Chapter 65

“Even though I tried to turn a blind eye, your armor is just way too familiar to me. Are you even trying? Or did you take me for a fool?” Kim Jin-Woo asked. Balzark could only stand there silently in response. Kim Jin-Woo continued, “Was Anatolius trying to congratulate me, or mock me?”

Kim Jin-Woo had noticed the same markings on Balzark’s armor as those worn by Iron-Blooded Anatolius. But he was still unable to tell what Balzark's true motive was. However, it wasn’t Balzark that helped answer that question.

“Balzark couldn’t earn Anatolius’ trust from the start. His presence here is no act of impulse,” Angela said as she clung onto him.

“That aside, isn’t this rather impressive, albeit a bit creepy? If we had never met Anatolius, we could have easily been fooled,” replied Kim Jin-Woo, frowning.

“The Iron-Blooded Knights are, well… knights. They’re crazed warriors that ride into battle with their Hellmares. Their ferocity is unmatched. But Balzark…” Angela’s response was something of a non sequitur. She seemed to want to point out Balzark’s poor reputation even within his knighthood.

“He’s unable to ride a mount. A knight that’s unable to ride wouldn’t be well received among the Iron-Blooded Knights. Also, it isn’t that Balzark failed to disguise himself. He…” Angela walked over to Balzark, grabbed his helmet, and pulled it off before continuing, “...is a Dullahan.”

***

Dullahans were knights that had lost their heads in battle and were reborn. After their resurrection, they would gain more power than they ever had during their lifetime; but in return, they would never be able to ride on the back of another living being ever again. And most of all, they would harbor resentment for their killer for all eternity.

“So you’re a monstrous creature.” Kim Jin-Woo shook his head as he looked at the strange, headless being. Balzark, whose identity had been exposed by Angela, now stood casually with his large helmet at his side.

“Anyway, Balzark is no spy,” Angela said.

"No. We don’t know that for certain. No matter how incapable of riding a horse he is, he’s still a Hero-Grade being. There was no way Anatolius would easily let go of such a being despite that handicap,” Kim Jin-Woo replied.

“Master, the Iron-Blooded Knights…” Angela sighed, continuing, “All 100 of them are Hero-Grade.”

Kim Jin-Woo was definitely surprised by this revelation. It was unbelievable to think that an entire knighthood was filled with Hero-Grade knights.

“Anatolius wouldn't raise an eyebrow just because he lost Balzark. In fact, for the meticulous Anatolius, Balzark must have been an eyesore to the Iron-Blooded Knights.”

What an eye-opener. Kim Jin-Woo had been conquering the 9th Floor and thinking he was finally climbing up the ranks, only to realize the true power of the Underworld Counts.

Realizing the gap in power and accepting its reality, Kim Jin-Woo couldn’t help but feel his face stiffen.

“But how can we trust him? After you left Anatolius, he might have changed his stance. No, Anatolius seems like the kind of being that would dispose of subordinates that aren’t to his liking from time to time, am I correct?” Kim Jin-Woo said to Angela. As much as he was wary of Anatolius, he had to be wary of Balzark as well.

At Kim Jin-Woo's words, Angela stood by Balzark's side and placed her hands on his thick pauldrons, saying, “That's right. Anatolius is that kind of monarch. But Balzark isn’t here due to such an action. I can vouch for that.”

She seemed too resolute to call it an unfounded conviction, so Kim Jin-Woo asked Angela to explain herself.

“It’s because the one that killed Balzark is none other than Anatolius himself.”

***

With Angela’s validation, Balzark was finally accepted into the Naga Fortress.

As expected, the Hero-Grade knight was no match for the commander and his amplification buffs. He was badly beaten to the point where his armor was destroyed and he was forced to admit defeat.

After the duel, Kim Jin-Woo summoned one of the Tiger Dragons to confirm that Balzark couldn’t actually mount a living being. Indeed, when Balzark tried to get on it, the dragon fiercely rejected him. Its rejection was too hostile to merely be explained by the fact that Balzark wasn’t its usual rider, so Kim Jin-Woo had no choice but to believe Angela's words.

“Are there any other people who are in a precarious position in the Iron-Blooded Knights besides Balzark?” Kim Jin-Woo, who now understood the difference in power between him and Anatolius, asked with a hint of exasperation. One thing he knew for certain was that Hero-Grade summons weren’t something one could simply pick off a shelf. His eyes clearly expressed the hope that he could narrow the gap in power.

But Angela’s answer brought him back to reality. “The Iron-Blooded Knights are united in their loyalty to their monarch. They’re such a fanatical group that even if their monarch turns his back on them, they’ll still give their lives for the glory of Anatolius. Balzark is just an outlier, a casualty of war and the only exception.”

Despite the well-known extent of Dullahans’ hatred toward their killers, Anatolius had been able to easily suppress that hatred and manipulate Balzark. That was bad news for Kim Jin-Woo.

“If it weren’t for Anatolius’ plan to take over the depths of the 11th Floor, Balzark would have suffered forever serving the one he hated,” Angela continued.

It must have been burdensome for Anatolius, who had to fight a great war in the future, to have a Dullahan who hated him by his side. That must have been why Balzark was able to easily leave the depths of the 11th Floor and climb up to the 9th.

Kim Jin-Woo reorganized his thoughts on Balzark, and called Dominique and Angela over to inform them of his intent to recruit more talented individuals.

<Once the master’s fame has spread far and wide through repeated victories, over time, many strong people will naturally rally around you.>

“Everyday, there are a couple of individuals knocking on the Labyrinth’s door. Most are useless, but there are some that may be useful.”

The two assured him that time would resolve his woes.

But Kim Jin-Woo wasn’t satisfied with that answer. Forget the Dukes, even the Counts were already unbelievably strong. Knowing that, just waiting for individuals to find him simply didn’t sit well with him. But there seemed to be no other solutions.

He could try and hire mercenaries through the Black Merchant, but he couldn’t trust the Black Merchants, who had once tried to get Angela to spy on him. Thus, he decided to start limiting his dealings with the Black Merchant.

“Find a way to speed up the process,” he commented.

<Master, you’re already achieving unprecedented growth and expansion. I would advise caution. The Underworld Dukes are entities who have existed for hundreds of years at the very least. Trying to catch up with them in such a short time is virtually impossible.> Dominique spoke the truth. The rate of Kim Jin-Woo’s growth had stunned the entirety of the 9th Floor.

But despite that, he wanted, no, needed to be even more powerful. He replied, “No. With that kind of mentality, I’ll never be able to catch up to them.”

What set him apart from the other labyrinth masters was that he was a human being. What use was waiting hundreds of years to catch up to the Dukes? He would be dead by then.

“Call out Rikshasha. If we ask her about what she’s seen, we may be able to figure something out.”

With that, Rikshasha was brought into the conversation. She began to tell them all the rumors she had heard wandering the Underworld, from identifying the strongest beings in the 9th Floor to the ongoing conflicts. She awed everyone with her vast, detailed knowledge.

“Even though I have ears, I have been unable to hear properly. But now that my master has given new eyes and ears to this humble servant, I can now live up to my master’s expectations,” Rikshasha said.

The patrols also seemed to have returned with all their consolidated information.

Kim Jin-Woo seemed satisfied with all the information he had collected, ordering, “First, send a messenger to act based on Rikshasha’s information.”

<Where do I start?> Dominique asked.

In the center of the master room was a map dotted with marks. As Dominique started to pick out a few marks, Kim Jin-Woo shook his head and said, “All of them at the same time. North, south, east, west. Send two rangers and a naga each along with the messengers.”

Angela could only sigh and shake her head with admiration. “I can see why the beings of the Underworld fear the Terrans.” She continued speaking as she observed Kim Jin-Woo examining the map. “No one in the Underworld could move with such vigor.”

“It’s because, unlike you, humans don’t receive many benefits from time,” Kim Jin-Woo replied.

“Is that so? To me, you look like a passionately blazing flame.” Angela’s eyes glazed over as if she were looking at somewhere distant. She shook her head vigorously and muttered, “I pray and hope that Master’s fire will burn for a long time.”

***

It had been a week since the patrols had scattered across the 9th Floor to spread Kim Jin-Woo’s message. Finally, he heard the good news that the Graveyard's Core had been fully restored.

“Oho.” Kim Jin-Woo stared intently as the restored Graveyard’s Labyrinth Core let out a dark smoke that almost seemed alive.

“The damage was more severe than expected, so it took a long time.” The Black Merchant whined about how much down gems and effort it had taken for him to restore the core.

Kim Jin-Woo ignored him as he checked the status of the Core.

[Graveyard—Land of the Dead (Level 5)]

[The Graveyard was once home to countless dead and their envoys, but Valicius’ overuse of his summoning skills has destroyed everything. The destroyed facilities and summons have yet to be restored, even after restoration of the Core.]

[It will take a lot of resources to finish rebuilding the labyrinth.]

[With the right of regency, you may build facilities and summon personnel.]

Perhaps it was because Kim Jin-Woo was the regent, but the Graveyard was clearly not up to the standard of his own Naga’s Labyrinth. But the messages gave him a clear direction for the Graveyard’s development.

“Speaking of which, the promised payment…” Kim Jin-Woo smiled with satisfaction as he rummaged through his belongings.

“Hehe, thank you.” Seeing the Blood Leopard’s Heart containing the Labyrinth Core, the Black Merchant bowed.

"You’ve done well.”

“I’m glad that you were satisfied.” The Black Merchant reached forward to grab the Heart, but Kim Jin-Woo gently pulled his hand away. The Black Merchant stretched out his hand once more, to no avail. “Why…?”

For some reason, Kim Jin-Woo kept holding on tightly to the Blood Leopard’s Heart and refused to let it go.

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