#40. The Judgment of the Black Merchants
Kim Jin-Woo sought out Valicius in his workshop, only to be met with disappointment. As the work on creating more Dead had been underway for a substantial amount of time, there wasn’t a single usable corpse remaining.
“Please look at these guys over here. There were so many useful ingredients for my research thanks to Milord that I’ve managed to create a few rather useful ones.” Valicius displayed the results of his research proudly, not knowing how Kim Jin-Woo truly felt on the inside.
Kim Jin-Woo sighed, but he still carefully inspected the Dead that Valicius had created. “Oh, and these were made by fusing the corpses?”
“That is correct. Without such methods, the Dead wouldn’t be able to live up to their potential.”
The first of the Dead looked like a hybrid between a monkey and a lizard. Its long arms and protruding jaw seemed rather practical; Kim Jin-Woo nodded in approval.
Feeling proud, Valicius brought out more Dead to showcase them. “Although these guys aren’t able to utilize the abilities they had while they were alive, they’re unable to feel pain thanks to their tough bodies. There won’t be many enemies that can be their match.”
Kim Jin-Woo ran his hand over their leather hides to find out for himself. Valicius wasn’t joking about their toughness.
In place of their originally more elastic skin, the Dead had gained rock-hard hide. With their high durability, they would undoubtedly become powerful fighters at the forefront of any battle.
“If things go as planned, I should be able to complete three hundred of these Dead soon.”
“Three hundred? That’s all?”
Of course, three hundred Dead wasn’t a small number. But compared to the amount of corpses he had gained in the previous war, it was relatively small.
“If you wanted inferior Dead, then I could make up to a thousand. But there’s no way I could accept making such inferior products with such precious ingredients. I’ll create an army that’s more ferocious and fearless than any other. Please trust me.”
Valicius had displayed unwavering loyalty ever since he had taken over the Naga Worker’s body, so Kim Jin-Woo quickly shook off his disappointment and nodded in approval.
However, he hadn’t forgotten to set aside a corpse for his Mirror Wraiths to take over. He said, “If you happen to find a Hero-Grade corpse among the remaining ones, make sure to pick out a good one and set it aside for me.” He then left Valicius’ workshop and headed towards Yoon-Hee’s labyrinth.
Thanks to the Guardians, there was some peace once again on the 6th Floor, but there were still some refugee creatures on the 7th Floor that were wreaking havoc.
Despite that, Yoon-Hee’s resourcefulness in slowly chipping away at her surrounding labyrinths to absorb their power was commendable. Perhaps she saw the chaos sown by the Terrans and creatures as an opportunity to further expand her powers.
Kim Jin-Woo subsequently left the 7th Floor and sought out his vassals in their labyrinths, including Uther.
“Oh, welcome!” Uther, who had been lazing around on his throne as usual, sprang up upon seeing Kim Jin-Woo. He clumsily rolled out of his throne and excitedly greeted his master.
His enthusiasm was unsurprising. Word had spread, and the perception others had was that Uther was Kim Jin-Woo’s biggest confidant. Although the order didn't matter, others had taken notice that Uther held the title of Kim Jin-Woo’s first knight.
Naturally, as the knight who had been with the Naga’s Fortress from the beginning, Uther’s own reputation had climbed with the rise of the Fortress, and he couldn’t be any less excited with his life thus far.
And judging from his body having grown twice as large, to the point of spilling over from his throne, anyone could see that Uther was living it up.
“If you had called for me, I would have personally gone over instead.” He rubbed his fat hands as he talked; he truly was as sleazy as they come.
The labyrinths on the 9th Floor had all grown collectively as a whole. The spoils of their previous war had become catalysts for their accelerated growth, and none benefited more than the allied labyrinths who had participated actively in the war. Due to the huge upgrades all across the board, they were massively ahead of the rest of the Underworld, which had grown rather stagnant.
But that didn’t mean that the rest of the 9th Floor labyrinths simply stood by and watched. The attack by the 10th Floor’s alliance army was a wake-up call for those that hadn’t actively participated during the invasion, and they too were aggressively upgrading their respective labyrinths, perhaps out of fear.
The thick-skinned ones even dared to request support from the Naga’s Fortress. Those who accepted Kim Jin-Woo’s offer of regency were supported with the highest grade of down gems. Hence, it was inevitable that his military funding would be exhausted quickly. All the funding that had come from Anatolius was depleted, and all that was left were his own spoils of war.
“Now, Milord’s labyrinth has firmly established itself within the Underworld. Everyone now knows better than to go against you. Those who have accepted your regency will now do anything to stay in your good books,” Dominique remarked.
Since Kim Jin-Woo had been providing consistent but discriminatory support to those who had been actively loyal, the competition amongst the 9th Floor labyrinths in proving their loyalty to Kim Jin-Woo was fierce. This was all part of Dominique’s plan.
“How’s the situation on the 10th Floor?” Kim Jin-Woo asked.
Despite losing in the previous war, the 10th Floor still had enough power to overwhelm the 9th Floor. Even though they had been fighting at a disadvantage from all the traps and tactics deployed by Kim Jin-Woo, they had still managed to deal a significant amount of damage to his forces.
Given such tenacity, he knew that should he fight on the 10th Floor, there was no way he could win. Just as the 10th Floor’s alliance army had suffered a different-floor penalty on the 9th Floor, the same penalty would be imposed on him should he attack the 10th Floor.
“Reconnaissance isn’t easy right now. The 10th Floor is mostly uncharted territory for us, and our scouts’ Stealth ability isn’t guaranteed to work as intended on it. However, Lord Boreas has mostly recovered, so we’ll be using his Frozen Plains as the base of our scouting expeditions,” Dominique continued.
It seemed that Boreas had finally recovered from the life-threatening injuries he had sustained during their previous battle.
“Guess it’s time for us to make our move.” Kim Jin-Woo grinned from ear to ear at the thought of the only 10th Floor labyrinth to have fallen under his fiefdom. Just as he was entertaining that thought, Boreas came to visit him.
“Please allow me to return to my estate.” Due to his loss during the Noble’s Battle and subsequently pledge of complete loyalty to Kim Jin-Woo, Boreas was now uncharacteristically polite. He knelt on one knee to show his utmost respect.
Kim Jin-Woo replied, “I’ll allow it.”
There was a great look of relief on Boreas’ face. He had maintained his polite behavior throughout his stay, but that was only due to the fact that he was in Kim Jin-Woo’s territory.
And for someone who had once ruled as king, such behavior was surely out of Boreas’ comfort zone. As such, it was to be expected that he would feel at ease returning to his own territory.
“I’ll go along with you.”
But that moment of happiness was brief, as Kim Jin-Woo threw a curveball and Boreas’s face quickly darkened.
Together, Kim Jin-Woo and Boreas headed to the latter’s estate, dubbed the Frozen Plains. As the name suggested, it was cold and barren. Howling winds pierced through the plains, as Kim Jin-Woo looked on with slight awe.
It was miles ahead of the rest of the 10th Floor Nobles, based on his observations during the secret tagalong visit with the Black Merchant. It was akin to a glimpse of what could have been had the 10th Floor Nobles not sunk so low in their chase for luxuries and pleasures.
Despite countless troops having been lost during the war, the defenses were still solid. Every facility, as well as the level of the Labyrinth Core, was leagues ahead of the 9th Floor.
[The Heart of the Frozen Plains]
[This is the Labyrinth Core that contains the coldest and harshest area known even to the Underworld—the Frozen Plains. The core naturally emits a chilling wind and has become a crystal of cold itself made manifest.]
[Its Level 9 Labyrinth Core contains tremendous powers you have never seen before.]
[400 Frost Fairy Warriors await your command.]
Kim Jin-Woo stood in awe at the sight of the brilliantly shining Labyrinth Core. It shone brightly, and its size and aura overwhelmed that of the Naga’s Fortress. “Incredible,” he remarked honestly.
In response, Boreas proudly introduced his estate. “Although their numbers have dropped, these are the elites of my estate.”
His elite soldiers were also wielding two scimitars, similar to those of Boreas himself. Their presence alone was different from Kim Jin-Woo’s own soldiers. And despite losing all its lieutenants in the previous war, the Frozen Plains still held fifteen Hero-Grade warriors.
“O Great One of the Frozen Plains. We, the Wind Piercer Warriors, convey our greetings to thy King!”
Kim Jin-Woo stood proudly as he watched the four hundred warriors lay prostrate in front him, saying, “Excellent.”
“You speak too highly of us.”
Kim Jin-Woo looked at the proud Boreas and suddenly decided to be a little bit playful. “Aren’t you upset? You have such a great labyrinth and an incredible army remaining, and yet you lost to me.”
Boreas’ eyes widened as he shook his head. “A loser has no right to speak. Suppose I had brought all four hundred of my remaining troops to the war, do you think they would have helped to withstand and overcome the endless suffering that befell us?”
It may have been the remnants of his nobility talking, but from the loser’s perspective, he might have been right. Toward the end of the war, everywhere Boreas and his army turned, there was nothing but traps and ambushes everywhere. Boreas might in fact have been relieved that the war had ended early, thus easing their suffering.
“I see.” After Boreas’ unexpected response, Kim Jin-Woo stopped the teasing and gave a new command. “Construct a gate! We’ll use this as a bridgehead to invade the 10th Floor!”
At the declaration, Boreas and his warriors nodded obediently.
The cost of building the gate was astronomical. It was enough to turn a new labyrinth into a decently functioning one. Just the cost of energy supplied to the gate required ten highest-quality down gems. Kim Jin-Woo felt heartbroken inside at such a high expense, but he tried to shake the feeling off.
The cost of creating the gate was high, but he knew it was necessary. Traveling to the 10th Floor via the 9th Floor took too much time. But with the construction of the gate, things would be very different.
Now that all the 9th Floor labyrinths were his vassals, should he require it, the entirety of the 9th Floor’s troops could be deployed to the 10th Floor on short notice.
And on top of that, unlike a portal that could only be connected to the master room, a gate could be installed in any location, thus providing a much higher strategic advantage over a portal.
“We should leave.”
Kim Jin-Woo couldn’t stay behind and watch the completion of the gate connecting the Frozen Plains to the Naga’s Fortress. Today was the day that the Black Merchant would be heading to the Harimao labyrinth.
The Black Merchant, who had been waiting some distance from the Naga’s Fortress, tore up the parchment in his hands. A portal like the one he had used in previous expeditions opened, and one by one, his procession entered the portal. “Let’s go,” he said.
Kim Jin-Woo nodded at the Black Merchant’s words and entered the portal. The first thing he saw were mercenaries lining the passageway. “What the hell is…” he trailed off.
“The Black Merchants have decided that they can’t fully trust the Labyrinth of the Black Tiger.” Seeing Kim Jin-Woo stunned at the sight of a hundred mercenaries on standby, the Black Merchant further explained himself. “Just take them as insurance for our safety.”
“Isn’t this a bit overkill for just insurance?” Even at a quick glance, Kim Jin-Woo could see that all of them were Hero-Grade. It was way too much for just a single procession.
The Black Merchant noticed his confusion and casually responded, “Of course it is. We had to halt all the other processions’ expeditions to accommodate ours.”
Despite the Black Merchant explaining that it was an accumulation of all of their best mercenaries, seeing how they all moved in complete unison, Kim Jin-Woo had a suspicion that that wasn’t the case.
“Half of these mercenaries are here to escort Milord,” the Black Merchant said. Kim Jin-Woo wondered what the hell he was talking about, but the Black Merchant continued speaking. “Things would get complicated if the Terrans were to end up killing an Underworld Noble.”
Based on the seriousness of his tone, it seemed that they were accounting for the worst possible scenario. He added, “And should the mercenaries decide that the safety of the Underworld is at risk, we’ll retrieve the Labyrinth Core.”
“You mean they’ll attack the labyrinth?” Kim Jin-Woo’s face darkened at the realization that the situation might grow bigger than he had anticipated.
“As I said, that’s the worst case scenario. We, the Black Merchants, don’t attack labyrinths without a good reason. We’re nothing more than merchants; we have no justification for randomly attacking a labyrinth.”
What the Black Merchant was saying simply didn’t line up with what Kim Jin-Woo was witnessing in front of him.
“And if the time comes, Milord will have to make a decision.” The Black Merchant spoke with a deeper and lower voice than usual.
Kim Jin-Woo found himself subconsciously staring the Black Merchant in the eyes. There was nothing but darkness within them.