Chapter 23

The cunning, dark eyes of the black merchant glimmered.

Kim Jin-Woo felt as though he had been caught off guard. He frowned and concealed his facial expression. “Something that I need… I don’t know what you’re referring to.”

Kim Jin-Woo tried to play dumb, but the black merchant seemed to know everything and said, “There’s a labyrinth nearby, ruled by the basilisk king Anaxtus. I’ve met him several times before, and he seemed to be both impatient and violent.”

Kim Jin-Woo’s face stiffened. He could swear that the black merchant was threatening him. “What do you want?” he asked.

“I’m not the one who wants something,” the black merchant replied.

Kim Jin-Woo wanted to smack the black merchant’s detestable mouth, but he controlled his urge. He would feel uneasy riding roughshod over the black merchant. Instead, he asked, “What can you offer?”

“Now we’re talking!” the black merchant clapped and exclaimed in delight. “We, the black merchants, can obtain anything in the world. We can fetch you the resources required for your labyrinth’s upgrades or even introduce mercenaries to you. We can even bring human slaves if you want, though you won’t need them for now.”

The black merchant’s attitude was hard to decipher. He appeared to be a cheap salesman, but he could transform into a crafty swindler anytime. Sometimes, he even gave off a dangerous vibe that wasn’t to be messed with.

“In addition, we black merchants understand the hardships of new labyrinth masters better than anyone else. They lack resources and manpower, among many other things. Therefore, we’ve learned to grow the patience needed to wait until our clients can pay off their bills.”

The black merchant continued to blabber on while Kim Jin-Woo contemplated his words. “In other words, we provide credit services,” he said, putting on a friendly smile.

His words were incredibly compelling to Kim Jin-Woo, who was concerned about the other labyrinth’s attack. There couldn’t be a better deal than this.

“Your offer sounds almost too good to be true, yet I can’t possibly reject it...” Kim Jin-Woo began.

“Of course. The welfare of our clients is our greatest priority.” The black merchant rubbed his hands together and grinned slyly. “We can write a contract now if you’re interested. Tell us what you need. We can offer anything from brave and loyal mercenaries to brilliant down gems…”

“...but I refuse your offer.” Kim Jin-Woo cut him off.

“I’m sorry?” The chattery black merchant immediately looked disappointed upon hearing Kim Jin-Woo’s succinct reply.

Kim Jin-Woo continued with a stern expression. “All goodwill comes at a cost, especially in the underground world.”

“Not at all! You’re mistaken! This is all part of the black merchant’s principle, to empathize with the hardships of new labyrinth masters—”

“I’m sure there’s a catch.” Kim Jin-Woo interrupted again.

The black merchant began to ramble again. “There is a condition, but… All we need is just a very, very insignificant piece of collateral.”

Kim Jin-Woo had been right. “I’m not interested,” he told the black merchant without hesitation.

“Please reconsider. You never know when the subordinates of Anaxtus will rush into your labyrinth. You won’t be able to stop them with your army.” The black merchant gave up persuading and began to threaten Kim Jin-Woo, but the latter had already made up his mind. In the end, the black merchant continued to blabber on before leaving the naga’s labyrinth with a confused expression.

“Dominique,” Kim Jin-Woo began.

<Yes?> Dominique responded.

“Did I make the right decision?” Kim Jin-Woo had a somber look as he gazed at the darkness beyond the gate.

<Master, the black merchant wasn’t lying. We can’t defend ourselves with our current military strength.> Even Dominique, who rarely went against him, expressed her concerns over his decision.

“But I can’t strike a deal with somebody whom I can’t trust. According to you, the black merchants wouldn’t be gaining anything from this trade. Then why are they trying to help me? They definitely want something in return.”

<Still…>

“Enough! We can’t rely on someone dangerous to deal with our problem. Let’s stop our discussion here.”

<Yes, master.> Dominique had questions, but she didn’t voice them any further. However, she couldn’t help but look concerned the whole time.

“All we have to do is win.” Kim Jin-Woo wasn’t sure whether he was saying those words fr Dominique or to himself.

***

Kim Jin-Woo came out of the labyrinth immediately after the black merchant left. His condition wasn’t the best due to prolonged exposure to the characteristic chill of the naga’s labyrinth. The moment he left the labyrinth with a heavy heart, he could breathe easily once again.

However, time wasn’t on his side. He had to settle his business quickly before the enemy troops stampeded over his labyrinth. He went to see Mr. Baek.

“What brings you here?” Mr. Baek welcomed Kim Jin-Woo, who had visited without any notice, curtly.

“I have something to ask you about,” Kim Jin-Woo began.

“You think this is Dasan Call Center? Only dropping by when you have questions, huh? Hmph.” Mr. Baek grumbled, but his eyes gleamed with curiosity as to what Kim Jin-Woo would ask.

“Have you heard of the labyrinth of Anaxtus?” Kim Jin-Woo quoted the name of the labyrinth master, which he had heard from the black merchant.

“Anaxtus?” Mr. Baek asked.

“Yes. Also known as the king of basilisks.”

Mr. Baek pondered for a while as his wrinkles deepened. “Why don’t you visit the labyrinth management office? I’m sure you can find quite a lot of information from the people there.”

“That’s true, but the manager talks too much,” Kim Jin-Woo said. The bald, garrulous manager would spread rumors everywhere. That was why he had chosen to purchase information from Mr. Baek. 

“Anaxtus, huh…” Mr. Baek paused, seemingly having a difficult time recalling what he knew.

“You don’t know?”

“Shh, don’t disturb me. You’re so noisy, tsk.”

Kim Jin-Woo had pressed Mr. Baek for an answer out of desperation, but all he received was a reprimand. He kept his mouth shut from then on. Meanwhile, Mr. Baek continued to wander in his memories with a frown on his already wrinkled face.

Finally, Mr. Baek said, “I can’t remember anything in particular; old age must be catching up on me. Is it urgent?”

“The earlier you can remember, the better.”

“Argh, come again tomorrow then. I’ll scan through all the sources available.”

“Understood.”

Kim Jin-Woo hadn’t obtained any valuable information, but it was too early to despair. He was certain that Mr. Baek would find him clues. He left the office and called Lee Jun-Young.

Lee Jun-Young was at his doorstep momentarily, not long after the call. “Well well, look who we’ve got here. Why did you call me?” she asked.

“Can you do me a favor?” Kim Jin-Woo replied.

“What is it?” Beholden to Kim Jin-Woo ever since the previous incident, Lee Jun-Young cut to the chase as though refusal was never an option.

“Can you get me the following items?”

“Like?” 

Her incredible excitement troubled Kim Jin-Woo a little, but he quickly listed the items he needed. Although she looked baffled upon hearing the list, she agreed to help and left the house.

She returned within a day, saying, “I did get the items that you’ve asked for, but why do you need them?”

“Thank you. I’ll make it up to you.” Kim Jin-Woo thanked Lee Jun-Young instead of replying, which made her smack her lips.

“We use these items too, but please don’t abuse them for the wrong purposes. The authorities can close one eye when we are in the underground world, but you could land yourself in trouble if their use were to become known to the public,” Lee Jun-Young pleaded before leaving to attend to other urgent matters. 

Kim Jin-Woo was grateful to her for coming down to help him despite her busy schedule. He sent her a message that he would make it up to her someday.

>I’m still indebted to you.

Lee Jun-Young replied immediately. Perhaps she was hinting that Kim Jin-Woo could ask for her help anytime.

Kim Jin-Woo chuckled at the pleasant message and left the house with the bundle of items she had passed to him.

***

“How’s it going?” Kim Jin-Woo omitted his greetings and asked Mr. Baek.

Mr. Baek tutted in reply. “How impatient. Take a seat first,” he asked Kim Jin-Woo before continuing, “Let me ask you a question first.”

“Go ahead.”

“Why do you need this information?”

It was a difficult question to reply to. Kim Jin-Woo decided to stay silent instead of lying to Mr. Baek.

Mr. Baek seemed to have expected such a response, as he clicked his tongue once and began to spill the beans. “The labyrinth of Anaxtus is located pretty deep down in the underground world. It’s only been seen a few times even during the under-war, which is why it took me so long to recall.”

“Deep down, you say… Which floor are you referring to?” Kim Jin-Woo inquired.

Mr. Baek paused and stared at him for a while before opening his mouth again.

[There’s an intruder in the labyrinth. You have to return immediately.]

A message appeared at such an outrageous timing, which frightened Kim Jin-Woo out of his wits.

Mr. Baek was puzzled by such a reaction. “What’s wrong with you?” he asked.

However, Kim Jin-Woo was too engrossed in the blinking red message to reply. “Goddamn it!” he cursed.

“Y-You okay there?” Mr. Baek asked. Kim Jin-Woo simply leaped from his seat and ran out of the office before Mr. Baek could hold him back.

[The naga soldiers have begun fighting enemy forces while patrolling the remote areas of the labyrinth. The remaining troops have been gathered at the gate, prepared to defend the labyrinth.]

The message continued to blink frantically to indicate its urgency.

Kim Jin-Woo headed home immediately. He had desperately wished to open the portal right that instant, but he was in the middle of the city. Moreover, he had things to bring to the battlefield.

In the end, Kim Jin-Woo held back his anxiety and rushed back home. He arrived in a blink of an eye and took the bundle of items that Lee Jun-Young had passed to him.

[The enemy troops have reached the gate, and have begun to battle our forces.]

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