#17. The Rulers of the 9th Floor
Kim Jin-Woo deactivated his ‘Camouflage’ ability the moment he got rid of Song Jong-Chul’s crew, to prevent Hoya from running around blindly. He said, “Stop. We have to be careful from here on.”
Hoya’s eyes widened when Kim Jin-Woo suddenly appeared from thin air. She nodded with a look of admiration. He warned her not to get ahead multiple times before moving forward cautiously.
After a long, dull journey, they finally reached the master room of the abandoned labyrinth.
“Portal,” Kim Jin-Woo commanded. Immediately, the space next to one of the walls of the stone chamber warped to reveal a door. Hoya stumbled backward, frightened by its sudden appearance.
“Let’s go.” Kim Jin-Woo smiled and reached out to Hoya. Hoya was hesitant at first, but she grabbed onto his hand in the end.
“Eek!” The beastfolk gasped in surprise. Kim Jin-Woo could hardly believe this was the same creature that had massacred dozens of explorers moments ago. He shook his head and pulled her through the portal.
“Blargh!” Hoya retched, trembling when she experienced the unfamiliar lack of gravity upon entering the portal.
<Master?> Dominique had been waiting for her master as usual. She welcomed him, but her eyes soon narrowed when she saw the beastfolk next to him. <A beastfolk?>
“Picked her up on the way back.” Kim Jin-Woo gave her a half-hearted reply, leaving Dominique dumbfounded. “I’ll explain later. Can you call Quantus? I opened the portal in a secluded place, but it would be troublesome if someone discovered it and passed through. Gather some nagas and send them over.”
The protection offered by the baron title only worked on creatures or beasts with intelligence, who lived exclusively on the deep floors. Since the portal was open on the second floor where the creatures were more savage than intelligent, Kim Jin-Woo wanted to eliminate even the smallest risk.
“Hoya,” Kim Jin-Woo began. The beastfolk, who was wandering around with a dejected expression, hurriedly scurried toward him as he said, “This is where you will live from now on.”
“Ah…” Tears welled up in Hoya’s eyes. She prostrated herself on the ground to express her gratitude, as she had been wandering around the underground world without a place to stay.
“Seems it’s a beastfolk tradition.” Kim Jin-Woo shook his head as he recalled that the Feline back in the pub had also bowed to him whenever she could.
Kim Jin-Woo only left the abandoned labyrinth and headed back to the surface when the portal disappeared twenty-four hours later. He couldn’t present any tangible results for Mr. Baek’s client. However, the expedition was still somewhat fruitful, as he had managed to recruit a powerful ally named Hoya.
“Argh, okay. With this, the client won’t bother us for a while. He’ll come back to nag at me again, though.”
“I’m planning to enter the underground world again, too. I’ll keep you updated,” Kim Jin-Woo said succinctly as he had little else to discuss. He took out a few fresh down gems from his pocket.
Mr. Baek paid him without questioning their source, since Kim Jin-Woo had just returned from the underground world. He said, “Eek, the volume is getting larger and larger. Here’s about 300 million won. You can probably buy an apartment in Seoul with the money you’ve gathered so far. A Level 12 dungeon baby is quite impressive, I must say.”
Kim Jin-Woo didn’t reply. Instead, he bid farewell and left the office. Next, he immediately began to settle the matters he had been postponing.
First, he met Lee Jun-Young for dinner and learned about the beastfolk hunts, and the conflict between the explorer association and ordinary dungeon babies.
“Let’s be honest, we of all people should know that those beastfolk aren’t very different from us. They think and feel like humans too. The fact that there are dungeon babies selling these creatures like commodities disgusts me.” Lee Jun-Young complained for a long time before moving on to the explorer association.
As the name suggested, it was an organization designed to help the explorers. However, it did so in a very profit-driven fashion, which created conflict with the existing high-level dungeon babies. Nonetheless, it had been well-received by low-level dungeon babies who couldn’t find lucrative jobs on the shallower levels.
“They’re insane. Why are they taking those creatures out from the underground world? These people are selling not only the beastfolk, but also small creatures and beasts, on the black market. We’re all going to be in trouble if something happens, but the people in the association are blinded by monetary gain……” Lee Jun-Young ended her story with another complaint.
Still, Kim Jin-Woo had obtained some useful information, He sent her back and immediately returned to the naga’s labyrinth.
<Master, the second blood leopard’s heart has been fully processed in the forge.> Dominique handed the second blood leopard’s heart over to Kim Jin-Woo. It looked rather different from the first one that the naga magicians had shown him previously. This time, it was a well-polished gem instead of a round, raw stone.
[You have obtained the Blood Leopard’s Heart (top-grade down gem). This gem contains the power of the blood leopard, which has been accumulated over countless hunts. This gem is a product of the hard work of the diligent novice naga blacksmiths.]
[The blood leopard was a vicious predator that relentlessly chased its prey. Its heart contains its incredible perseverance and tenacity.]
[You can use the blood leopard’s special ability, ‘Relentless Predator’s Sense’, once you attach the heart to a piece of equipment.]
While the first blood leopard’s heart handled by the naga magicians could be used by itself, this one would apparently reveal its effect only when attached to equipment.
“Hmm. I’ll keep it for now,” Kim Jin-Woo said. He didn’t have any use for the heart at the moment, so he handed it to Dominique. Touched by her master’s faith in her to handle such a valuable item, she excitedly led Kim Jin-Woo to the various corners of the labyrinth.
The fire in the forge had become a notch hotter after the upgrade. While it flickered relentlessly, the novice naga blacksmiths diligently manufactured new weapons for the nagas. They now seemed a fair bit more familiar with their work.
Most of the nagas had been fighting using the weapons given to them when they were summoned. Therefore, the naga blacksmiths prioritized making shields and spears, which had been destroyed over multiple battles.
<Our labyrinth will become stronger once those weapons are finished. With them, nobody will dare to look down on us,> Dominique boasted joyfully.
Besides the forge, the laboratory, the naga’s nest, and the breeding farm had all been upgraded significantly from before. On his tour around the labyrinth, Kim Jin-Woo gasped in awe when he saw the prowling basilisks in the gigantic breeding farm.
<The basilisks don’t hang around with their horsemen all the time. Normally, they stay in this breeding farm,> Dominique explained. Unlike Anaxtus’ subordinates, these basilisks in the breeding farm had long, slender legs that made them look agile.
“But who’s taking care of them?” Kim Jin-Woo asked.
<Fortunately, the Feline you sent to me for evaluation turned out to be pretty good at handling the basilisks. So, I assigned her to this breeding farm,> Dominique explained as she watched the Feline bravely approach and peel the scales off the enormous basilisks that were many times her size.
“I see. She did turn out to be useful after all.” The Feline appeared to be in better shape than she had been at the pub. Kim Jin-Woo couldn’t help but nod with satisfaction.
Dominique looked at her master and smiled. She continued to elaborate, <The basilisks are inherently fierce creatures. They refuse to let anyone other than their assigned horsemen come near them, but this Feline seems to be an exception. That’s why the horsemen are starting to take care of her as well.>
Kim Jin-Woo was impressed by the way his labyrinth could now run without him having to give out orders.
The naga workers gathered at the pub after work to chat while drinking some strange liquid. The naga warriors and fighters joined and roared as loudly as the workers.
The naga magicians worked busily in the laboratory, whereas the blacksmiths sat in front of the fire and hammered steel all day.
The labyrinth had formed a gigantic ecosystem of its own.
Kim Jin-Woo felt a strange tightness in his chest. He stared at Dominique with a dumbfounded expression.
<A small world below the ground—that is what a true labyrinth is. And this is none other than your territory, master.> Dominique spoke proudly, as if she had guessed Kim Jin-Woo’s thoughts.
“You’re right. This is what a true labyrinth should look like. This is my territory.” Kim Jin-Woo repeated Dominique’s moving words over and over again.
The naga’s labyrinth had advanced greatly. It hadn’t been long since the battle against Anaxtus, yet the labyrinth looked totally different from before. Not only was the entrance decorated with modest but refined ornaments, but the facilities were also being constantly upgraded, even at this moment.
The most troublesome affair to settle, the labyrinth’s defense, had also been reinforced so no creature on the 9th floor would dare to intrude.
The naga horsemen and scouts regularly patrolled around the outskirts of the labyrinth together, while Quantus and Ortehaga guarded the gate from within. Kim Jin-Woo no longer had to lose sleep over the possibility of another invasion.
<Nobody, not just the basilisk king, can dare to challenge us now,> Dominique boasted.
Kim Jin-Woo nodded. Even the troop of warriors and fighters led by Quantus and Ortehaga were all elites, equipped with weapons and shields made by experienced naga blacksmiths.
Furthermore, Rikshasha had also led the scouts and installed traps here and there, preventing wandering creatures from approaching the labyrinth. Even Dominique couldn’t help but acknowledge her prowess.
“Let’s hope this peace lasts,” Kim Jin-Woo remarked.
Although the naga’s labyrinth wouldn’t improve as exponentially as it had after fighting the basilisk king, it could continue to grow at a steady pace with consistent effort.
However, unexpected events often occurred in the underground world, which had been particularly evident for Kim Jin-Woo.
“Master!” Rikshasha called out. She was supposed to be patrolling the outskirts of the labyrinth, but she had returned suddenly.
Kim Jin-Woo frowned. She was also the one who had announced the beginning of the battle against Anaxtus before. Kim Jin-Woo thus felt his chest tightening whenever she came running so urgently. “Speak,” he said without hiding his displeasure.
“A troop has appeared on the outskirts of our territory!” Rikshasha exclaimed desperately.