Chapter 21

<A wandering under-elf is here,> Dominique said.

“Under-elf?” Kim Jin-Woo asked.

Just because Kim Jin-Woo had been born and raised in the underground world didn’t mean he was well-versed in everything about it. After all, he had been a mere tunnel digger working in the outer regions of his ruler’s labyrinth in the past.

Dominique hadn’t been told about her master’s past circumstances, but she explained in detail regardless. 

<Under-elves are members of the fairy species. Although they’re inferior to naga warriors in combat, they possess a variety of talents. They’re experts at hiding themselves and navigating in the dark.>

“Sounds pretty useful,” Kim Jin-Woo remarked.

<Their abilities can be useful, but be careful not to trust these creatures.> Dominique had a look of disapproval on her face. Only when Kim Jin-Woo gave her a curious gaze did she stop chewing her lips and explain herself. <Under-elves are almost never loyal to anyone. Even if they are, they prove their loyalty in the most despicable manner. They’re the prostitutes of the underground world.>

Kim Jin-Woo hadn’t known Dominique for long, but this was the first time she had become so emotional.

<If you’re going to take in the under-elf, please remember what I said.>

Kim Jin-Woo had always benefitted from listening to Dominique’s advice, so he asked, “Why didn’t you chase the under-elf away then?”

<I wanted to, but the creature requested to see you, after all. Moreover, under-elves can be useful in certain circumstances. I’m sure you’ll make a wise decision.> Dominique looked upset for some reason. Her honesty made Kim Jin-Woo smile.

He waited for her to calm down before he stood up from the naga’s throne. “Let’s go see that visitor of ours.”

***

Kim Jin-Woo smirked when he saw the pub. He had expected an underground pub to look different, but it was identical to the ones found on the surface. The nagas had somehow collected several wooden tables. A naga worker was on guard, and above it was a shelf with many bottles of mysterious liquid.

Hiss, hiss! 

The naga worker flicked its tongue to pay its respect to Kim Jin-Woo. He replied nonchalantly and turned his gaze to the stranger sitting at the table.

It was none other than the under-elf, his first-ever guest. The elf was looking at him under a long, brown mantle that covered most of its body, but Kim Jin-Woo could tell at one glance that the creature resembled a human.

<Show yourself!> Dominique’s voice was sharp and piercing. She didn’t seem too pleased by the under-elf, who was staring quietly at Kim Jin-Woo. However, the under-elf paid no attention to Dominique and stood up extremely slowly.

“O mighty master of the labyrinth, who sees through the dark from his throne.” The under-elf took off the hood and spoke in an antiquated manner. “Forgive this humble wanderer who dares to trespass into your shadow.” 

Kim Jin-Woo cringed a little. The elf’s voice was lower and deeper than he had expected. But what shocked him the most was her appearance. Although he had already guessed as much from the outline of the mantle, the under-elf had a greater resemblance to a human than he had thought.

If not for the pair of pointy ears sticking out of her jet-black hair, one would have thought the elf was an ordinary lady. However, she was breathtakingly beautiful. Her skin was as pale as the half-light of the dawn, and her pupils had a stunning midnight hue.

Kim Jin-Woo, who had never seen such a peerless beauty before, couldn’t turn his eyes away for some time.

The under-elf laid flat on the ground and walked on her knees towards the star-struck Kim Jin-Woo. She bowed to him again. “Please allow this humble creature to show her respect to the noble master of the labyrinth.” The amount of respect was almost burdensome.

The under-elf interpreted Kim Jin-Woo’s silence as permission and crawled toward him. She then kissed the top of his foot. Kim Jin-Woo couldn’t help but frown and flinch.

The under-elf remained flat on the ground and said, “O great master of the labyrinth, allow this humble wanderer to introduce herself.”

“Go ahead.” Kim Jin-Woo played along with the under-elf, only to find her deeply moved as if there were no greater honor than that. 

She introduced herself as Rikshasha. It was a rather odd name. The under-elf, who called herself a wanderer, wished to stay in his labyrinth.

<Do as you wish, master.>

Kim Jin-Woo couldn’t help but laugh. That was rich coming from Dominique, who had been badmouthing Rikshasha all this time. She seemed to think that she had done her due diligence by telling him that an under-elf could be useful. He pondered for a moment and nodded.

<One low-grade down gem should suffice for her wage.>

“Ah…” Since that wasn’t much of a cost, Kim Jin-Woo didn’t have to disgrace himself by retracting his decision. He said, “Dominique will instruct you on what to do.” He found himself speaking in Rikshasha’s tone, as though he had already been influenced by her. Dominique looked at him proudly.

“Huh?” Kim Jin-Woo was confused.

As soon as Kim Jin-Woo granted Rikshasha permission to stay in the labyrinth, she stood up and approached him. She then kissed him on the lips before he could say anything.

Rikshasha pulled herself back and licked her lips like a cat, while Kim Jin-Woo stood dumbfounded amid her sweet aroma that hung in the air. She signed the loyalty oath afterward. Kim Jin-Woo wondered whether this was the elf’s way of pledging loyalty to someone.

<Hmph!> Dominique, who seemed furious for some reason, snorted at Rikshasha. The latter raised her eyebrows mischievously in return.

This was how Kim Jin-Woo took a new member into his team.

***

Kim Jin-Woo rarely saw Rikshasha since that day. Whenever he asked Dominique where Rikshasha was, she would reply that the latter was patrolling the outer borders of the labyrinth. He could sense that she had deliberately given Rikshasha that role.

<Under-elves are nomads - they never stay in one place for long. All I did was allocate a fitting role to her. I don’t like them but it’s true that they’re good patrollers.>

It sounded like an excuse, but Kim Jin-Woo didn’t particularly mind. He had already given Dominique the authority to make use of Rikshasha as much as possible for the good of the labyrinth.

“It’s been uneventful nowadays,” he noted.

There had been ten attacks on the labyrinth since its upgrade. Most of them had been handled by the naga warriors, but the invading creatures were getting stronger and stronger, leaving Kim Jin-Woo in a difficult situation.

He barely had enough dungeon energy and down gems to summon more personnel.  Ever since he had summoned the naga magician, he hadn’t had the opportunity to add more members to his naga army. As such, he had no choice but to participate and lead the naga warriors in battle.

“Something’s strange,” Kim Jin-Woo mused as he returned from a fight against the nearby creatures and beasts as usual.

Dominique, who was now an indispensable part of the labyrinth, came to talk to him. He continued, “I’m sure we’re on the first floor, but I can spot a few creatures that normally live on the bottom few floors.” 

He had discovered the naga’s labyrinth when he was lost in the underground world with Jang Yoon-Joo. He didn’t recall going down to the second floor then, so they had to be on the first floor.

However, Dominique gave him an unexpected answer. <Master, this isn’t the first floor.>

“What are you saying? I found this labyrinth when I was lost on the first floor. I can still remember it as if it were yesterday,” Kim Jin-Woo claimed with confidence, but Dominique shook her head.

<Well, I’ve never been out of the underground world so I can’t tell for sure, but we’re definitely not on the first floor.> Dominique never lied. Moreover, nothing she’d said so far had proved to be wrong. She explained to Kim Jin-Woo, who kept blinking in confusion. <At that point in time, you were probably taken in by the naga’s labyrinth. It then placed you back where you were previously after settling business. Stray labyrinths often do that to find their new masters.>

Dominique’s explanation was hard to believe, but Kim Jin-Woo couldn’t dismiss it as an absurd theory. After all, he had entered the underground world countless times via the portal.

<The underground world is vast and endless. There’s more land here than everywhere else combined. Please don’t try to make sense of everything here. Even the dungeon dukes have given up on that.>

Kim Jin-Woo sighed and dismissed his trivial thoughts. To be honest, it was a blessing in disguise. If the labyrinth had been located on the first floor, it wouldn’t be able to escape the public eye. He was well aware of the series of events that awaited an exposed labyrinth on the higher floors. 

Its core would be shattered into pieces, and all its valuables would be stolen. In addition, the nagas would be killed and dismembered without mercy. This barbaric attitude stemmed from the long war between the humans and the dungeon dukes in the past.

“It would be good to know our location. How can I not know what floor I’m on?” Kim Jin-Woo asked.

Dominique’s eyes gleamed. She had a cunning look on her face, as if she were thinking of ordering Rikshasha to investigate the whole area surrounding the labyrinth.

Kim Jin-Woo noticed her expression and added, “She’s a wanderer, so she should have seen a lot of things on the way to the labyrinth. Ask her to wait for me when she comes back from her patrol. I should be able to dig some information out of her.”

With that, he left the labyrinth, leaving the visibly unsatisfied Dominique behind.

***

It had been a long time since he had dinner with his family. Even Hyun-Ji could join them for dinner this time. She seemed to be in good spirits, despite her concerns. Furthermore, his parents’ fried chicken store was finally starting to turn a profit after overcoming its financial difficulties.

Such positive circumstances gave Kim Jin-Woo peace of mind, and he could concentrate on exploring the outer regions of the labyrinth.

Worried that the labyrinth’s defenses could weaken in his absence, he decided to cross the Paju gate and investigate the upper regions alone. He had to collect the down gems that he had missed in his previous expedition with Lee Jun-Young’s team, anyway.

Kim Jin-Woo visited the naga’s labyrinth again before entering the underground world. He asked, “Where is Rikshasha? Hasn’t she come back yet?” He had to know which floor the naga’s labyrinth was on first.

Dominique replied sternly, <Master, this is where the core of the labyrinth lies. It’s also where you stay. I don’t think it’s wise to let the under-elf into such an important place.> Her tone carried a sense of pride. She must have been proud of being the only other person that could enter the master room besides Kim Jin-Woo himself.

It was childish, but she had a point. Unlike the nagas Kim Jin-Woo had personally summoned, Rikshasha was a nomad from outside the labyrinth. He knew better than to blindly trust her loyalty pledge. The underground world was too perilous for that.

“I’ll find her, then,” he said.

***

Rikshasha was sitting at the corner table, as she had in their first encounter. However, she was dressed lightly this time. Instead of the long robe that covered her from head to toe, she wore a black leather jacket and pants that emphasized her curves. It was a pleasant view, but Kim Jin-Woo had matters to settle.

“Rikshasha,” Kim Jin-Woo began.

Rikshasha flinched and kneeled down when he called her. “Aye, my great king.” 

Worried that her formalities could drag their conversation out too long, Kim Jin-Woo went straight to the point. “You were a wanderer before arriving at this labyrinth, am I right?”

“I was indeed.”

“Do you know which floor we’re on now?” Kim Jin-Woo had high expectations for her, as she had been roaming around the underground world without a place to stay. However, her reply was far from satisfactory. 

“I did hear that humans divide the underground world as such, but I do not know the details of that classification. Please punish this worthless servant of yours.” Upon witnessing Kim Jin-Woo’s disappointed look, Rikshasha laid flat on the ground and apologized as though she had committed a cardinal sin.

“Never mind. Can you tell me more about what you’ve seen around this labyrinth?” Kim Jin-Woo asked, thinking he might be able to deduce his location from her information.

Rikshasha, in deep thought, blinked her eyes and began to explain. She started off by listing nearby creatures and beasts. There were familiar and foreign names, but none of them particularly gave him a clue.

Rikshasha rambled on, but Kim Jin-Woo was yet to be content. She then began to describe nearby geography, but to no avail. Kim Jin-Woo was disappointed. He was about to stop Rikshasha when she said something incredible.

“Wait a minute. Repeat what you just said,” Kim Jin-Woo said.

Rikshasha did as she was told without a single error. “There is a dragon’s labyrinth not too far from here, about four days away on foot.”

Kim Jin-Woo wasn’t imagining things. “Oh shit.” He couldn’t help but scowl and curse.

Having a neighbor was never good news.

Kim Jin-Woo, who had previously been a tunnel digger in the underground duke’s labyrinth, was well aware of the belligerent nature of the labyrinth masters. Only a tragic fate awaited the weaker labyrinths.

To begin with, tunnel diggers had often been deployed to create routes to invade other labyrinths. Naturally, he had been able to witness a war unfold before his eyes and learn how savage it could be.

“Four days on foot? That’s practically next door.” Kim Jin-Woo suddenly sensed a crisis. He was expanding the labyrinth for vengeance, but he didn’t want any hassle in the process. He became deeply apprehensive that the dragon might have discovered his labyrinth. 

Rikshasha, for one, had come knocking on his door. The master of another labyrinth could do the same as well. Kim Jin-Woo needed a way to defend the immature naga’s labyrinth.

“Dominique!” he called.

Dominique, who had been waiting outside to avoid meeting Rikshasha, hurriedly ran to her master. She seemed alarmed by his voice, which contained a note of urgency.

“Gather a team immediately and follow Rikshasha,” Kim Jin-Woo ordered.

<What’s with the sudden…>

“There’s a labyrinth nearby. To make things worse, its master is there.”

Dominique’s pale face grew even paler. Even she seemed frightened by the news. She knew how intense and brutal a battle between labyrinths could be, especially to the loser.

“It’ll be a stretch to find out the exact size and grade of the labyrinth, but you should be able to compare our labyrinth to it,” Kim Jin-Woo noted.

<When should we head out?> Dominique asked.

Kim Jin-Woo replied to Dominique without hesitation, “Right now!”

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