The face under the hood was unmistakably similar to the Black Merchant, but there was a subtle difference. And it was a familiar face.
Kim Jin-Woo frowned as he looked at the imp, who appeared to be strangely anxious. He yelled, “You bastard!”
The imp the Black Merchant had brought along was the same imp that had sneakily stolen Kim Jin-Woo’s sister’s wedding dowry and run away, back when Kim Jin-Woo was still clueless about the Labyrinth.
Because Kim Jin-Woo had lost the money meant for his sister Hyun-Ji, she had had to get married empty-handed. Of course, she had paid it off down the road, but as her brother, Kim Jin-Woo couldn’t help but be angry at just the thought of it.
“My friend here says it has been indebted to my Lord since its dungeon crawling days as a beast,” the Black Merchant said.
“Indebted, huh…” Kim Jin-Woo’s rage subsided at the Black Merchant’s comment. “Well, a debt is a debt. I had to suffer so much because of your friend there.”
“An old debt can always be repaid accordingly in the future, so please ease your anger,” the Black Merchant said as he slapped the imp’s back with his short hands.
The imp jumped forward at the slap and hastily said, “I’m sorry.” Taking a deep bow, the humble-looking imp showed no traces of its old beastly personality.
Surprised and suspicious at how quickly the imp had changed its personality since he last saw it, Kim Jin-Woo squinted as he carefully inspected it for a rather long time.
The imp rolled its feet without knowing where to look, but eventually, it turned its head away from his gaze.
“That aside, has a decision been made?” Kim Jin-Woo said. His interest in the imp was short-lived. Old debts aside, right now he was no longer in a position where he needed to be overly concerned over a mere few dozen million won.
And with the first ever deal between the Black Merchants and the humans looming ahead, the matter of the imp was insignificant.
“The decision has been made to go ahead with the visit, but as this is the first time we’ll be interacting with a human organization, there’s still a lot of discussion about how to proceed with this.” The Black Merchant had dropped all pretenses and was now updating Kim Jin-Woo without hesitation.
“Seems like you guys still haven’t decided how much to reveal to them.”
The Black Merchants’ dilemma was understandable.
Kim Jin-Woo was in no position to interfere with the workings of the Underworld. He had no idea what the humans would do should they hear of what the Underworld had to offer, and his own conscience told him that it would be best not to get involved in revealing the Labyrinth’s existence.
In fact, as a dungeon baby-turned-labyrinth master had been murdered, and with no protection from the government at all, he had to be even more careful.
But how will the Harimao labyrinth react? he wondered.
Would they stay silent, just like him? There was no way they would. It wasn’t a privately operated labyrinth like Kim Jin-Woo’s, and they also had enough backing from the government to fend off any pressure on them from third parties.
If the Black Merchants were to treat Harimao the way they had treated the Naga’s Fortress, the situation could quickly escalate beyond the Underworld and onto the surface.
It had only been ten years since the end of the last war, and a bad trade could result in yet another war.
Unlike the past, now that Terrans valued the Underworld highly, it would be dangerous for the Black Merchants to give in by even the slightest bit.
“The decision-making is done by the higher-ups, and I just simply follow their orders. A merchant should focus on doing well in trade. Should a merchant get unnecessarily involved with politics, they’ll die a dishonorable death,” the Black Merchant said.
“Smart,” replied Kim Jin-Woo.
“We just know our place. Although, isn’t Milord a Terran? You seem to be warier than other labyrinth masters.”
Kim Jin-Woo shrugged at the Black Merchant’s words and replied, “It’s because after this meeting, both the surface and the Underworld will change drastically.”
The visit to the Harimao labyrinth was yet to be scheduled. With that, Kim Jin-Woo had an awkward gap in his own schedule. Thus, he decided to return to the surface.
“Ah, don’t be like that! Try taking the test just once! You never know, you may end up becoming a labyrinth master!”
“I’m not interested. I have no interest in getting myself involved with such unnecessary matters.”
As he had time to spare, Kim Jin-Woo visited Mr. Baek at his appraisal office to obtain the latest information, only to be bombarded with such troublesome remarks.
“Don’t be like that! What’s the matter? There are many others who would love to have this opportunity.”
“Then ask those people to take the test instead. I have zero interest in this matter.”
Mr. Baek would usually have given up by now, but today, he seemed very persistent.
“Why are you suddenly like this? You didn’t seem to be that interested in this matter the last time I was here,” Kim Jin-Woo said.
When questioned about what had happened, Mr. Baek quickly explained himself in detail. “The thing is, all the dungeon babies that took the Underworld Development Institute’s tests failed. As you know, the deep floor dungeon babies are extremely precious in our country. With their low numbers and the fact that they all failed the test one-by-one, there’s no one else left to turn to.”
“But isn’t that the institute’s problem? Why are you so interested in it?”
“Ah, you’re so frustrating. I have a safe full of unlimited money within my grasp, and the key to that safe is literally in front of my eyes, so how can I not be this interested?”
It was evident that Mr. Baek wanted to make his mark in the institute’s books.
With no intention of getting involved in matters of another person’s greed, Kim Jin-Woo flatly rejected the request. “I’ve clearly stated that I’m not taking the test. If you keep insisting, then I’ll leave, as I would no longer be comfortable here.”
It was a power play by Kim Jin-Woo. Mr. Baek clearly didn’t want to risk cutting ties with South Korea’s greatest explorer, as he immediately shut his mouth.
“Anyway, is there anything new lately?” Kim Jin-Woo asked.
“As you know, I only work on the labyrinths and nothing else. Everything has been the same. Going in and out of the ground, rinse and repeat. Aside from whispers that the hunters have started to be active again, nothing much has changed.”
Having said that, Mr. Baek clicked his tongue as he continued bluntly, “Don’t you have a TV or internet at your house? Don’t you read the news? Is this a flea market? Why do you ask me such questions?”
Mr. Baek seemed to be upset at Kim Jin-Woo’s stern rejection. With nothing much else to say, Kim Jin-Woo left the appraisal office.
[Mr. Kim Jin-Woo, please reconsider. Please take the test, just once, and your life will change!]
Deputy Chief Kim Joo-Hyuk from the institute also called Kim Jin-Woo several times to pester him.
As he felt uncomfortable staying on the surface, Kim Jin-Woo turned off his phone and returned to the Underworld.
“Phew.” Kim Jin-Woo sighed as he collapsed onto his throne. With Dominique’s usual warm greetings gone, the space somehow felt empty.
“My King!” Quantus greeted him, full of life as usual.
“Ah, but where’s Ortehaga?”
“Uh… He’s been avoiding the gate as of late.”
After being frightened off by the Undefeated Krasto, Ortehaga had locked himself up in the depths of the labyrinth, and hadn’t taken a step outside ever since.
“For a guy who only knows how to fight, he’s not doing a good job guarding the gates.” Feeling the situation was ridiculous, Kim Jin-Woo went off to look for Ortehaga.
“Mm?” Suddenly, he stopped at a sudden, strange vibration. A message appeared in front of his eyes.
[The Advanced Naga Sorcerers have unraveled the secret hidden in the Labyrinth Core.]
[The Advanced Naga Sorcerers were frantically engrossed in the Labyrinth Core handed to them by their master. They exerted their concentration and creativity beyond their ability to obtain rare materials.]
[The mysteries of the Underworld have intervened in the process.]
[Against all odds, the Advanced Naga Sorcerers have succeeded in unraveling the secret hidden in the Labyrinth Core.]
When Kim Jin-Woo arrived at the research lab, he could see the Naga Sorcerers with their hands raised and their tongues fluttering in excitement.
[A Labyrinth Core is a precious Underworld treasure in itself, but because of its high value, many potentials were buried within. Due to the ignorance of someone who knew not of the Labyrinth Core’s value, it was passed around as a research subject, which resulted in revealing the Labyrinth Core’s hidden secret.]
Kim Jin-Woo had no idea what the message meant. He squinted as he observed the Labyrinth Cores gathered in the middle of the research lab.
But among the highest-grade down gems that stored the various Labyrinth Cores, one of them was shining particularly brightly.
[The Advanced Naga Sorcerers have succeeded in synthesizing the Labyrinth Cores. The Exiles’ Heart and the Swamp’s Heart have merged into one.]
[The two cores have been synthesized into a new entity.]
Kim Jin-Woo looked around, and indeed, he could only see eight cores instead of nine.
[Labyrinth Cores have successfully been synthesized.]
Two more cores had been synthesized while he wasn’t looking.
[The two cores have been synthesized into a new entity.]
[Until the completion of the cores’ synthesis, there is no way to tell the outcome.]
[The cores may turn out to be stronger than before, but they may also end up being useless.]
Kim Jin-Woo saw the message and quickly, albeit belatedly, ordered the Naga Sorcerers, “Stop!”
The overly excited naga sorcerers stopped immediately upon hearing his voice.
In an instant, the nine Labyrinth Cores had shrunk in number to just six. Three pairs of Labyrinth Cores had been synthesized.
Kim Jin-Woo sighed as he looked at the three down gems that held the synthesized Labyrinth Cores.
He had ordered them to conduct research into the Labyrinth Cores, but they had ended up doing something else totally different instead. He knew he was partly to blame for not having anticipated this, but he was still upset at his Naga Sorcerers for potentially wasting three Labyrinth Cores.
“What should I do with these…”
With two cores combined, perhaps it could result in an unprecedented acceleration in upgrade speed, just like his current labyrinth that was the result of combining the Basilisk’s Heart and the Naga’s Heart.
But, as the message indicated, it could also result in nothing. That was a big headache for Kim Jin-Woo.
[Down Gem Containing the Successfully Synthesized Labyrinth Core]
[This is the result of the Advanced Naga Sorcerers’ endless research. You have no way of identifying the changes without activating the Core.]
He had three Labyrinth Cores that had been left in such an ambiguous state. With his plans for using them immediately after completing their upgrades down the drain, he couldn’t help but feel frustrated.
Seeing their master react so negatively to their research output, the Naga Sorcerers stayed quiet as they tried to read the atmosphere. They seemed to have finally understood the seriousness of the situation.
Three Labyrinth Cores were gone. That meant three labyrinths were no longer in the Underworld.
“Who else can I blame? This is all my fault.” Kim Jin-Woo shook his head and sighed constantly as the Naga Sorcerers watched on, unable to think of what to do next. Seeing them behave that way, he couldn’t bring himself to be angry at them.
After all, despite what the end result had been, it was still due to their loyal and committed research. What had happened was basically a disaster, but Kim Jin-Woo knew better than to cry over spilled milk. Besides, punishing them now would only make the situation worse.
“You guys did well. You were probably the first to unravel this mystery.”
And the first to waste three cores so easily, Kim Jin-Woo thought to himself.
Seeing their master praise them while declining to punish them, the naga sorcerers belatedly explained something to him in a hurry.
The naga sorcerers had no ability to talk to him telepathically like Dominique, but Kim Jin-Woo still understood their words clearly.
“Not just synthesis, but upgrading as well?”