#18. The Auction
The auction hosted by the black merchants lasted for a week. The participants had to stay in designated accommodations in the auction house for the whole duration; this was rather burdensome, especially in the underground world, as they had to vacate their labyrinths for such a long period of time.
The black merchants had a solution to this dilemma. They passed Kim Jin-Woo a golden flag with an octagonal emblem that was equivalent to a top-grade down gem. A symbol of the black merchants, it indicated that a black merchant was present.
Kim Jin-Woo was skeptical about this trivial flag, but Dominique seemed to have unconditional faith in it. <The black merchants are by no means ordinary salesmen. Nobody in the underground world possesses more valuable and rare items than them. They’re able to roam around the underground world regardless, as they have the power to guard their treasures.>
“Strong enough to deter even the labyrinth masters?”
<A single black merchant isn’t that powerful. Each one has strong escorts, but a determined labyrinth master can fend them off. If the master is lucky, they may even kill the black merchant and steal the merchant’s treasures without anyone knowing. However, the black merchants never let go of those who attack them.>
It seemed there was a black merchant who had been assaulted that way a long time ago.
<An assailant would be assassinated by the mercenaries hired by the black merchants, and their labyrinth’s core would welcome a new master chosen by the black merchants.>
Indeed, nobody was safe in the underground world, where greedy and vicious predators lurked in every corner. The black merchants thus needed a measure to protect themselves.
<As long as that flag stands, nobody will dare to invade the labyrinth. It’s an unspoken law of the underground world to halt everything, even wars, and quietly wait for the black merchants to leave the labyrinth.>
Kim Jin-Woo had never expected the black merchants to be such an influential group. He felt uneasy, but had to rely on the flag’s effect while he was gone from the naga’s labyrinth. “Well, I guess I can open the portal and return if something urgent happens,” he remarked.
Kim Jin-Woo stared at the black merchant’s flag hanging over the gate, then tore the invitational letter. Immediately, he felt the gravity under his feet vanish, similar to when he crossed through the portal. The scenery changed within that short period, but he remained calm and composed.
“You’re early,” came the black merchant’s voice.
Kim Jin-Woo didn’t bat an eyelid when the black merchant suddenly appeared out of nowhere. That was to be expected, as even the world transforming right in front of his eyes failed to surprise him anymore. “Ah, so this is the auction house?” he asked.
“This is the VIP room, to be exact. We can’t let the honorable guests of the underground world mingle with ordinary participants, so we’ve specially prepared this room.”
Kim Jin-Woo marveled at the enormous room that was similar in size to his master room in the naga’s labyrinth. From the finishing touches, he could tell that the black merchants had put some effort into this VIP room. There were posh sofas and tables that one might find on the surface, and various amenities that made it seem as though the room had been customized to Kim Jin-Woo.
“I assume that’s where the auction takes place.” Kim JIn-Woo gasped softly in awe as he stared through the window, which had been installed in place of a torn-down wall.
The enormous hall and stage were able to host hundreds of people without becoming too claustrophobic. The auction house resembled an opera house, but it was almost too grandiose, as expected from a place where valuable and rare jewels were traded.
However, things were chaotic in the hall, despite the splendid facilities.
“You fucker! How dare you show up here!”
“Tsk. You still have the nerve to come to the auction after I kicked your ass. If I were you, I would rather spend those down gems to summon more subordinates than waste them in the auction.”
Since the auction house hosted many creatures from various corners of the underground world, one could possibly encounter one’s nemesis in the crowd.
“We could have settled this once and for all, had it not been for the black merchant’s flag…”
“The war has just begun, and yet you’re already getting so cocky.”
“Let’s see whether you can still say that in a week’s time when the auction ends.”
While there were participants who blatantly growled and hissed at each other, there were other well-mannered individuals who threatened each other while somewhat maintaining their dignity.
According to their conversation, the two of them had been in the midst of a war when they entered the black merchant’s auction. They had yet to decide the victor.
“Is it this chaotic every time?” Kim Jin-Woo asked as he observed the situation in the hall. Some of the creatures resembled humans, whereas others were hideous beasts. He wondered whether the auction could even continue with them growling at each other.
“Urgh. We usually organize the seating arrangements so as to separate hostile participants and prevent them from encountering each other. The person in charge must have made a mistake,” replied the black merchant.
Kim Jin-Woo could see black merchants with round heads rushing to the participants, struggling to hold them back. He had imagined the auction house to be a grand and formal arena where powerful guests gathered until he witnessed this scene. As a result, he could relax and wait for the auction to begin.
Furthermore, the secluded VIP room helped him to stay composed as well. Since the inside of the room wasn’t visible from the outside according to the black merchant, Kim Jin-Woo had no qualms about using the room.
“I expected chaos, but the situation has been resolved much quicker than I thought.” Kim Jin-Woo killed time while observing the ruckus in the hall. He tutted when the commotion began to settle down.
Dominique, who had come along as Kim Jin-Woo’s companion, replied, <The black merchant’s annual auction has a long tradition. In fact, I can’t believe that such a hiccup happened here.>
“Is that so? What a pity. Someone should have died just now.” Kim JIn-Woo knew that wouldn’t happen as long as the black merchants were in charge, but he still couldn’t help but smack his lips in regret.
A black merchant returned to him and Dominique while they were talking, saying, “The auction is going to start.”
“How do you bid in the auction?” Kim Jin-Woo asked. He had never even participated in a surface auction before, let alone the underground auction. He felt lost when he heard that the auction was about to begin.
Despite that, the black merchant told him not to worry and explained, “An auction helper will come before the auction starts. She will guide you through everything from bidding to payment and item collection, so all you have to do is sit back and enjoy the auction.” He emphasized over and over that this was a service available only to the VIP rooms.
Suddenly, he gave them the fake smile of a salesman. “Once again, thank you for participating in the annual auction hosted by the black merchants. We wish you the best of luck.” The black merchant bid them farewell and disappeared.
The auction was about to begin.
“Thank you, honorable ladies and gentlemen, for attending the annual auction hosted by us, the black merchants!” an imp in a fancy, clown-like suit shouted with all his might. “It would take weeks just to express my gratitude, so let’s jump straight into the auction!”
Kim Jin-Woo had expected the auctioneer to blabber on for a long time in his exaggerated tone, but he wrapped up his introduction rather quickly.
“There are high and noble guests attending the auction. Dragging on would only irritate them, as their time is too precious to be wasted on idle talk,” whispered the helper the black merchant had sent. The merchant seemed to have considered that Kim Jin-Woo was a human, as the helper was a beastfolk lady who looked almost human.
However, she was practically naked, baring most of her pale skin. Kim Jin-Woo couldn’t help but feel uneasy, despite the black merchant’s thoughtful consideration. It was too late to make a fuss now, however, so all he could do was stare at the stage through the window.
While he listened to the beastfolk helper’s quiet explanation, the auctioneer placed the first item on the stage. Workers with green skin and bulging muscles carefully placed a cage on the stage. It was two square meters in diameter and covered with a black cloth.
“Alright, here’s the first item!” the auctioneer cried. Quick drumbeats came from somewhere to uplift the atmosphere. “The first item issssss…!” The auctioneer dragged out the last as he grabbed onto the end of the black cloth covering the cage.
With a loud noise, the cloth over the cage was pulled away.
“What the shit……” Kim Jin-Woo couldn’t help but curse when he saw the cage.
“It’s a mermaid!” the auctioneer exclaimed.
Inside the glass cage full of water was a mermaid, her weed-like hair lying in disarray. She seemed expressionless, as if she had already accepted her fate.
“As you know, it isn’t easy to see mermaids in the underground world. They’re found only in the Lake of Oblivion, located in the deepest floor. We, the black merchants, were lucky enough to get hold of one of them.” The auctioneer rambled on as if he were selling a limited-edition item. On the other hand, the mermaid was limply drifting in the water with a look of despair, seemingly having abandoned all hope. This stark contrast almost made Kim Jin-Woo nauseated.
“As you can see, this mermaid is a healthy female. Not only is she perfect for display, but it’s also said that a mermaid’s song can lure wandering nomads. You may find something that has been lured by the mermaid’s song. The bid starts at 500 gems!”
It was getting more and more ridiculous. Kim Jin-Woo shut his eyes tightly when he saw the auctioneer shamelessly blabbering about the mermaid, who was feebly submerged in the water.
What had he expected? This was the brutal reality of the underground world. Kim Jin-Woo sighed when he recalled that under the law of the jungle, anything was allowed.
“From olden times, the mermaid’s song has been known to lure nomads and travelers. You can use it to bait dumb and naive travelers if you’re lucky. It’s not bad for the first item on the block,” the beastfolk helper explained, unable to check Kim Jin-Woo’s facial expression, as she was standing behind him. “How is it? Do you want to bid?” she asked.
Listening to the beastfolk’s casual tone gave Kim Jin-Woo a headache. Irritated, he shook his hand.
Meanwhile, the other participants were having a fierce bidding competition. The bid had increased from 500 gems, which amounted to a medium-grade down gem, to 2,200 gems.
“2,200 gems! 2,200 gems! Any bidders?!” The auctioneer exclaimed excitedly as he opened his palm. “I’ll count to five. If there are no bidders, the item will be sold to participant number 172!” He then counted down from five.
In the end, the mermaid was sold to a red-skinned giant with horns. The mermaid stared and blinked several times at her new master before closing her eyes.
“Congratulations, participant number 172! Seeing how you’re grinning from ear to ear, the mermaid must have already seduced her new master! And she hasn’t even sung her song!”
Kim Jin-Woo grimaced when he heard the auctioneer’s dreadful joke. Why had the black merchant invited him to the auction? He suddenly wondered about that, but couldn’t figure out the answer.
A few more items went up onstage afterward, which were eventually sold to various participants.
“The first day usually has many items that serve to spice up the mood. It’s too early to be disappointed.” The beastfolk studied Kim Jin-Woo’s face and spoke cautiously. She seemed to have mistaken his lowered head for a lack of interest. Kim Jin-Woo smiled bitterly, as her words reminded him of reality once again.
The auction, however, continued regardless of his mood. Ornamental human-like creatures went on the block at first, but eventually, huge, horrifying creatures began to be put up for auction.
“Cave troll! 3,600 gems! Anyone higher than 3,600 gems?! This courageous and loyal creature is the perfect gatekeeper! Counting to five! Five, four, three, two, one! Congratulations, participant number 40! The cave troll has been sold!” The hideous giant with scabrous skin was sold at the auction.
“Now, now, you can look forward to the next item!” The auctioneer joyfully exclaimed while Kim Jin-Woo was watching the chained troll walking gloomily toward its new master. The auctioneer continued, “This item isn’t being provided by us, the black merchants. Instead, it’s an item being sold on consignment! I dare say that this item will have the most intense competition so far!”
The item’s introduction was so grandiose and loud that it even startled Kim JIn-Woo, who had been watching the auction with a cynical look. Drumrolls arrived to uplift the atmosphere again as workers carried a cage from behind the stage.
“Now, the ninth item of the day isssss—!”