Chapter 64

#25. The Mercenary

[You are now allied with Malaxus, King of Hammer and Anvil.]

[It is just an alliance in name, for Malaxus fears the Naga Fortress that managed to conquer even the Land of the Dead. They will do whatever it takes to maintain a friendly relationship.]

“Congratulations on your victory; this is but a small gift from our king!” Mellac, the envoy of Malaxus, held out a box as he bowed heavily. He rattled the box slightly, revealing something heavy and solid.

[You have received tribute from Malaxus. The dwarves will continue to pay tribute to ensure peace.]

[You have received a 'Masterwork Armor and Sword' set made by the dwarves themselves. Its quality can be guaranteed, as the dwarves are known for their craftsmanship even in the Underworld.]

Kim Jin-Woo checked the contents of the box as Mellac opened it up. In it was a gleaming suit of armor and a sharply forged sword that seemed unusual at first glance. He said, “Tell your king that the nagas will not invade the dwarves’ territory unless you turn your back on us first.”

“The king will be very pleased,” replied Mellac. The dwarves left the labyrinth looking very satisfied.

***

“I can’t do this shit any longer,” Kim Jin-Woo complained, sighing.

<It's not bad to build up your influence like this, rather than fighting a battle that holds no intrinsic value. As long as you remain alive and well, they won’t even dare to have any bad thoughts about you.> Dominique comforted Kim Jin-Woo. Just as she said, there was little merit in attacking the dwarves’ labyrinth, which was a long distance away. Receiving tribute this way was a much better option.

Of course, they would have to be subjugated eventually, but that wasn’t necessary at the moment.

“Can we wrap this up?” Kim Jin-Woo asked.

<Yes. The rangers have reported that there are no further delegates to be seen.>

Kim Jin-Woo finally breathed a sigh of relief as he stood up from his seat in the simple audience room, located near the entrance of the labyrinth.

It was an improvised space that had been created because the envoys weren’t allowed into the depths of the labyrinth, but thanks to the Naga Workers who had improved their craftsmanship, the place looked rather presentable.

“Where is Valicius?” Kim Jin-Woo asked.

<He’s locked himself up in his allocated space and is in the midst of chimera research. Perhaps he’s building a new body to replace his destroyed vessel.>

After losing the war, losing control of his labyrinth, and forcibly becoming a subordinate, Valicius was desperate to heal himself.

“He’s being delusional.”

<If he doesn’t keep himself busy that way, he won’t be able to bear it.>

Kim Jin-Woo, however, had no intention of going easy on the insidious Valicius. He said, “Observe him, and once you think he’s gotten close to finishing his research, separate him from it. We don’t want to risk him having any second thoughts the moment he gets his strength back.”

<Yes. Don't worry too much; Hoya is closely monitoring the situation. Valicius is too weak to even notice Hoya’s presence.>

Kim Jin-Woo had never imagined that he would be able to use Hoya in a situation like this. “So there really is a use for everything...” Dominique nodded in agreement as he laughed sadistically.

It had already been a month since the war with Valicius ended. Numerous envoys had visited, requested for an alliance and left. Kim Jin-Woo had hand-selected a few that seemed promising and accepted their requests. He had thus expanded his alliance by four more.

Malaxus, King of Hammer and Anvil.

Gorinthos, King of the Swamp.

Hecarim, King of the Wanderers.

Ariane, Queen of Delusion.

It would be a bit of a stretch to utilize them straight away, but the fact that they had ceded was sufficient for now. That was how powerful the Naga Fortress has grown.

“Until the Graveyard and Party Hall are energized, we’ll focus on strengthening the interior.”

<As Master wishes.> Dominique took a bow and disappeared again. She was in charge of all things both major and minor within the labyrinth, so she was busier than the owner of the labyrinth himself.

Kim Jin-Woo went looking for Yoon-Hee as Dominique disappeared.

"Ah…” Yoon-Hee seemed to be starting to recognize him, even if it was subtle.

"How have you been?" Kim Jin-Woo asked.

Yoon-Hee didn’t have to respond, but Kim Jin-Woo knew that things were improving for her. Her once soulless eyes were slowly coming alive. Perhaps she had gotten used to the carefree life in the Naga’s Labyrinth. Or perhaps it was because her own labyrinth, the Party Hall, had managed to level up to Level 3 with ease.

“Hmm, things should change once we get to Level 5,” Kim Jin-Woo mused.

If labyrinths up to Level 4 were just about establishing patterns, Level 5 was where they really began growing. At that point, their masters would begin to grow significantly as well.

Kim Jin-Woo himself had had his physical abilities improve significantly when his labyrinth reached Level 5; when it had reached Level 6, he had even risen to the rank of Commander and his physical abilities had grown exponentially.

Perhaps the fastest way for Yoon-Hee to find stability in the Underworld was to keep growing her labyrinth.

“I hope that day comes soon. I have so many questions I want to ask of you,” Kim Jin-Woo said.

Why was it that she had still been in the Underworld ten years after the end of the war? How had she been abandoned by her master and ended up in an auction? There were so many questions.

<Master!> Dominique called, bringing Kim Jin-Woo out of his idle reflection.

“Didn’t you say there were no more envoys?” Kim Jin-Woo asked.

<No, it’s not an envoy. It’s a mercenary,> replied Dominique as she slowly approached him.

There had been a time when mercenaries would have been a much welcomed addition, but the nagas were now so strong that mercenaries no longer seemed desirable.

“Dominique, talk to Quantus and play along with him. If he’s decent then hire him; otherwise, send him away.”

Dominique shook her head and grabbed Kim Jin-Woo’s hands. <But he’s no ordinary mercenary…> Her face lit up. <He’s a Hero-Grade mercenary!>

***

“Is that him?” Kim Jin-Woo asked. An unfamiliar being stood tall in the midst of the ever-expanding labyrinth’s tavern.

“My loyalty to the King!” Quantus woke up from his nap and loudly greeted Kim Jin-Woo. The nagas in the tavern followed suit and bowed their heads to greet their king, but the mysterious figure barely moved an inch.

“I humbly present my greetings to the noble Underworld Baron, King of the Nagas.” The mercenary, with his head bowed modestly, had a look about him that was rather unusual even for the Underworld. Wearing a huge suit of iron armor from head to toe, he looked like a heavily armored knight from the Middle Ages.

“Hmm,” Kim Jin-Woo mused.

Although the knight’s restrained movements and polite yet firm attitude was rather unusual in the Underworld, Kim Jin-Woo observed him intently, as he welcomed any talented being with open arms.

“I am Balzark, Wandering Knight of the Underworld.” The knight’s voice seemed to echo from the chamber of his helmet.

<Wandering Knights can only be seen on the Underworld Depths. I have no idea why he came all the way to the 9th Floor,> Dominique commented.

No one could claim to be a knight on their own, except for the Underworld Nobles.

“What is the purpose of your visit?” Kim Jin-Woo asked.

Balzark took a step forward and answered Kim Jin-Woo’s question. “I came here after hearing the rumor that there is a commander on the 9th floor that remains undefeated.”

Kim Jin-Woo raised an eyebrow as he watched Balzark's gaze from within the darkness of his helmet, replying, "So? Are you heading back now that you’ve finished your little tour?”

“What do you think?” Balzark grinned as he picked up an unusually large axe from the table. “I, Wandering Knight Balzark, have come all the way to the 9th Floor in search of a master I can serve! If your reputation holds true, please defeat me in combat and accept my servitude!”

[You have been challenged by a Wandering Knight.]

[This bizarre tribe of battle-hungry knights have long been known to engage in outrageous fights in their everlasting search for worthy masters to serve. Do you accept the request of the Wandering Knight, who wishes to serve an opponent stronger than himself?]

[If you win, Balzark will join you as your subordinate.]

[If you lose, your reputation will drop significantly. Your charisma will also decrease.]

[If you refuse to fight, your reputation will decrease slightly, and Balzark will leave the estate in disappointment.]

Kim Jin-woo sighed upon hearing of this rather outdated tradition. “This is unbelievable.”

The fact that Balzark was challenging him in a duel he hadn’t asked for was getting on Kim Jin-Woo’s nerves. “Quantus!” he called.

<Have you ever seen such insolence? Where does he think this is?!> Dominique hurriedly called for Quantus upon hearing Balzark’s challenge. Quantus leered at the being who dared challenge his great king.

“If the rumors of you being undefeated are true, prove it to me right here!” Balzark repeated, not even paying attention to Quantus.

Quantus was about to charge in in response, but Kim Jin-Woo stopped him with the wave of his hand.

Refusal would result in a drop in reputation. Defeat would also result in a drop in reputation. The answer was already clear from the start. But there was something he wanted to confirm.

“Before I accept your challenge, let me ask you something,” Kim Jin-Woo began.

“Please!” Balzark replied.

“Tell me the real reason why you’re here.”

“I heard rumors about…”

“Cut the bullshit and tell me why you’re really here.”

Balzark immediately shut his mouth at those words.

“Your reason was believable. But that…” Kim Jin-Woo pointed a finger at the wandering knight. “You should have at least changed your armor.”

“What do you…” Balzark began.

Kim Jin-Woo cut him off before he could finish speaking. “Neither you nor your master has any talent in disguise…” He paused before continuing, “So tell me. What is an Iron-Blooded Knight doing here?”

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