Highly pure Magic Stones were a base material for crafting higher-grade artifacts. Buyers were limited, so their price was usually constant. However, despite the exorbitant price that Yeon-woo offered, the mysterious merchant still purchased the stones. That meant that there was a sudden increase in demand for Magic Stones. Since the number of rankers wouldn’t have changed so drastically, there was only one conclusion: ‘They need to mass produce higher-grade artifacts. There must be a war.'
When his brother had been in the Tower, Arthia had been targeted by numerous clans and rankers due to their rapid growth. Their enemies ended up forming an alliance which led to Arthia’s downfall. It had been a long time since Arthia disappeared, and the alliance had crumbled, leading to confrontations among the various clans and rankers.
No major conflict must have taken place yet since it would have affected the Tutorial to some extent. But it was clear that preparations were happening behind the scenes. The arms race was proof. 'That’s right. They may have made a temporary alliance in order to face a common enemy, but peace never lasts among a bunch of wolves.’ Yeon-woo laughed happily at the thought. The more they bit each other, the more vulnerable they would become. ‘But it’s not time yet.’ Yeon-woo hadn’t even made it inside the Tower. It would be a while before he’d have a chance to tear at their throats.
* * *
Kahn and Doyle were astonished at Yeon-woo’s ability to haggle, and at the same time they were glad that all the troubles were finally over. Now that they had Hargan’s Crown in their hands, all their efforts, like going all the way back to Section B’s waiting room, had paid off. It was time to move on to the next stage.
Kahn and Doyle discreetly exchanged glances with each other, already close enough to understand each other's feelings without having to talk. Kahn came forward and asked Yeon-woo, "What are you going to do now?"
“What do you mean?" Yeon-woo turned to look at Kahn while fastening his dagger to his belt.
"I’m talking about your plans. What's your next move? You must have collected tons of Tokens by now. Are you gonna go straight to Section F?"
Yeon-woo did not answer right away. Instead, he quickly checked the Tutorial rankings.
[1. Edora (63,101 Points)
2. Phante (57,612 Points)
3. Kahn (55,212 Points)]
[52. Unknown (32,594 Points) (You)]
‘That is around a 10,000-point increase.' His rank had suddenly jumped from 150th to fifty-second place. The Tokens he’d earned from the trade must have contributed, since it was such a breathtaking leap. ‘Even still, the gap between me and the top ranker…it’s crazy.’
However, Phante’s karma points were almost unchanged, and thanks to the 5,000 points he’d earned from the Hargan's Lair quest, Kahn was now only a short distance behind. However, Edora was a different matter altogether. Perhaps he was farming points or perhaps he was just determined to stay at the top as much as possible, but he’d somehow managed to gain another 6,000 points. However, Yeon-woo didn’t think it was impossible to pull ahead of him. ‘I still have my ace in the hole.’
The guy that dwelled in Section E was the best hidden piece in the Tutorial, the target Yeon-woo had set his sights on from the very beginning. ‘It’s time.’ The vessel was complete, and he had everything he needed. Yeon-woo was going to part ways with the others and head to his goal. Besides, he had seen the pain his brother had gone through, and he had a great distrust of teams and clans. In the end, he shook his head. "No. I’m not going to Section F just yet."
Kahn visibly brightened. "Then, do you want to—"
"But I have something to attend to."
Kahn was interrupted in mid-sentence. "Something to attend to?"
Since Kahn was lost for words, Doyle intervened. "Hyung, there’s something we’ve been wanting to ask you. Will you come with us?"
"Come with you?"
"Yes. Until the Tutorial is over. No, even after we enter the Tower." Doyle’s eyes gleamed as he looked at Yeon-woo. "In fact, Kahn and I have talked about this a lot. You and us, we really click together. And we achieved more than we had expected, right? Maybe if the three of us team up…" A flurry of words escaped Doyle in his excitement.
However, Yeon-woo was empathic. "No. I can’t."
Doyle asked discreetly, "Can I ask you why?"
"As I said, I have something I need to do."
"If that's the case, you can still join us later after you take care of it…”
Yeon-woo calmly shook his head. "I'm not really interested in being part of a team. I don't like being tied up."
"Is that so? OK." Doyle's shoulders drooped. He was so sad he almost looked like a puppy in the rain. Kahn stood next to Doyle and patted him on the shoulder. "We can't help it. People have different personalities. It’s not like we can force him to stay with us. And things like this are gonna happen more often once we get in the Tower. Anyway, you're still staying with us until we get out of here, right?”
Kahn gave a big laugh and turned towards the exit. "Then let's get out of here. People are waiting outside."
* * *
The northern swamp was very wide, and it took a long time to get out of it. There were also a lot of Lizardmen wandering around, so Yeon-woo decided to accompany them until he got out of the swamp.
The other players straggled after the three of them knowing that they would be dead men if they were separated from the three. However, remembering Kahn’s conflict with Brend, they kept their distance out of fear. Eventually, the situation became extremely awkward, and even Kahn and Doyle grew uncomfortable with it.
"What are you going to do with all those people?" Yeon-woo asked, taking a quick peek at the players behind them.
Kahn and Doyle also looked perplexed, and Kahn sighed lightly. "Well, we can’t do anything about them for now. We'll have to escort them out of this swamp.”
As a matter of fact, Kahn and Doyle also had somewhere to go, just like Yeon-woo. Now that they had Hargan’s Crown, they didn't have any reason to hang around, and time was ticking until the Tutorial’s end.
"It’s not your duty to keep them safe."
"Hey, I have a human heart, you know? How can I leave them here?" Kahn scowled at Yeon-woo, who stared back calmly. A human heart in the Tutorial—this was something that had struck him as weird. On one hand, Kahn and Doyle could be stern, but on the other hand, they were too soft. They were too nice to other people, and that was dangerous. Not to mention that they were currently in a place where a lot of Hyenas were just looking for a chance to bite off their heads.
Yeon-woo had a lot of advice he wanted to share, but he decided not to say anything because it was obvious that they wouldn't listen. Also, he would have to leave them soon.
* * *
It wasn't long before Yeon-woo's concerns turned out to be real.
"Um, c-can you, uh, give me some food?” It wasn't a big deal at first. All the people did was to hesitantly approach to beg for food. Since they’d been held captive, they hadn’t had a chance to eat properly. Doyle apologized for not sharing food ahead of time, and he handed out some of his supplies.
The player hugged the jerky he received tightly in his arms and returned to his seat. When the eyes of the other players focused on him, the player made eye contact with Ethan and nodded silently to let him know his plan was feasible.
'Is that so?' The corners of Ethan’s mouth curved up. He’d ordered the player to beg for food to test the situation. ‘I had a feeling they were a couple of pushovers when they tried to take care of so many people.’
The plan Ethan had presented to Brend was very simple. “My teammates and I will make a scene to slow them down. And then, you’ll come forward and ask them for a break. Do you remember where the three rocks are positioned outside the swamp? Lead them that way.”
“What happens after that?”
“The three of them must be exhausted from raiding the Lizardman King, so I bet they won’t say no. Then, while we’re on a break, my friend is going to make his move. And then...you know what happens after that, right?” Once they’d lured Yeon-woo’s party to the designated location, he was sure they would be able to catch Kahn and Doyle off guard. ‘From my observations, it's a perfectly feasible plan.”
Ethan's trait was Perception, which gave him the ability to understand other players’ personalities and tendencies after observing them. Thanks to this trait, Ethan had been able to reach Section E relying only on his wits and words, even though he didn't have any special skills. He had examined Kahn closely when he was humiliating Brend and figured out that what Kahn valued the most was neither money nor honor, but loyalty.
Everyone had different sets of values and standards, and when people’s values collided, they tend to believe that their own values were the right ones. In Ethan's view, the loyalty Kahn and Doyle valued could be easily exploited. People like them often got caught up in their loyalty and ended up digging their own graves.
They could have ignored the players or left them after rescuing them. However, they were protecting them out of a sense of responsibility. Kahn even disliked talking behind his teammate’s back. ‘In other words, as long as I don't cross the line, I can exploit them as much as I want.’
Ethan had sent his man to probe the location of that line, and now he was getting a better understanding of it. ‘Can’t touch your loyalty or your pride, is that right? Well, that’s easy. Hehe.’
However, something was weighing on his mind. ‘If there's anything fishy, it's him.' Ethan took a quick glance at the masked man who silently followed Kahn and Doyle. 'That guy...I can't read anything from him no matter how hard I try.' He was the one who was supposed to have made the biggest contribution in killing the Lizardman King. And yet, even with that much skill, his name strangely remained unknown in the Tutorial.
Usually, there was only one reason for this: a person who didn’t expose himself had strict self-discipline and could calmly judge a situation. Ethan’s trait did not reveal anything about Yeon-woo. More worryingly, whenever he observed Yeon-woo with his minions to try to discover more about him, Yeon-woo would turn his way and meet his eyes. He didn’t know if this was a coincidence or not, but the two cold eyes glittering behind the mask made Ethan feel as chills all over his body, as though they could see right through him.
However, that wasn’t enough to dissuade Ethan from carrying out his plan. There was no way Yeon-woo could have noticed them plotting something. 'That idiot Brend is gonna take the bullet for us and prepare the ground.’
Ethan scoffed at Brend’s stupidity. The plan he’d shared wasn’t the entire thing but only the first step. The important stuff would come after. It was a lie that he was only planning on distracting them while his friend stole some of their artifacts and Tokens. ‘Stealing isn’t enough. It’s Kahn and Doyle we’re dealing with. The third and the eleventh-ranked players! And the other guy is the one who destroyed the Lizardman King. If I can take them all down, taking the top spot won’t be just a dream.' Ethan licked his lips, his eyes glittering cruelly.
The most important part of the plan lay in the details and timing, and he was sure that the masked man wouldn’t be able to escape either. Ethan gave a signal to his minions, who suddenly began to throw tantrums.
"Kahn, my friend is not feeling well right now…"
"Can we slow down a little? I-I’m getting really tired."
"I’m sorry, but I need to use a bathroom."
Some people even lay on the floor and refused to move. "I’m not going to move anymore! I’m not! I’ve lost everything. If I go outside, I’ll just become food for monsters. I’d rather sit here all day!"
Kahn and Doyle were slightly annoyed. They had a long way to go, but these players were dragging them down. It was almost as if they were intentionally pulling them behind, and they’d grown from burdens to shackles. Doyle looked at Kahn to ask what they should do. Kahn frowned and sighed briefly.
It wasn’t like he couldn’t understand their feelings of hopelessness about their futures, but he couldn't indulge all of them. He even thought of giving away some of his Tokens and leaving them behind. It was at this moment that Ethan signaled Brend. 'Now!'
Brend had taken the role of representative, presenting himself as someone who could mediate situations. After nodding at Ethan, he slowly approached Kahn. “I think the long captivity has mentally exhausted them. I realize you are busy, but I’d really appreciate it if we could take a break here.”
Kahn stopped walking and contemplated the request. He looked at Doyle and Yeon-woo, asking for their opinions.
As he watched from behind, Ethan grinned wickedly. 'Come on, now. I’ve got lots of friends waiting for you to show up.’ It wasn't just a couple of players waiting in ambush—there were several troops with dozens of players, and even scavengers were waiting. As soon as they entered the designated spot, traps would activate and Kahn and the rest of the party would fall into their hands.
However, as he licked his lips with a surge of greed, Ethan felt the weight of someone’s stare. 'Huh?' He turned to see eyes curving behind a white mask. 'Is he…smiling?' At that moment, he immediately thought, 'We’ve been bust—’ He instinctively stepped back. He didn’t know how Yeon-woo knew, but he had to run away as quickly as possible.
Swish! He saw something flashing in front of him and with a sharp puck, he felt a stinging pain in the middle of his forehead, and the whole world turned red.