Chapter 86

One could practically hear the Black Merchant’s eyes spinning.

“What do you mean, the Black Tiger’s labyrinth?” the Black Merchant quickly regained his composure and asked.

Kim Jin-Woo smiled as he looked at the Black Merchant’s dark face. Before the Naga’s Fortress was known to anyone, the Black Merchant himself had come to his labyrinth, which no one else had been aware of.

And if the merchant had known about the Naga’s Fortress before anyone else did, he would for sure know the Black Tiger’s labyrinth. And seeing the Black Merchant feign ignorance meant there was more to the labyrinth than Kim Jin-Woo knew.

“There’s no way I would believe that you guys don’t know about that labyrinth,” Kim Jin-Woo said.

“We appreciate that you think so highly of us, but we’re just simple merchants,” replied the Black Merchant.

Kim Jin-Woo’s expression grew more serious in response to the Black Merchant’s polite deflections. He continued, “Let’s stop beating about the bush, shall we?” He continued to stare down at the Black Merchant without even blinking once.

It wasn’t long before the Black Merchant gave up and explained, “Urgh. You want to know about the Black Tiger’s labyrinth, yes? I’ve heard about it. It’s a newly formed labyrinth on the 5th Floor, but as it isn’t an area I’m in charge of, I’m not entirely familiar with the details. But I have heard of it.”

“Do the Black Merchants intend to trade with them as well?”

The Black Merchant gave a long, drawn-out sigh. “This is a first, even for us. So, we’re monitoring the situation. But if both parties can benefit, then there’s no reason for us not to trade with them. I’ve told you this in the past as well, but we’re simply merchants, and we go wherever there’s a deal for us.”

“What’s different from trading with me, then?”

“Well, trading with Milord is a private business, but should we start to deal with the Black Tiger’s labyrinth, we’ll have to think about the political end as well, no?”

“That may be true, but from the way you said it, it seems you guys are leaning toward trading with them anyway.”

“Well, I’m not the person in charge so I can’t say for sure, but yes, it does seem likely.”

Kim Jin-Woo rubbed his chin as he fell deep into thought. The Black Merchant panicked, thinking Kim Jin-Woo would make yet another unreasonable request...

And he was right.

“Then let me tag along,” Kim Jin-Woo finally said. The Black Merchant’s jaw dropped at the totally unexpected request, but he continued, “We’ve already traversed the 10th Floor together, so what harm is a trip to the 5th Floor? I’ll stay silent just like last time, so I hope you don’t reject my request.”

The Black Merchant was at a loss for words because of Kim Jin-Woo’s audacity.

***

Kim Jin-Woo was able to convince the Black Merchant to let him tag along, on the condition that Kim Jin-Woo would no longer hold him accountable for the dangers that had befallen the Naga’s Fortress after the delivery of Morrigan.

However, this didn’t mean that Kim Jin-Woo refused the compensation he was already supposed to receive.

Accountability was ambiguous and could always change with a twist of a word; despite that, the Black Merchant gleefully returned as though he had come out on top of this deal.

“I can’t help not being fooled by you when you make your intentions so obvious.” Kim Jin-Woo sighed and shook his head as he looked at the Black Merchant leaving his Fortress.

The Black Merchants were a mysterious group of merchants that had existed for a long time, and a group that not even the nobles dared to offend. And as they had dealt with all sorts of masters in the Underworld, it was unlikely that they were so easy to manipulate.

The fact that the Black Merchant seemed unable to tell that Kim Jin-Woo was making a concession was even more odd. He wasn’t very talented in trading, so it was clear that the Black Merchant was pretending to give in to all his demands.

‘The question is, what’s their purpose…’

All he knew about the Black Merchants was that they were immensely protective of their precious labyrinths. But aside from that, he had nothing else on the Black Merchants, such as where their headquarters were, or who their members were. As such, he simply had no idea what the Black Merchants were going after.

He thought for a long time with his head lowered. Frankly speaking, as long as both parties mutually benefited, it was fine to make use of each other.

Even if the Black Merchants did indeed show their true intentions later on, it was better for him to take what he could at the moment, and to not be overly concerned about matters that had yet to even happen.

<Master.> Dominique approached Kim Jin-Woo as he snapped out of his train of thought.

“Ah.”

<The storage has been organized.>

“Is that so? That means we have one last item to check,” Kim Jin-Woo said as he held out the Hero-Grade summoning stone.

***

[Malakai, Guardian of the Treant Clan (Hero-Grade), has been summoned.]

[Members of the Treant Clan, which has existed since ancient times, are now difficult to find in the underworld. They are unfathomably gentle and need terrestrial sunlight. Now that the area near the entrance of the Underworld has been occupied by humans, they have been in decline, as they have not been supplied with the energy they require. But even with such diminished power, they are still the most capable guardians of the labyrinth.]

[Treants, with their roots firmly planted into the earth, can detect vibrations from miles away. Their roots and branches are tough, and sharp enough to trap and crush intruders.]

[Treants prefer to stay rooted in one place for an extended period of time rather than moving around. Their excruciatingly slow speed is perhaps why they prefer to remain in one place.]

All the Hero-Grade mercenaries that appeared from the summoning stones were Treant Guardians. These giant trees, with their cracked bark resembling old deciduous trees, were terribly slow and sluggish, whether in terms of moving or talking.

“Maaaaaaaaasteeeeer, my looooooyaaa…”

“I’m going to flip out. I know what you’re going to say, so you don’t have to speak.”

Malakai’s voice was long and drawn out, like branches swaying with the wind. Just listening to his voice gave Kim Jin-Woo a headache.

“Urgh. He’s only good for defense.”

<But if we’re talking about the Treant Clan, they were once one of the strongest in the Underworld. Their strength and glory may have waned, but Anatolius has definitely not sent a useless item this time.”>

Just as Dominique said, when compared to other Hero-Grade members like Quantus, it was undeniable that the Treant Clan had stronger defenses than anyone else. And the sharp, endless volume of branches and roots that extended out from the Treants would definitely prove to be useful against invaders.

“But what’s this dud?”

Of the fifteen summoning stones Kim Jin-Woo had received from the Black Merchant, one of them hadn’t activated. And the more he looked at it, the more he realized that its color was dull, and the condition of the stone didn’t look good. He frowned as he inspected the stone further.

<Ah, this happens. Sometimes, while the summon waits inside its summoning stone, it can get exhausted from waiting to be summoned, and eventually fall into an everlasting sleep. If you’re lucky, they may wake up again, but the opposite happens most of the time, and the summoning stones become no different from down gems.”

“So, what you mean to say is that... this is defective?”

Kim Jin-Woo was annoyed that of the fifteen summoning stones that Anatolius had supposedly prepared for him, one had turned out to be defective.

He had half a mind to immediately recall the Black Merchant or to reach out to Anatolius to give them a piece of his mind, but the Black Merchant had already left, whereas Anatolius was holed up in his own labyrinth on the 11th Floor.

<Mmm.>

But Dominique’s reaction was odd. She stared at the defective summoning stone, like a gourmand staring at a delicious meal.

“What is it?”

<Ah, it’s nothing.>

But Dominique didn’t know how to tell a lie. Kim Jin-Woo looked at her in the eyes before asking her once again. “Dominique. I’m your master. And I don’t wish for you to lie to your master.”

<I… I apologize.> Dominique quickly lay prostrate.

“I’m not angry. I just want to know why you were making that face.”

At those words, Dominique slowly stood up. She carefully chose her next words before finally speaking. <Even if it’s a dormant summoning stone, the power it contains is still there. It isn’t as powerful as a highest-grade down gem, but it’s still certain to contain a lot of energy.>

“So?”

Dominique hesitated once more before seeing her master’s expression turn sour. She hurriedly replied, <Summoning stones can serve as a source of new life for beings of the Underworld. Consuming them can drastically increase one’s abilities and power.>

“Ah…!” Kim Jin-Woo exclaimed as he finally understood what Dominique was thinking of. Whether the summoning stone truly had such effects was yet to be known, but he was certainly well aware of the fact that Dominique was sad about the limitations of being a Naga Maid.

“Mm…” Kim Jin-Woo alternated between looking at the defective summoning stone and Dominique.

But he didn’t ponder for long as he said, “Here, take it.”

<M… Master?>

The summon would probably be impossible to recover, and asking for a refund now would make Kim Jin-Woo look cheap and classless. He had plenty of down gems to convert to dungeon energy, and there was absolutely no reason for him to be preoccupied with one defective summoning stone.

In addition, Dominique had been devoted to his labyrinth from the beginning. Even if she had requested for a functional summoning stone, he would still have given it to her.

“If you knew something like that, you should have said so from the start. I would have set aside a proper summoning stone for you,” Kim Jin-Woo said with a grin on his face.

Dominique teared up upon seeing that. She was overwhelmed by the infinite trust of her master, and the thought that she might be able to escape the limitations of being his maid.

<Master!> She couldn’t contain her happiness as she ran toward Kim Jin-Woo and gave him a tight hug. He started sweating as she expressed her joy with her whole body, with her tail wrapped around his waist.

At that moment, Angela appeared out of nowhere and pulled Dominique away from him. “How dare you do this to our Master!” Like the obsessive vampire that she was, Angela stared at Dominique with her rage-filled eyes, ready to strike.

“Stop!” Kim Jin-Woo called out. “Seems like it’s time for Angela to refill her life force as well.” With that, he slit the tip of his finger.

Even while blinded by jealousy, Angela was quickly enchanted by the blood dripping from her master’s fingertips and ran forward to suck on it.

Kim Jin-Woo looked at Angela, who resembled a baby breastfeeding off its mother, before blinking at Dominique.

<Thank you, Master.> Knowing Angela’s personality, Dominique quietly left instead of thanking him endlessly. She seemed to have realized that leaving them alone would be best for her master.

“Stop,” Kim Jin-Woo commanded.

“More, more, more!” Angela would always toss aside any dignity and decency when it came to her feeding sessions, and it was no different this time around as she clung onto Kim Jin-Woo.

But knowing that she had fed on him enough, Kim Jin-Woo gently pulled her away. “That’s it for today.”

***

Not long after Angela left, Dominique returned.

As she mentioned that she might not be around for a while, Kim Jin-Woo asked for an explanation.

<Consuming the summoning stone you gave me will take some time. During that period, I won’t be able to do anything else.>

“Hmm.” Knowing that there would be many things that would be left unattended should she be absent, Kim Jin-Woo was unable to give a quick response.

Dominique, sensing his dilemma, responded, <I’ve already taken care of all outstanding matters, and I’ve delegated most of the daily tasks to Angela. If it’s for a short while, she should be able to handle it.>

Truth be told, there was no need for Dominique to be present at the moment, and it wasn’t a bad idea to help her empower herself.

Considering her high level of devotion and loyalty, Kim Jin-Woo’s expectations were equally high. In the end, he allowed her absence, merely asking, “It won’t take long, will it?”

<It won’t take very long. It might even be shorter than expected.>

Seeing as she was unable to give a definite answer, it was likely her first time consuming a summoning stone.

“Is that so? Then, I’ll look forward to seeing you again soon.”

Sensing the slight regret in Kim Jin-Woo’s words, Dominique bowed deeply in gratitude before disappearing off to some part of the labyrinth.

***

It didn’t take too long for the Black Merchant to return.

“As I mentioned, I’m not in charge of the 5th Floor. As such, it seems you may have to follow another Black Merchant in this ascension.” The Black Merchant waved his hands as he finished his sentence, and from behind his back, a small imp appeared.

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Kona's Thoughts

Just a heads up that the chapter to make up for the missed chapter on Wednesday will be released about 6 hours later~