Chapter 193. Hierarchy (1)


A lonely castle stood on a cliff somewhere near the Mediterranean Sea. It stood there for a hundred years without belonging to anybody before a man of wealth purchased it as his vacation home a year ago.

Its appearance preserved the style of the Middle Ages.
But in contrast to the fancy exterior, it was completely empty inside.
In a room without a single piece of furniture, a conference was currently taking place.

“…There was some resistance, but we achieved our goal.”

The secretary in a neat suit bowed.

“That’s good.”

A low, solid voice filled the room in return.

“You did well.”

“…Thank you, Chairman.”

In the deepest part of the old castle was a single throne.
There sat an elderly man.
His name was Joochul, also known as Changdo, the owner of Daehyun which wielded great influence in all of South Korea, and the head of the Chae family, considered to be one of most prestigious families.
Chae Joochul sat, filling the empty room with only pressure and his presence.

“However, we are still unable to identify them. They are too human-like to be considered Djinns, but much too violent to be considered humans.”

Today, the secretary’s report was unusually long.
Something that was neither Djinn, monster, nor human.
Something stronger than Djinns possessing intelligence equal to humans.
Chae Joochul listened with his eyes closed and grabbed the cane beside his throne.

“…Strange beings.”

Koong.
Chae Joochul’s cane touched the floor.
Immediately, a shockwave pulsed out. The magic power in the atmosphere trembled, shaking the entire castle.

“The Association exists to deal with such things. Just leave it to them.”

“Understood.”

The secretary nodded with respect.

“There is also another matter that requires Chairman’s attention.”

This time, a strange hologram appeared.
Seeing this, Chae Joochul’s face showed a faint change. Light flickered from his sharp, frowning eyes.

[Black Lotus]

It was a symbol Chae Joochul already knew.
It symbolized that the children who scattered long ago had resumed their activities. At the same time, it symbolized the roar of return of a pet he had once abandoned.

However, Chae Joochul didn’t feel anything. His heartbeat was just as slow as always, and his emotionless skin was as cold as ice.

“We’re currently in the process of contacting guilds and information agencies to gain information about him.”

“….”

Chae Joochul put his hand out without a word, and the secretary put a stack of documents on his hand.

“The first page is our top choice.”

[Truth Agency]

Chae Joochul had heard of the name of the information agency on the first page.
Truth Agency.
Its motto was swiftness and accuracy, and over the years, it had quietly become a giant in its field through its detailed and accurate reports.
Of course, as members of the Violet Banquet were generally selfish, the general public didn’t know about this agency.

“We planned to request this agency first and even sent them a message about it, but they’ve recently entered a hiatus. We believe they are in the middle of expanding their business and network of informants.”

“…Hm.”

Chae Joochul flipped through the documents one by one, then threw the stack away.

“…Don’t concern yourselves with it.”

Thinking about it now, there was no need to investigate them.
If they had memories of their past, they should be unable to bite him easily. After all, even an abandoned dog remembered their master.

Chae Joochul was about to end the conference… when a trivial curiosity struck him.

“…How is my granddaughter doing?”

“Young Lady Nayun is doing well inside the Tower. She is said to enter the top 100 ranking soon….”

“That’s enough. You can leave now.”

“Understood.”

At Chae Joochul’s words, his secretary disappeared like smoke.
Inside the huge, empty castle, the old man slowly closed his eyes.
Suddenly, he remembered the past when he still faintly had his ‘emotions’.

The rookies who introduced themselves as the Chameleon Troupe and dared to offer him a deal.
The children who were drunk on their unstable power and tried to grab onto his sleeve…
Unfortunately, the memory was too old for him to recall clearly.

Ssss–

At that moment, the small lamp lighting the room flickered off.
A thick darkness descended in the spacious castle.
Inside this darkness, Chae Joochul opened his eyes.
His eyes glowed with immeasurably deep magic power.


**


The leaves swayed in the blowing wind. From the ground, hot water bubbled and shot up. Gentle sunshine engulfed everything.

The footsteps of wild animals filled the quiet mountain.
I waited for Kim Suho to speak in midst of the peaceful scenery fit for classical music.

“…Kim Hajin?”

Finally, Kim Suho called my name.
Only then did I grin and turn around.

“Hey.”

“…Is that really you?”

“You bet. Stop spacing out and come in. I don’t have much time left.”

Above Kim Suho’s head was the number [216]. That was 16 hours more than me.
I’d guess that we were both equally courteous to the system. Kim Suho must have received more time because his alignment was ‘righteousness’.
As for me, I’d imagine my alignment was ‘neutral’ – perfectly fit for a side character like me.

“….”

Kim Suho came towards me without a word. He stopped right in front of the hot spring and awkwardly scratched the back of his neck.

“Come in.”

Once I said that, Kim Suho finally stretched his leg towards the water.

“You’re gonna keep your clothes on?”

“…Oh right.”

Kim Suho moved opposite me and took off his clothes behind the bushes. I couldn't see him, but I could hear the sound of his clothes falling on the ground. It was… how do I put it… quite unpleasant.

After placing his heavy leather armor and other garments on the ground, Kim Suho entered the hot spring.
We were finally face to face with each other.
Splash splash
Clearly dazzled by the sparkling water, Kim Suho splashed the water a few times with his hands before throwing me a question.

“…Where are we?”

“6th floor, the Hot Spring of Peace. The system should’ve told you that already.”

“It did, but….”

Kim Suho looked at me with suspecting eyes.

“What?”

“…Nothing. Anyway, it’s good to see you.”

Kim Suho suddenly raised his upper body and tried to approach me. I quickly reached out to stop him.

“Don’t come near me.”

“Hm? Why?”

“…Just because. I feel kind of uncomfortable.”

Kim Suho’s body was most likely flawless. Not only did he have the perfect body with well-balanced muscles, but his symbol of manhood should also be perfect. I wasn’t too bad myself, but I still didn’t want to compare myself to him.

“…Okay, sure.”

Kim Suho sat back down.
I started the conversation first.

“Has it been… 3 years?”

Kim Suho gave a small smile and shook his head.

“4 years.”

“That long?”

“Yeah. It’s been a while… Oh, by the way, thanks for the armor and guidebook. I’m still using the same armor.”

“That’s good.”

Silence followed.
It was our first reunion in nearly four years, yet we didn’t have much to say to each other.
It was really awkward, but that was okay.
I wasn’t here to have a little chit-chat anyways.

“By the way, Kim Hajin, are you the only one here?”

Kim Suho asked me first. From the suspicious look on his face, I could sense that there was a hidden meaning behind the question.

“Hmm? Ah~”

I quickly realized what he was referring to.
Right about now, everyone else should be thinking that it was ‘Black Lotus’ who entered the 6th floor first. Kim Suho was smart and knew how to read the air, so he must have perceived the connection.

“No. There was one other person besides me.”

I answered.
It was true that there was another person.
Kim Suho widened his eyes at my words.

“Then, Kim Hajin, you saw?”

“Saw who?”

“Black Lotus.”

The way Kim Suho spoke just now was somewhat boy-like.
Enjoying challenging a stronger opponent. It was one of the clichés for a protagonist.

“….”

I nodded in silence.
It seemed the notion that ‘Kim Hajin=Black Lotus’ didn’t exist in Kim Suho’s mind. It must mean he trusted me that much. There was no need for me to shatter his faith.

“Ah~ Then, Hajin, did you fight the Black Lotus?”

“…Huh?”

Kim Suho’s eyes began to twinkle all of a sudden.
Well, I was indeed in a constant battle against myself over smoking, but….

“No wait, maybe you won? After all, Black Lotus isn’t here and you are.”

“…Well, no. I didn’t need to fight him. The 6th floor is huge, and the time given to each player is different. I just caught a glimpse of him. Just the hair.”

“Ehh… You’re lying.”

I managed to come up with an excuse, but Kim Suho kept teasing me.

“Oh, whatever. Anyway, you do know that you have to train for 216 hours here, right?”

In an attempt to change the topic, I got straight to the point.

“Hm? Oh. Yeah, judging from all the buffs, that sounds reasonable. And I already found the 7th floor ticket.”

Kim Suho took out the ticket from his inventory.

“But you know what they say, ‘never hastily spend what you earned with ease.’”

“Exactly.”

But that still wasn’t enough.
Kim Suho needed to become stronger than he was in the original story. Today, I was even willing to sacrifice myself. Anything that was good for him was good for me as well.

“I don’t have much time left, so I’ll be quick. Listen carefully.”

First, the Hot Spring of Peace.

“If you meditate here, your stats will increase really fast. So spend at least 3-4 hours here every day doing breathing exercises.”

Kim Suho knew an effective breathing exercise. It was a unique technique that he learned in the Otherworld. During his stay here, he should be able to easily raise all of his stats by 3 points.

“Also, to the right of this place, you’ll find a bamboo forest that looks like it’s made of jewels.”

Next, the Jewel Forest. Then the Dark King Mountain Range… I taught him all the places that he could use for training. This should have saved him the 12 hours that he otherwise would have spent looking for information.

“…You got it?”

“Y-Yeah. I took notes through the system.”

“Good. And here.”

I had only 3 minutes left.
There wasn’t enough time for me to explain anything else.
Lastly, I took out the Stigma Crystal.
There were 8 crystals in total.
I extracted 2 crystals every day and saved 8 just for Kim Suho.

“What are those? Gemstones?”

“They’re really good medicine that speeds up your growth. Take one every day.”

[Lv.4 Origin Mana Crystal – Growth Bonus]
○Lv.4 Stat Increase Bonus
–Upon consumption, you receive 7.777% growth increase for 24 hours (Only valid on 6F)

“…Eh?”

Suddenly, Kim Suho’s expression became somewhat strange. Even his cheeks appeared rosy, perhaps due to the hot spring.

“W-Why are you looking at me like that?”

“Huh? Oh… It’s just that… I’m really grateful, but why are you doing all this for me? Did you know I’d come here? How come your explanation is so detailed? I’m moved.”

“….”

Fair questions.
But as my time was almost up, I didn’t have time to answer any of them.

“…Don’t worry about that. Just start training.”

Again, what I wanted was for this Tower and reality to not stray far from each other.
In other words, I want this Tower to coexist with the outside world.
To make my wish come true, I needed Kim Suho’s help. That was why I was helping him out.
In any case, I did everything I could.
The rest was up to Kim Suho.

“It was good to see you.”

The moment I finished talking, system windows popped up.

[0:00]
[Time is up.]
[Returning to the 5th floor.]
[You can no longer enter the 6th floor.]

“Hey, wait….”

Kim Suho was trying to say something, but my vision distorted before I could hear him. The warmth of the hot spring disappeared in an instant, and I felt cold ground beneath my feet.
Icy wind blew past me and my whole body trembled.

[5F, Materialized Demon Realm]

I was back on the 5th floor.

“Ugh, so cold.”

I took out my gear from the inventory and put them back on. Then I tried to use the ticket to the 7th floor right away.
However…

–Boom!

Suddenly, I heard a loud bang coming from a distance.

“Whoa! …What was that?”

The sound was too big to ignore.
I scouted the area with the Thousand-Mile Eyes. It was pretty far, but everything was clear as crystal to me.

“Oh?”

There was a huge fight.
And not just one or two.
Or three or four.
A group of almost 20 Players was creating a real chaos.
I couldn’t really grasp the situation.
All I knew was that everyone was fighting against everyone else in the midst of pandemonium.

“…Hmm.”

This wasn’t on my schedule, but I couldn’t simply ignore it.
I approached quickly. Watching others fight was fun and all, but I recognized many familiar faces as well.

I drove the Dwarven Supercar and arrived at the site of the fight soon enough. I didn’t want to get caught up in the fight, so I climbed to the top of a nearby mountain and observed the battlefield below.
Other Players were also watching the fight from a distance.

“…Wow.”

The most notable Player was without a doubt Cheok Jungyeong.
Simply put, he was a war god, a monster shrouded in high-level equipment that I had given to him. The price people had to pay for messing with the monster named Cheok Jungyeong was too great.
KWANG–!
BOOM–!

With just one punch, the earth cracked and a huge explosion burst into the air.
Most Players couldn’t even dream of approaching Cheok Jungyeong, and even Aileen struggled to stop him with her Spirit Speech.

“Hajing.”

I was completely absorbed in Aileen and Cheok Jungyeong’s fight when someone grabbed at my sleeve.
I glanced back, but nobody was there.
A ghost? I was getting goosebumps when a voice came from below.

“Over here.”

I lowered my gaze and discovered a little girl.
A Caucasian, maybe 6 or 7 years old. Her skin was fair, and she had beautiful blonde hair.

“…Who are you?”

The girl gave a lopsided grin, seemingly unfit for her age.

“It’s me~ Jaaiin~”

“…Huh?”

**


Jain revealed the whole story.
Apparently, a quarrel broke out between the three members of the Chameleon Troupe and the party made up of Aileen, Jin Seyeon, Yi Yongha, and Shin Jonghak. All because the crystal stele that the Chameleon Troupe found was a special one.

“Mm. So it doesn’t work as a checkpoint, but gives out quests instead.”

A quest-giving crystal stele.
Rewards from quests were quite decent, so fights often broke out over quest-giving crystal steles on the 5th floor.

“Kest~? Ah~ It did give us a kest.”

Jain, disguised as a child, answered.

“What was it about?”

“Protecting the crystal stele for 3 hours. The reward ish a special skill book called ‘Secret March’.”
“Ah~”

Well that was understandable. Secret March was a good skill. I would’ve fought if I was in their shoes, too.

…In any case, the aggressive fight between the Chameleon Troupe and Aileen’s party over the quest captured the attention of many Players.
Of course, most Players wouldn’t dare to intervene, but a few Djinns, blinded by the reward, didn’t keep away.

Evil Society’s ‘Kim Hakpyo’, Satan’s Servant’s ‘Kim Oh-Sung’, and other famous Djinns and their followers had bravely jumped into the fight.

“…What about you, Jain?”

“I~ ran awaay~ I didn’t wanna fight~”

The way the young Jain spoke was quite amusing. Her way of talking was the same, but her pronunciation was funny and her voice was high-pitched.

“…By the way, is that what you looked like as a child?”

“Ah? Yeah.”

“Doesn’t a child stand out more?”

“That’s true, but people hesitate before attacking me in this state~ And when they do, it’s the end for them~ Because I’ll kill them first~”

Um.
Such harsh words didn’t suit her cute appearance.
Anyways, I formed a bow with Aether.
A black bow, quite refined in design. People might even mistake it for a peak-grade artifact.
And the reason I took out this bow was, of course, to participate in the fight below.
I nocked 5 arrows on the bow and pulled on the bowstring.

“You’re gonna shoot them?”

“Yeah. Just the Djinns.”

“Hajini reaallyy hates Djinns~ Always trying to kill them~”

I gave a small smile.
Although I hadn’t anticipated this kind of situation, it was a good chance. Djinns that I’ve been wanting to get rid of were all gathered in one place.
I only let them be because killing them one by one would be a waste of time.

“Jain, you get out of here first.”

I infused 2 streaks worth of Stigma’s magic power into the bow and the arrows. Woong– The bow resonated with my magic powers and glowed darkish red.
I planned to shoot from multiple angles.
The five arrows would kill exactly 10 Djinns.
Well, maybe not Kim Hakpyo and Kim Oh-Sung. They knew how to take a hit.

“But, if you shoot from here, won’t you stand out?”

“It’ll be fine if I run away right after.”

“How?”

I smiled.

“You’ll see.”

I just had to use the 7th floor ticket in my pocket right after shooting the arrows.

“Okay. Then I’ll get going~”

Jain disappeared with quick steps.
I waited for her to get far enough, and then let go of the bowstring.

Chwaaak–

Each of the five arrows, wrapped in Stigma’s magic power, stretched in different directions towards the targets.
It happened in less than a second.
The arrows danced in the middle of the battleground.
There were no noises, no screams.
The victims fell to the ground without even knowing what had happened.

Chweeek–

The arrows returned to me after completing their tasks.
The moment I retrieved the arrows, I tore the ticket in half.
Before others could locate me, my whole body shook violently.

[Entering the 7th floor.]

And, a system window appeared.

[Welcome to the 7th floor, ‘Game Center’.]

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