this creature had ghastly red eyes and razor-sharp claws. When Kim Jin-Woo saw her bloodstained skin, he could guess that this was the culprit who had killed many explorers. Her whole body still reeked of blood at this very moment.
“Awesome! It’s a female! A decent one, too!” the explorers cheered, without a clue as to who she was. They were preparing to throw their poaching nets when the creature charged at them.
“What a crazy bitch. We don’t have to worry about missing her now.”
“Stop blabbering and think about how to catch her unharmed. She’s going to be worth a fortune. Wait… Huh? How is she so fast?! Quick, throw the net!”
Startled by the beastfolk’s exceptional speed, the man hurriedly commanded, “Group 1! Fire!”