Not long after Jung Chan-Shik’s warning, a group of explorers emerged from the dark. There were about thirty of them. They were fully armed, as if they had come out to get rid of whatever triggered the motion sensor. The explorers lost their steam upon discovering fellow humans instead of monsters, but none of them lowered their weapons.
“Damn it.” Lee Jun-Young cursed and gritted her teeth.
Kim Jin-Woo was puzzled, but he soon noticed that her gaze was fixed on a man in the other team. Not only was he a gigantic dungeon baby over 190 centimeters tall, but he also held a knife with a ridiculously thick blade.
The man grinned cunningly and greeted Lee Jun-Young. “Well, look who’s here!”
“Song Jong-Chul, you son of a bitch….” Jung Chan-Shik was also openly hostile towards this man. In fact, all the dungeon babies were glaring fiercely at him.
“How harsh, even though I’m delighted to see you. It’s been a long time, hasn’t it?” Song Jong-Chul’s words carried a hidden sting, and his gaze was infused with vivid animosity. “I heard about the massacre on your previous hell spider expedition, and yet you’re already on your next mission! How hardworking! If I were you, I would be too terrified to even enter the underground world again.”
Kim Jin-Woo gritted his teeth. He simply couldn’t comprehend why they had to be so hostile towards each other. The dungeon babies, who belonged to neither the human world nor the underground world, were supposed to share a strong bond. However, all he could see now was two parties at each other’s throats.
“Stop spouting nonsense and mind your own business,” Jung Chan-Shik said.
“I was about to. We’ve already warmed the floor and tidied up the area, so fret not and rest well. With so little manpower, you wouldn’t want to lose any more comrades, would you?” taunted Song Jong-Chul.
The battle of nerves seemed to conclude with that.
Song Jong-Chul was about to step back when his eyes suddenly gleamed. “Oi there, I don’t think I’ve seen you around.” He pointed exactly at Kim Jin-Woo, who frowned in response.
From the very beginning, Kim Jin-Woo wasn’t too pleased by Song Jong-Chul’s disrespectful attitude towards the deceased, not to mention the tinge of mockery in the latter’s words. How could he take it all with good humor?
“I don’t know what your level is, but I wouldn’t stay in a team that isn’t even registered under the association. I suggest you make wise decisions, rather than dying a dog’s death there.” Song Jong-Chul sounded as if he were threatening Kim Jin-Woo.
Kim Jin-Woo couldn’t hold it in any longer. He was about to step forward when Lee Jun-Young grabbed and pulled his hand back. She shook her head without a word.
Kim Jin-Woo was astonished. The Lee Jun-Young he knew was a charismatic and capable leader, not a pushover. He couldn’t understand how such a brilliant individual could permit derogatory remarks from a lowly man like Song Jong-Chul.
“Take care of yourselves. Feel free to tag behind us if you’re scared. Who knows, maybe you can find a down gem or two.” Song Jong-Chul made his final ill-mannered comment before disappearing into the dark.
It took a long time before the team could move again.
“Who the hell is he?” Kim Jin-Woo said, annoyed.
“There’s an organization called the ‘Explorer Association’, which is heavily backed by the government. It’s managed by a bunch of tyrants who restrict entrance to the labyrinths and harass others as they please,” Lee Jun-Young replied.
“And you guys just let them do that?” Kim Jin-Woo asked. How could they let those delinquents roam free when there were so many dungeon babies around?
Lee Jun-Young smiled bitterly. “I know it’s hard to believe, but the Explorer Association is a colossal organization. There are more teams registered under the association than those that aren’t.”
“What kind of organization would…” …permit such disrespectful and supercilious behavior? Kim Jin-Woo’s voice trembled with rage. At the very least, he thought, dungeon babies shouldn’t devalue the deaths of their comrades.
Jung Chan-Shik stepped in to calm him down. “It’s only natural for such a group to form, considering how much money comes out of the underground world. They claim to have a noble cause, but it’s really just a turf war.”
Kim Jin-Woo finally grasped the situation. Almost a decade had passed since the dungeon babies had returned alive from the underground world. In that time, some dungeon babies had become highly profit-driven. Song Jong-Chul was the prime example.
“Don’t worry about them, Mr. Jin-Woo. You won’t see them again anyway,” Jung Chan-Shik reassured him.
However, the team bumped into Song Jong-Chul’s group again in less than three days.
“Anything interesting so far?” Song Jong-Chul asked, his tone implying hidden motives.
Jung Chan-Shik glared at him in reply. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“Woah, relax man. Our routes happened to coincide, that’s all. Aren’t we all dungeon babies here? There’s no reason to be mean.”
“Cut the crap. You’ve been following us since yesterday. Did you really think I wouldn’t notice?” Jung Chan-Shik gritted his teeth.
Song Jong-Chul grinned craftily in return. “Hey, give it a rest. Isn’t it a joyful occasion? We can share information and other good stuff, you know.”
He was blatantly asking to exploit Kim Jin-Woo’s team. He was no better than a gangster in a marketplace. He continued, “That stubborn attitude of yours may get you killed. You know nobody cares about what happens down here.”
“You fucker.” Jung Chan-Shik cursed as he signaled quietly to his teammates. They understood the message immediately and prepared themselves for battle.
“Woah! Let’s settle this with words. You wouldn’t want to get hurt,” Song Jong-Chul said.
“Try me, bastard. I’ll bring you down with me no matter what.” Jung Chan-Shik had a rather defensive attitude, as the disparity in number between the two groups was too great. Still, the murderous intent and animosity in his eyes were genuine.
Song Jong-Chul’s expression stiffened. “Chan-Shik, are you really going to do this? How long are you planning to oppose the association? We have to team up to prevent others from looking down on us.”
“And yet you dare to monopolize labyrinths and collect taxes? You’re insane. Extorting hard-earned money from your fellow dungeon babies must feel good, huh?” Jung Chan-Shik shot back.
Jung Chan-Shik must have hit the nail on the head, as Song Jong-Chul removed his facade and growled aggressively. He said, “There’s a limit to how much I can condone. You’re shaming me at this point.”
The dungeon babies and explorers surrounding Jung Chan-Shik’s team pulled out their weapons.
“The labyrinth management office isn’t going to let this off,” Jung Chan-Shik warned.
“What can that powerless office do? I cut ties with that place long ago,” Song Jong-Chul replied. His aggressive demeanor influenced the other dungeon babies to follow suit.
Kim Jin-Woo and his team braced themselves for a potential confrontation as the tension between the two parties rapidly approached a flashpoint.
Kim Jin-Woo swiftly scanned his opponents. There were nine dungeon babies and twenty explorers in Song Jong-Chul’s team. That was almost twice the size of his own team. In the event of a battle, everyone, excluding himself, would be massacred. He glanced at Lee Jun-Young and the other dungeon babies, then rested his gaze on Jung Chan-Shik.
They knew that they were at a disadvantage, yet their spirits were high. But that wasn’t the case for the ordinary explorers. They were prepared for combat, but their shifty eyes seemed to indicate that they were ready to escape at any moment if a battle did happen.
Kim Jin-Woo was in a difficult situation.
He had the power to end this conflict. All he had to do was to reveal his level. After all, dungeon babies born on the bottom floors possessed immeasurable strength compared to average dungeon babies.
“Haha! What’s with that scary face? I’m just kidding,” Song Jong-Chul said.
Having measured the distance between himself and Song Jong-Chul, Kim Jin-Woo had been about to move forward slightly when the situation took a turn for the better.
Song Jong-Chul backed away with a cunning smile. “I wouldn’t want a knife fight with my fellow explorers. I was kidding. Those down gems aren’t worth much anyway.” He chattered away shamelessly with a detestable expression.
Little did he know that he had been this close to losing his life. In fact, he would be unaware even on his deathbed. Kim Jin-Woo was a master of hiding his murderous intent.
Lee Jun-Young, who was standing right next to him, was the only person who noticed his insidious yet overwhelming bloodlust. She rubbed her goosebumps, her face deathly pale. She had never experienced such malice in any creature before.
“Well, good luck then. We’ll be leaving now,” Song Jong-Chul said.
“Get lost,” Jung Chan-Shik said.
“What a bad temper. You better fix that attitude of yours. Think of this as a friendly piece of advice from a fellow dungeon baby.” Song Jong-Chul tutted and disappeared with his team.
“Let’s head back. We can travel a bit more, but I would rather not get backstabbed during a battle,” Jung Chan-Shik said after a long pause. “Anyone disagree? No one? Then let’s go.”
As they had already produced satisfactory results on the sixth floor, nobody disagreed with Jung Chan-Shik. Even if anyone did, he would have persuaded that person otherwise.
It took the team a week and multiple battles before they could return to the surface. They had to move quickly before Song Jong-Chul’s crew could pull a dirty trick on them.
“Let’s distribute the profit accordingly. Mr. Jin-Woo, you wanted payment in down gems, right? I’ll send them to you once the calculation is done, so let’s part ways here. I’m going to visit the labyrinth management office and talk to the manager for a while.”
“There’s no point. The manager is powerless.”
“Still, we have to say something. We can’t let a tyrant like Song Jong-Chul control the whole association. It was made with the intention of benefiting the explorers, after all.”
“Go ahead then. Seems like the manager is going to lose more of his sparse hair.”
The teammates bid farewell and parted ways amid a heavy atmosphere.
It had been a while since Kim Jin-Woo last visited Mr. Baek. Even after nearly a month, though, he looked the same as ever.
“Your face has grown paler ever since you started entering the labyrinth,” Mr. Baek said.
“I have a question.” Kim Jin-Woo skipped the greetings and went straight to the point, asking about Song Jong-Chul.
Mr. Baek tutted, but answered sincerely regardless. “I know. There’s been a lot of commotion because of Song Jong-Chul. This fellow must have created quite a ruckus. But the association itself is beneficial to the country and the explorers, so his deeds have been overlooked so far.”
Despite what Kim Jin-Woo had witnessed in his expedition, Song Jong-Chul’s reputation was surprisingly decent. Many believed that he was responsible for making the expedition system more systematic, which increased the survival rate of ordinary explorers.
Mr. Baek said, “Let’s put that aside. Did you bring anything to sell?”
“Unfortunately not. I only received my pay for this expedition.” Kim Jin-Woo stood up from his seat to leave.
Mr. Baek complained that Kim Jin-Woo only visited him to ask questions, but still asked him to come again.
Kim Jin-Woo frowned as he stepped out of Mr. Baek’s office. The labyrinth wasn’t the only thing that had changed in his absence from the underground world. The complicated political situation gave him a headache. In the end, the status quo had changed. Even his dungeon baby brothers were now quarreling over money.
He couldn’t help but let out a bitter smile. “Damn. What a clear sky,” he muttered. It had been a while since he last saw the blue sky. He kicked the ground for no reason.
<Welcome back, master.> The naga’s labyrinth was the same as ever. Dominique welcomed him as usual, but she became concerned when Kim Jin-Woo gave her a dejected expression. <Did something go wrong?>
“Not really… Never mind. How’s the labyrinth?” he replied briefly. It would take him days to explain the full story in detail.
Dominique suddenly remembered something. <Ah, the construction of the breeding farm and the bar have been completed.>
Kim Jin-Woo clapped his hands. He had completely forgotten about these two projects due to his hectic schedule. “Ah, time flies!”
<It sure does. Also, you have a guest.>
Kim Jin-Woo immediately pictured the black merchant and the parasite. He had many questions to ask regarding the parasite, but listening to what the visitor had to say was his first priority. He asked, “The black merchant is here again? Do they usually visit this often?”
Although Kim Jin-Woo had purchased a few useful items from the black merchant, he still felt uneasy about the latter.
Dominique shook her head. <It’s not the black merchant this time.>
“Then who is it?” Kim Jin-Woo raised his guard. He recalled that the black merchants weren’t the only dangerous beings roaming around the underground world.