Kim Jin-Woo was in no condition to even check the messages appearing before his eyes. He was too busy trying to stay alive from the ungodly pain that was piercing through the back of his hand.
Usually, he wouldn’t even bat an eyelid to pain, but this pain was truly on another level, as he started to break out in cold sweat that drenched his entire body in an instant.
“Master!” Dominique belatedly noticed the pained look on Kim Jin-Woo’s face and let out a chilling scream.
Angela quickly clung onto him as she started panicking. “Priest! Call the Priest! N-no! Y-you can use healing spells too, right!?”
Angela, whose already-pale face looked even paler than a corpse, fumbled as she screamed for a Naga Priest before grabbing onto Dominique and shaking her hard. No thanks to Angela’s interference, the light that had barely begun gathering at her fingertips flickered away.
“Stay still, damn it!” Dominique’s usual calm and collected voice was gone as her tone grew fiercer.
Angela was startled and backed away, before she collected herself again and clung onto Kim Jin-Woo. “I’ll stay still, so do something!”
“I know, so cut the nagging!” Dominique quickly shut Angela up as she focused on finding the area where it hurt Kim Jin-Woo the most and using the healing abilities she had gained in her promotion to King’s Advisor on it. Her healing energy quickly enveloped his left hand completely, and as the light grew brighter, Kim Jin-Woo’s moaning grew softer.
The effects were as strong as the brightness of the light suggested, and Dominique could finally relax a bit.
“Master, are you feeling better now?”
Kim Jin-Woo nodded slowly at the two women in front of him who expressed their concern in perfect unison.
“Why all of a sudden…”
“The parasite. It’s completed its evolution.”
Kim Jin-Woo finally came to his senses as he read the messages that appeared in front of him.
[The parasite has completed its metamorphosis and is now a parasite (Queen).]
[The parasite has acquired the special ability ‘Reproduction’.]
[The parasite can now spawn parasite workers under special circumstances. These parasite workers will die after being a certain distance away from their queen for more than twelve hours. The parasite workers will only obey their queen.]
[The parasite that lived only by its survival instinct is no longer a low-grade insect. Through metamorphosis, the parasite has acquired its perfect form.]
Despite the implied drastic transformation, not much was visibly different about the parasite. Perhaps the changes might only be noticeable after it spawned its parasite workers.
But Kim Jin-Woo had no idea what the circumstances had to be in order to evoke those changes, so he was unable to check them out immediately. Thus, he set the matter aside for another day and soon forgot about the parasite. After all, there were many more matters at hand that needed his attention.
He started to work on those more urgent matters. In order to get a better understanding of the situation on the 11th Floor, he needed Ustus’ help.
Through Ustus’ labyrinth, long-distance rangers skilled in stealth and Uther’s Greed Slimes departed for the 11th Floor. Then, a search team was formed and dispatched to find Rikshasha, whom Kim Jin-Woo had lost contact with.
“Since when was our labyrinth this crowded?” As he looked around his labyrinth, Kim Jin-Woo suddenly noticed that its population had exponentially expanded before he had even realized it.
“It seems that rumors have spread that Beastfolk in this labyrinth aren’t being abused or mistreated. It’s common for Beastfolk in other labyrinths to be treated worse than wild creatures,” Dominique said.
“Urgh. I can’t tell if that’s a good or bad thing,” Kim Jin-Woo said.
It would have been nice if all of the Beastfolk were as skilled in assassination as Hoya, or as obedient as the nameless Feline, but Kim Jin-Woo knew that was a far-fetched dream.
In reality, there were incidents such as when even the Lycan had run away after being hired to fight against the Basilisk King, so Kim Jin-Woo had no particular attachment to any of the Beastfolk.
“Still, they may be useful in their own right, so it wouldn’t be a bad idea to leave them alone for a while. If they indeed prove to be useless, they can be easily expelled.” Despite the subject of the discussion being right in front of them, Dominique didn’t hold back her words. After all, as a proud Naga and the King’s Advisor, it couldn’t be helped that she was less than satisfied with the way the Beastfolk were working.
“Guess I’ll have to pray that at least one of them will end up being useful.”
They would otherwise either end up being food for wild creatures or slaves for labyrinth masters or humans, so it was to be expected that they’d try their best to survive in the Naga’s Fortress instead.
“Either way, it’s not good to take them in so indiscriminately. The more of them there are here, the fewer there are for other labyrinth masters to make use of,” Angela said as she let out an anxious sigh.
“Well, at the very least, there’s no one left on the 9th Floor who would dare air their grievances with Master. No beings on the 10th and 11th Floor will engage with the 9th Floor so recklessly, and of course, the same goes for the 8th Floor, “ Dominique said, but her expression begged to differ, as her confidence shined brightly and fiercely on her face. It was almost as if she were egging the other labyrinths on to try and stop the Fortress.
As Dominique smiled brightly in eager anticipation to test out the strength of the Fortress’ expanded military, Angela simply shook her head. “She wasn’t like this, but she’s now gotten the war bug from you, Master. She used to be so calm and docile, but now she’s a war-maniac.”
“Wars are the best nutrients for fattening up our Fortress, aren't they?” Dominique seemed undeterred by Angela’s remark as she retorted. “I think we should make use of the Beastmen in our Fortress and spread a rumor. Now that the entire 9th Floor has become Master’s domain, as long as we make good use of them, they can be Master’s eyes and ears.” As always, her words only had her Master’s interests at heart.
But as the three of them observed the expanding number of Beastfolk in the Fortress and discussed what to do with them, the labyrinth suddenly grew noisy.
“My King! The Rangers that were sent forth to search for Rikshasha have returned!” Quantus announced.
Kim Jin-Woo looked up, but his face quickly froze with fear. The Rangers had returned all bloodied and bruised.
“Hold the line!” the sturdy and unwavering Rikshasha screamed uncharacteristically. But her screams were easily drowned out by the other screams around her.
The cries of Under-Elves could be heard from all around her.
“Face them head on! We have greater numbers!” Rikshasha cried, but shout as she may, her words all fell on deaf ears.
A strong male Under-Elf trampled over his fallen comrade as he ran. The young Under-Elf screamed in pain as she rolled over, but she was quickly met with a large shadow. In an instant, she became nothing more than shredded flesh and blood.
“Ah…” Rikshasha loosened her grip on her scimitar as she collapsed onto the floor, her hands covering her face in despair.
Nothing but screams of pain and pools of blood surrounded her. Hundreds of her kin were busy screaming and running through the narrow passage, and there were dozens of shadows following them. Words couldn’t express what kind of hell she was in.
Rikshasha looked around her blankly before closing her eyes. When had it all gone wrong?
Everything had been perfect as she gathered all her fellow kin across the Underworld. And when her scattered kin had heard the rumors and came to seek her, she was all smiles as she proclaimed that their return wasn't too far away.
She had been beyond ecstatic that she had a Master waiting for her return, and that she and her fellow Under-Elves would no longer have to spend the rest of their lives running and hiding in fear.
But things had started to go wrong.
Some of the labyrinth masters had become aware of the Under-Elves rallying and had attacked them, but that was still manageable. As a clan that excelled in stealth and spying, they had easily been able to hide from the labyrinths’ troops, and had simply waited for them to give up and return back to their labyrinths.
But that was when they had let down their guard. Predators that were equally good at tracking as the Under-Elves were at stealth had caught up with them soon after. And to make matters worse, some of the predators with a keen sense of smell had caught onto the scent of their blood.
That had led to the situation that they were in right now. Worst of all, they were being hunted by the tenacious and ferocious Striped Wasps.
In front of Rikshasha’s eyes, young Under-Elves were being torn to shreds, and even the more rugged male Under-Elves were being ripped apart by the Striped Wasps’ razor-sharp mandibles.
“Ah, Master will soon…” She was about to call out to her fellow kin, but quickly fell silent.
Unfortunately, some of the Naga Rangers that Master had attached to her were killed by the Striped Wasps. They fought valiantly, as expected of the troops of the Undefeated Commander of the 9th Floor, but they were still no match.
The Striped Wasps belonged to the labyrinth that ruled the 8th Floor. And with the floor difference penalty applied to the Naga Rangers, they were easily outmatched by the Wasps, who suffered no such penalty on their home ground. Despite that, they fought as hard as they could before finally meeting their demise.
If only Rikshasha had just a couple of Naga Dragon Knights, the situation might have been completely different. As they were highly proficient in guerrilla warfare, they would have easily fended off the Wasps.
But the Under-Elves were neither as brave as the Naga Dragon Knights nor as skilled in combat as the Naga Fighters. On top of that, they were all known to be a cowardly clan.
The Under-Elves didn’t even look back at the Naga Rangers who were fighting for their sake as they ran for their own lives. The twenty-odd Rangers were quickly surrounded by the Striped Wasps, and met their unfortunate end.
“Ah…” Rikshasha couldn’t bear to even face her Master. She had proudly left the labyrinth after having made a big deal about her expedition, but here she was with most of her kin having been killed off.
It wasn’t just their past glory that the curse of the Underworld had taken away. Her kin, who were screaming in front of her as they ran wildly in all directions, no longer even possessed the same level of pride and courage they once had. In the long time period they had spent under the curse, their clan had degraded into nothing more than common livestock.
Seeing her Master’s glorious troops shed blood for her despicable and lowly clan only brought further shame and disgust to Rikshasha, as she could no longer find the courage and will to face her Master ever again.
“Run,” she finally said.
A few Naga Rangers who had survived the battle looked back, startled by her words. The Nagas all looked similar, and the bloodied wounds covering every single one of them only made them appear even more so. Behind those steadfast allies’ faces was a mountain of weariness and exhaustion.