Chapter 67

“They’ve even forgotten their history of defeat, and have given in to the desire for human artifacts,” Balzark repeated.

“What kind of objects, for example?” Kim Jin-Woo asked.

Seeing Kim Jin-Woo’s strong interest, Balzark started talking excitedly. From his stories, it seemed that the items of interest were nothing but junk. It was absurd to think that their labyrinth’s defenses were deteriorating because they were paying high prices for such glorified pieces of trash.

But this new information seemed to have sparked an idea in Kim Jin-Woo’s mind. Unlike the other inhabitants of the Underworld, he was a human. He could buy as many items from the surface as he wanted. All he could see was money.

“Hmm…”

Balzark stopped his monologue when he noticed that Kim Jin-Woo had fallen into deep thought.

“Good. Very good…”

Balzark had no idea what Kim Jin-Woo was talking about, but he nodded in agreement regardless.

***

“Are you all prepared?” the Black Merchant asked.

Kim Jin-Woo nodded at the Black Merchant’s prompt and turned around. He left behind a few orders to Dominique, and others who had come to greet their master, and headed off with the Black Merchant into the Labyrinth.

“Um. I have to reiterate: You must not talk at any time throughout the entire journey,” the Black Merchant cautioned.

“From now on?” Kim Jin-Woo asked.

“The 9th Floor is still okay. But the moment we enter the 10th Floor, please be careful.”

“That’s still far away.” Kim Jin-Woo stretched his back lazily.

The Black Merchant shook his head. “Not for long.” He took out an old piece of parchment and tore it up. A portal suddenly appeared in front of them. “Shall we go?” he asked.

The procession followed the Black Merchant into the portal. Kim Jin-Woo looked on and followed suit.

“Welcome to the 10th Floor, ruled by the Underworld Barons and Viscounts.” The Black Merchant had taken only one step ahead, but he turned around and opened his short arms wide, and gave a very formal cautionary speech.

“From here on, Milord is just a regular mercenary that is part of the escort, and I will accept no favors from you under any circumstances. As such, I will treat you as any regular mercenary, and I hope to seek your understanding for this matter.”

Kim Jin-Woo, having made up his mind, gave a quick nod in agreement. He became engrossed in his thoughts as he watched the portal behind him fade away.

He had figured out why the Black Merchant was able to effortlessly get around these narrow labyrinths. If he could use these portals to travel, he could easily bypass any dangers that lay ahead.

That being said, he felt uneasy knowing that the Black Merchants’ portals could close immediately without any delay. His portals, in contrast, remained open for a whole day.

“Just for reference, these portal scrolls aren’t for sale. So you don’t have to stare at them like that.” The Black Merchant seemed to have read Kim Jin-Woo’s thoughts, as he passed along the remnants of the torn scroll and explained.

“Make way! We will first make our way to Baron Horace’s labyrinth!”

The procession seemed familiar with the nobles’ ascent, as they moved perfectly in sync. At the Black Merchant’s seemingly unfitting commands, the frail mercenaries started to scatter and map out the area.

“Unlike the 9th Floor, there are no creatures on the 10th Floor that run wild without reason.” Despite stating that he wouldn’t entertain any favors, the Black Merchant was doing Kim Jin-Woo plenty of favors by explaining the events on the 10th Floor as they happened. “There are dangerous cabals that don’t recognize the authority of the nobles. Our Black Merchants’ ascents are good hunting grounds for them.”

It almost seemed as though the Black Merchant had planned to tell Kim Jin-Woo everything about the 10th Floor from the start. He couldn’t help but frown under the guise of his hood.

It wasn’t just a feeling he had on a whim. He had felt previously that the Black Merchants were trying too hard to support him. They had listened to every one of his, admittedly, sometimes unreasonable favors without much backlash, and even if he had a prior agreement with Anatolius, it just seemed too excessive.

Even this current situation gave off the same vibe. It was almost as if the Black Merchant were slowly guiding him across the 10th Floor, helping him draw a mental map of the entire labyrinth.

“I’ve heard that those who harm the Black Merchants will be punished accordingly, even extending to labyrinth masters. So why do you avoid the bandits?” Kim Jin-Woo whispered.

The Black Merchant kindly responded, “Unlike a labyrinth, which stays in one place, thieves do not.”

“So if they attack us, we just take it and don’t retaliate?”

The Black Merchant didn’t answer this time, as one of the mercenaries at the forefront raised his hand.

The mercenary clenched his right fist so that everyone could see it. He extended three of his fingers and flicked them back and forth. As the others saw the gesture, there was some shuffling in the ranks.

“Didn’t you just ask whether Black Merchants get raided by bandits?” The Black Merchant's eyes sparkled as he said that. “Absolutely not.”

The Black Merchant’s demeanor changed into something unlike anything Kim Jin-Woo had seen before. He continued, “Rather than making them pay later on…”

The hooded creatures, who had been following them as escort mercenaries, took off their hoods all at once and ran ahead.

“I prefer to annihilate every single last one of them, right here.” Before the Black Merchant's words even finished leaving his lips, shouts and screams erupted from the other side.

[The battle has begun.]

[The bandits of the 10th Floor, who were aiming for the Black Merchant’s procession, have begun to battle the Black Merchant’s mercenaries.]

“There may be a flanking attack, so the others should maintain formation and pay special attention to their surroundings.”

The escort mercenaries silently nodded at the order given.

***

“We’ve shown Milord something unpleasant from day one of our journey. I apologize for having provided such a sight,” the Black Merchant said.

Kim Jin-Woo simply waved his hands, immersed in thought.

The Black Merchant’s mercenaries were strong. In less than half an hour, they had slaughtered all the thieves. All it had taken were five Hero-Grade mercenaries.

It was too much power for a simple traveling merchant, so Kim Jin-Woo mentally reassessed the Black Merchant’s power.

“This seems to have exposed our path forward. An ambush like this not far from the starting point means that information has been leaked.” The Black Merchant, who had been talking about discretion just moments earlier, now didn’t even hesitate to speak with Kim Jin-Woo.

“When we head back, I’ll report to my superiors and find a new path. It’s now too scary to be traveling around.”

The sight of the Black Merchant, looking like the protagonist of a tragic soap opera as he shivered with fright, contrasted with the expressionless mercenaries slowly grinding down the bandits’ bodies for down gems. The difference was night and day.

“This doesn’t seem to be the first time something like this has happened,” Kim Jin-Woo mused.

“When the nobles carry interesting artifacts around, isn’t it easy for them to become targets?”

“No, not that. I’m talking about your mercenaries. No one spoke a word. Not a single word or command, and yet they were incredibly efficient,” Kim Jin-Woo remarked. The sight of the mercenaries effortlessly slaying the bandits without making any sound was still etched in his memory.

“Oh, that’s not it. I did handpick them, but they’re just worthless animals. We were lucky we met some newbie bandits, but we won’t know the next time around.” Even as he said that, the Black Merchant seemed to be subtly showing off the true might of the Black Merchants.

Knowing he won’t get anything else out of the Black Merchant, Kim Jin-Woo started observing the mercenaries.

The fact that they were familiar with each other despite being hooded went to show that they had been on such expeditions, journeying in and out of the Labyrinth with the Black Merchant, for a long time. It would probably be best to be cautious with them.

For Kim Jin-Woo, who had met the Black Merchant’s procession on the outskirts of the Labyrinth after taking multiple precautions, he felt it was best to pay closer attention to the mercenaries after seeing their might firsthand.

Although he had the power to go head-to-head with them now, it only highlighted how reckless he had been in the past. If his nagas were only as strong as they had been during the fight with the Basilisk King, the mercenaries would probably have massacred his army.

“Baron Horace has a fairly moderate personality, even for the 10th Floor’s standards.” The Black Merchant started speaking first, seeing how silent Kim Jin-Woo had become. “Because of his wealth and character, there are many people who want to do business with Baron Horace, even among the Black Merchants. But this time, I’m in charge of that business. It’s all thanks to you, Milord.”

It seemed that he had decided on Horace’s labyrinth as the destination, fulfilling Kim Jin-Woo’s request of finding out more about the 10th Floor nobles.

“We were lucky, but then again, making our own luck is the Black Merchants’ specialty. I’ll be sure to make Baron Horace a regular customer of yours with this deal,” said the Black Merchant, as he excitedly shared his aspirations.

Kim Jin-Woo couldn’t understand why the Black Merchant had originally insisted that he stay silent. Nevertheless, he was able to obtain a lot of information thanks to the Black Merchant’s babbling.

Baron Horace was somewhere in the middle of the 10th Floor nobles in terms of power. Thanks to his labyrinth being located in a prime location abundant with down gems, he had been able to amass a powerful army through sheer financial power.

“Ah, from here on, this is Baron Horace’s domain. The fief is still some distance away, so please be careful with your actions and speech from here on.”

The instruction felt absurd when the Black Merchant had been chatting away just moments earlier, but Kim Jin-Woo didn’t object to the request.

[The parasite’s special ability, ‘Detection’, has found something.]

Multiple messages started popping up in front of his eyes. He slowly looked around as he pretended to adjust his posture. Unnatural clouds of darkness started forming from surrounding passages, twice the size of those on the 9th Floor.

Their formation was so subtle that he wouldn’t have noticed if not for the parasite’s warnings. As he began to pay closer attention, he could make out some figures in the darkness.

At least ten pairs of eyes had been watching the ascent. It was obvious that those who had been secretly following the procession without even alerting the Hero-Grade mercenaries were servants of Baron Horace.

“Someone has come to meet us. Drop your weapons and bow.”

At the words of the Black Merchant, the escort mercenaries all bowed their heads in unison. From the passageway, there was something coming their way.

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