Chapter 17

#8. The Parasite

Lee Jun-Young was a stubborn woman. Although she had already spent a few million won on Kim Jin-Woo’s presents, she refused to stop splurging. She continued to disturb Kim Jin-Woo, who found her troublesome and uncomfortable. He began to ignore her calls, but she managed to find out his address and even paid a visit to his new house. 

My life is worth more than a few million won. At this point, Kim Jin-Woo wasn’t sure whether this adamant woman had an ulterior motive, or if she simply had great pride in herself. In the end, he decided to ask her for something he actually needed.

***

“You want information about the labyrinths? Why?” Lee Jun-Young asked.

“I just need it,” Kim Jin-Woo replied succinctly.

Lee Jun-Young sulked for a moment, but she soon brightened with joy when she realized she could finally be useful. “Are you perhaps planning to return to the underground world? How about joining our team?” she asked.

It was a reasonable proposal. Although her team had failed to hunt the hell spiders in the previous expedition, it was an elite team containing several high-level dungeon babies.

Moreover, Lee Jun-Young and her teammates had done their due diligence in that expedition. There were simply more hell spiders than they’d expected. The members themselves weren’t half bad.

Kim Jin-Woo contemplated for a moment, and eventually accepted her proposal. He had to visit the underground world frequently to collect more down gems for his labyrinth, anyway. It wouldn’t hurt to have comrades who could help him compensate for his five years of absence from the labyrinths.

“I’ll join, under one condition—” Kim Jin-Woo began.

“You don’t want any hassle, am I right?” Lee Jun-Young was quick-witted and cut him off. She had guessed Kim Jin-Woo’s thoughts correctly. She grinned, and he smiled back at her.

Not only did the two of them have an amicable relationship, but Lee Jun-Young was also capable and astute. Kim Jin-Woo had found himself a great partner.

“We have seventeen dungeon babies in our team, all of them born and raised on the fifth to eighth floor. Not many teams in South Korea can compare to us,” Lee Jun-Young boasted. She commended Kim Jin-Woo for his decision to join her team.

Suddenly, she asked him with a stern expression, “But really, which floor are you from?” 

Kim Jin-Woo was in a dilemma. He contemplated whether to spill the beans.

“Judging from your battle against the hell spiders, I can safely say you’re not from the seventh floor. I’m guessing... about the ninth, am I right?” Lee Jun-Young probed.

While Lee Jun-Young made her conjectures, Kim Jin-Woo made up his mind to disclose his level. “I was born on the twelfth floor,” he replied. He didn’t see a point in hiding his level when he had already shown her his skills.

However, Lee Jun-Young said nothing. She simply blinked her eyes and stood there, dumbfounded.

“Did you say the twelfth floor?” was all she blurted out after a long silence.

Kim Jin-Woo smiled bitterly. He had already expected this response.

No humans had ever set foot into the twelfth floor, even during the war. That uncharted territory was full of incredible perils. Even when all the dungeon babies had been freed after the war, none of them were from the twelfth floor.

But that was to be expected. The dungeon babies from the tenth floor had already had extremely low odds of returning alive. Although the masters of the labyrinths had granted the dungeon babies their freedom, the latter had had to get out of the underground world themselves.

Only fifty and ten dungeon babies had returned alive from the tenth and eleventh floor respectively.

Kim Jin-Woo was the only dungeon baby from the twelfth floor.

“Someone who returned alive from the twelfth floor…”

“There’s only one.”

Kim Jin-Woo had no reason to lie, but Lee Jun-Young seemed to have a hard time believing him. He didn’t see the need to persuade her any further, and instead decided to wait for her response.

When she finally regained her composure, she inquired with a trembling voice, “By twelfth floor, you mean the place where the dungeon dukes’ labyrinths are…?”

“Yes. I was born in the spider duke’s labyrinth.”

“A-Are you perhaps that ‘one and only Level 12 dungeon baby in the country’?”

“Yes.”

In truth, Kim Jin-Woo was famous. Across the world, there weren’t many dungeon babies born on the bottom floors to begin with. How could he not be well-known?

Moreover, he was one of the rare dungeon babies who had been born in a dungeon duke’s labyrinth. Anyone in Lee Jun-Young’s shoes would be surprised.

“But didn’t that person die in the underground world…?”

“That’s just a rumor. I just left the underground world for a while due to personal reasons.”

A rumor must have spread while he was gone from the underground world. However, that was to be expected. The dungeon babies who were born on the bottom few floors had all become superstars after all. 

“I guessed that your level was high, but never in my wildest dreams did I expect you to be a Level 12 dungeon baby…” Lee Jun-Young struggled to maintain her calm. She found it surreal that she was conversing with the highest level dungeon baby in South Korea, who had been under so much scrutiny right after the end of the war.

“Let’s put that aside and talk about work.” Kim Jin-Woo drew the line at talking about his personal affairs.

Lee Jun-Young remained in a daze for a long time, until she finally snapped out of it and began to explain the schedule.

Her team was made up of many successful explorers. As they had been going on expeditions regularly, the barrier to entry for the team was high. However, this barely mattered to Kim Jin-Woo. He had already proved his credentials in the hell spider expedition.

Besides, how could any team reject the dungeon baby with the highest level in the country? Lee Jun-Young’s team would otherwise have had to beg him to join.

“You should visit our office. Are you free now?” Lee Jun-Young asked. She was an expert at putting her money where her mouth was.

Kim Jin-Woo shook his head. “Sorry, I don’t like hassles. Also, please keep my level to yourself first. I don’t want unnecessary attention.”

Lee Jun-Young remembered how Kim Jin-Woo had surrendered his pay just to avoid disclosing his level. She agreed without hesitation. “Thank you for joining the team,” she added.

“My pleasure,” Kim Jin-Woo replied.

Lee Jun-Young was considerably thrilled about the new member of her team, but little did she know that Kim Jin-Woo had no intention to stay in the team for long. He only needed some time to adapt and make up for his five years of absence from the labyrinth.

He couldn’t reveal the existence of the portal and the nagas to anyone. They were his greatest assets, after all. Therefore, he had no reason to bear the risks involved in complying with the team’s rules. 

Kim Jin-Woo wasn’t obligated to inform Lee Jun-young of his intentions, of course. He saw her out of his house with a smile.

***

A few days passed since Kim Jin-Woo had expressed interest in joining Lee Jun-Young’s team. An expedition had finally been scheduled for him.

{We’re planning to enter the sixth floor this time. It will take us about two weeks to reach there. Ten ordinary explorers and five dungeon babies, including myself and Mr. Jin-Woo, will be going.}

“You’re going pretty deep this time.”

{That’s the only way we can make ends meet.}

This was how successful dungeon babies spoke. There were creatures and beasts on the first to fourth floor that carried down gems of decent quality, but Lee Jun-Young’s team took little notice of them.

{We’re leaving in about four days. That should be enough time to prepare. We’ll prepare basic equipment, but you’ll have to bring your own preferred weapons or equipment.}

“Alright. Nothing much, really.”

Kim Jin-Woo had a knife and armor that he had purchased from the black merchant, but they weren’ meant to be used in front of others.

He ended the call and opened the portal. As he wouldn’t be able to access the labyrinth for some time, he had to settle some administrative matters before he left.

<Welcome back, master.> Dominique welcomed him heartily as usual.

Kim Jin-Woo nodded and sat on the throne. He checked the construction progress of the facilities. More naga workers had been added, but Level 4 facilities seemed to take much longer to finish building.

“I won’t be back for a while. I’ll leave this place to you, Dominique,” he said.

<Ah, it’s a shame I won’t be able to see your face, master.> Dominique was more worried about missing Kim Jin-Woo than the increase in workload.

“Well, I can’t show this labyrinth to anyone else.”

<You’re right. You don’t live in the underground world, after all.> Dominique gazed at Kim Jin-Woo with her violet pupils. Was she trying to see Kim Jin-Woo for as long as possible?

“I can’t help it. The down gems collected by the naga workers aren’t enough to run the labyrinth.”

Kim Jin-Woo reassured her briefly and left the labyrinth. He had other tasks to settle. First, he had to concoct an alibi for his parents, who were always worried about him. Next, he had to meet Mr. Baek to obtain information about the labyrinth.

Four days passed by in a blink of an eye. It was the day of the expedition.

Lee Jun-Young introduced her teammates to Kim Jin-Woo beforehand. There were many dungeon babies from the fifth to eighth floors.

“So this is the youngster who rescued our Jun-Young? Nice to meet you.” A man introduced himself as Jung Chan-Shik and greeted Kim Jin-Woo with a mischievous smile.

There were many age differences between the dungeon babies. However, all of them were comrades and friends who had gone through the same ordeals in the underground world.

Kim Jin-Woo smiled back. “Thank you for the last time.”

Two of the group members were familiar faces, whom he had met in the previous expedition. They thanked Kim Jin-Woo profusely to the point of making him uncomfortable.

“It seems we’ve all been introduced. Let’s move,” Jung Chan-Shik instructed.

Again, nobody introduced the explorers. However, they followed Jung Chan-Shik’s command without any sign of disappointment.

After a simple round of inspections, the team entered the gate and began to march swiftly. They planned to avoid unnecessary battles until the destination.

“Multiple enemies ahead. Let’s turn right at the upcoming crossroad,” Jung Chan-Shik said.

Although Lee Jun-Young had the highest level amongst the dungeon babies excluding Kim Jin-Woo, Jung Chan-Shik was the leader of the team for a good reason. He could sense nearby creatures and beasts, and hence avoid unnecessary battles.

As a result, the team arrived at the entrance to the fourth floor in less than four days. “From this point onwards, even I may be unable to detect some creatures and beasts. Please sound off if there’s anything suspicious,” Jung Chan-Shik instructed. The explorers all nodded in response.

The third and fourth floors looked starkly different. The third floor had well-paved passages covered in concrete, whereas the fourth floor completely lacked a human touch. Not only were the ceilings rough and covered in lumps, but the floor was also uneven. Furthermore, the twists and turns in the passage slowed down the team substantially.

“Let’s change our formation. Sang-Sik and I will stand in front, Hyun-Il can be the chaser, and the spearmen can go to the center. Jun-Young and Mr. Jin-Woo can stand at the rear.” The formation changed immediately upon Jung Chan-Shik’s command.

“Interesting fellow, isn’t he?” Lee Jun-Young whispered to Kim Jin-Woo. She smiled when he nodded in response. She continued, “Chan-Shik is a little special. He wasn’t born on the bottom few floors, yet he can notice the presence of others.”

Usually, only the dungeon babies born on the bottom few floors had special abilities. However, there were a few who were born on the higher floors, and yet had commendable powers. Jung Chan-Shik was one of them.

“Then why didn’t he join the hell spider expedition?”

“You’re right. If Chan-Shik had been there, such a tragedy wouldn’t have happened. Unfortunately, he was involved in another mission, so he couldn’t go.” 

It seemed Lee Jun-Young’s team entered the labyrinths more often than Kim Jin-Woo had thought.

“Stop!” Jung Chan-Shik called.

Kim Jin-Woo and Lee Jun-Young were in the midst of their conversation when the team suddenly came to a halt. They looked at Jung Chan-Shik, who had gathered all the other dungeon babies.

“We’re now going to enter a labyrinth, as this route is the quickest. I just wanted to give everyone a heads up before we enter. Anything can happen down there after all,” Jung Chan-Shik warned the group.

The passage ahead was notably different than the one they had been traveling on. It was well-paved except for a few cracks here and there.

“This labyrinth has been abandoned for more than a decade. We can expect to encounter creatures and beasts from the fourth floor at most.

“Can I assume that everyone is fine with entering the labyrinth?” he asked. The dungeon babies nodded in response. He then asked, “How about Mr. Jin-Woo? What do you think?”

Kim Jin-Woo, slightly separated from the crowd, had been inspecting the entrance of the labyrinth. There was a geometric emblem carved into the wall. It seemed oddly similar to the tattoo on the back of his hand.

He couldn’t help but extend his hand to touch the wall. “Hmm?” He had a weird feeling. He was about to place his hand back on the emblem when he heard a voice calling for him. He responded, “Yes?” 

“We’re about to enter an abandoned labyrinth now; are you okay with it?” Jung Chan-Shik repeated.

“Well, I was already told we would. I’m fine with anything,” Kim Jin-Woo replied.

“Alright, we have a consensus then. Let’s go!” Jung Chan-Shik declared. The team began to move again.

The labyrinth lived up to its name. It was abandoned, but there were still traps all over the place. The passages were tricky to navigate, but Jung Chan-Shik could somehow find the correct path every time.

They eventually arrived at the master room, which was located at the center of the labyrinth. Jung Chan-Shik said, “We can camp here for the night then get out of the labyrinth tomorrow. This place should be much safer than the outside.”

There was technically no safe haven in a labyrinth. However, nobody disagreed, as the master room was indeed designed to be more defensible.

Night soon fell in the labyrinth. It was completely dark, and silence filled the air.

Lee Jun-Young broke the silence and woke Kim Jin-Woo up. “Alert me if anything happens. We installed several motion sensors in front and in the corners, but some creatures may avoid detection.”

As stealthy creatures could emerge from the dark anytime, the dungeon babies volunteered to take turns to go on watch. That was one of the rare times when the explorers, who were constantly burdened with menial jobs, could rest. 

“Alright. Good night.” Visibly tired, Lee Jun-Young crawled straight into her sleeping bag. She snored like the obtuse dungeon baby she was and fell asleep.

Kim Jin-Woo stared at her for a moment and stood up. With a glance at his surroundings, he quietly walked toward the altar, where the dungeon’s core had once been. It was similar to the one in the naga’s labyrinth, and yet felt different.

He was staring blankly at the spot where the core would have rested when a message appeared before his eyes.

[The parasite has detected something invisible.]

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