Chapter 121. Timing Game

“What is it?”

Seol Jihu asked nervously, and Kazuki slowly opened his mouth.

“I can’t find Jun.”

“Sakamoto Jun?”

Kazuki nodded as he puffed out white smoke.

“There are forty staircases in total. Assuming each labyrinth had eight people, that means at least 320 participated in this year’s Banquet….” As the end of his sentence trailed off, his expression turned more and more sour.

“36 teams made it up so far, so 288 people should be here.”

“Right, but they might have—”

“I know. But don’t you think it’s too harsh for only 165 people to have made it up here?”

Seol Jihu swallowed his saliva. Over half of the participants had perished or had been eliminated in Stage 1?

“There are still four teams left. I can only hope he’s just been eliminated.”

Kazuki smiled bitterly before asking for another cigarette. In response, Seol Jihu dazedly handed him the entire pack.

“Anyways, I heard you did well. The second team to make it up here, right?”

“Who told you that?”

“An Archer named Lara Wolff. She was praising you so much that I began to worry her tongue would dry up.”

Kazuki seemed to have gone around to exchange information the moment he came up. Seol Jihu silently regretted just sitting around and doing nothing.

Meanwhile, Kazuki glanced at the youth and saw his complexion sink.

“…Not really,” The youth muttered in a gloomy voice.

Kazuki tilted his head. From what he heard about the youth’s feats, he should have no reason to feel dejected.

“Did something happen?”

Seol Jihu hesitated for a long time. Then….

“…Leading people is really hard, huh.” He finally let out the sigh he had been holding in. “Things don’t work out the way you want. To be honest, I can’t even remember what I did.”

Kazuki must have been caught off guard as his eyes widened with a cigarette still hanging between his lips. However, that only lasted a moment.

“Yep.”

As the leader of Umi Tsubame, he couldn’t help but agree with the youth’s statement.

“You’re right. It is hard. After all, you have to unite people who aren’t like you and people who aren’t like each other.”

“Tough, huh….”

The reason Seol Jihu was so troubled was that he didn’t know what to do. He didn’t have regrets. Not a single thought of ‘I should have done this or I should have done that’ entered his mind.

Because of this, he couldn’t make any excuses. Even if he went back in time and restarted Stage 1 with the knowledge he had now, he wasn’t confident in bringing about a result better than this one.

“Mister Kazuki.”

“Mm?”

“There’s something I want to say too.”

“…I’ll consider it payment for this pack of cigarettes.”

Seol Jihu confessed his frustrations at Kazuki, who was a well-respected leader. Perhaps the youth wanted someone to listen to him, agree with him, and offer some advice.

Kazuki listened to the youth silently before saying, “Maybe the clothes didn’t fit you.”

Seol Jihu tilted his head in confusion.

“If I were you…” Kazuki continued immediately, “I would have revealed my identity first.”

“Why?”

“There is value in the name Carpe Diem. Plus, your name is a topic in itself.”

“They might think I’m just being cocky.”

“Only if you introduce yourself arrogantly. Depending on your attitude or the situation, things might have gone in a different direction.” Kazuki snorted. “The method you used to lead the six members of the group is persuasion. In other words, a gift of gab.”

“R… right.”

“Words have different weights depending on who says them. The words of a famous, authoritative person are different than the words of a nameless brat.” Kazuki muttered endlessly. “And fame is the strongest card in your possession. What’s wrong about using something you’ve built up fair and square?”

Seol Jihu became speechless at Kazuki’s logical reasoning.

“It’s only a guess, but had you revealed your identity at the beginning, their attitude might have changed. At the very least, they wouldn’t have looked down on you.”

“Is that really the case?”

“That’s what I did.”

“Ah.”

“You need to know your value a bit more,” Kazuki smirked as he saw the youth’s look of disbelief. “Well, despite me saying this… I don’t think what you did was bad.”

“Really?”

“You said Oh Rahee and the Viper, or rather Audrey Basler, were in your party, right?”

“Yes.”

“With those two… well…” Kazuki took a careful look around before speaking quietly, “It wouldn’t have been strange even if the team was torn to pieces. You did a good job just coming out in one piece.”

“….”

Seol Jihu trembled, feeling like he just heard something terrifying. “Do you know them?”

“Of course.” Kazuki’s face seemed to say, ‘How would I not know them?’

“Oh Rahee is a High Ranker, but she was famous even before she became one. She has a few infamous tales, so look into them if you’re curious.”

“Can’t you just tell me? You can just summarize them.”

“Figuratively speaking, she has the battle prowess of the God of War Zhao Yun, and the intelligence and political power of Sima Yi.”

Hearing Kazuki compare her to two of the most famous generals in Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Seol Jihu dropped his jaw. He asked, “How could there be such a cheat character?”

However, Kazuki was dead serious.

“What… what about Audrey Basler?”

“She is someone I would never pick to be a member of my team.” Kazuki spoke firmly, “If I were in your position, I would have either killed her, or abandoned her. I wouldn’t have considered any other option.”

“Why?”

“Because my life could be in danger if I let her be.”

Seol Jihu tilted his head, but when he remembered Snake Eyes’ color, he immediately agreed. Even as he was progressing through the labyrinth, he was more wary of Basler than Oh Rahee.

“Still, to say you’d kill her…. Isn’t there a way to bring her along?”

“Seol.” Kazuki sighed. “I’m not a murderous psychopath. I’m not saying I would kill for no reason. However, I also don’t think I’m wrong.”

“….”

“Of course, that doesn’t mean you’re right. Since you managed to pull it off, I won’t say you’re soft either.” Kazuki spoke sharply.

Then…. “But… your method might have been the right one for Stage 1.” He muttered with a voice carrying a hint of regret.

It was then. Ruffle, ruffle. The surroundings suddenly got noisy.

“One?”

Kazuki doubted his eyes. On one of the remaining stairways, a long-haired man climbed up to the mountaintop. He seemed to be about 2 meters tall, and his stature was also huge.

The problem was that he was plastered in blood. It was so much that even fresh blood was dripping down from the ends of his hair. His demon-like appearance made the surrounding people back off in shock.

Furthermore, the moment the man climbed up to the mountaintop, the 40 pillars emitted brilliant beams of light. The beams all shot toward the middle before forming a cluster.

Something was finally appearing above the empty mountaintop. In other words….

“A portal, huh.”

Stage 1 had officially ended.

“Mister Kazuki.” Seol Jihu asked as he watched other people gather around the glimmering light in groups, “There’s another thing I’m curious about.”

“If it’s just one, go ahead.”

“What did you mean when you said the clothes didn’t fit me?”

“I meant you should take off your mask.” Kazuki replied immediately.

‘Mask?’ Seol Jihu touched his face. What was Kazuki talking about?

“What kind of a leader do I look like to you?”

Hearing the sudden question, Seol Jihu pondered before saying, “Mm…. A cold, level-hearted leader who does everything that needs to be done?”

“Why do you think that?”

Seol Jihu didn’t answer right away, but he had a reason for this assessment.

Back in the rescue mission, Kazuki had found his younger sister after all sorts of hardships. However, he had cut her down without a shred of hesitation. This blade-like coldness left a powerful impression on Seol Jihu, who was shaken quite a lot at the time.

“Just like how each individual differs, leaders have their own styles.”

“Right.”

“You tried to lead people with words, but that wasn’t the method that fit you.”

“….”

“In my eyes, you’re not the ‘eloquent orator’ type or the ‘cunning strategist’ type. No, you’re more the instinctive type.”

He wore a calm expression, and his voice carried strength behind his words.

“You should find a style that suits your nature. You know, wear the clothes that fit you.”

After saying this, Kazuki got up. The portal had been fully opened, and people were entering it one by one.

“Nature…?”

“Yep. Do you remember? When you shoved your spear at my neck on Huge Stone Rocky Mountain.”

“That was—”

“In my eyes—” Kazuki twisted his body halfway and glanced back at the youth, “That state of madness you showed me is closer to your true self.” He smirked and then walked towards the portal.

‘A style that suits my nature?’ Seol Jihu looked at his Status Window and made a troubled expression.

‘A chaotic leader is a bit…’ He smacked his lips before standing up with his spear.

Just as he was about to follow Kazuki—

‘Huh?’

His chaotic mind suddenly became relaxed like a tranquil lake. It felt like the worries filling his head had all been washed away. It was a mystifying feeling. He had only exchanged a few words, but his body and mind had become more stable.

Seol Jihu came to realize something then.

‘So this is why ‘short-tempered’ doesn’t go away.’

One should never expect to get full with the first bite, and one needed more than pearls to make a necklace.

Dylan and Kazuki couldn’t have been well-respected leaders from the start. As Seol Jihu was only 26 years old, expecting to be on the same level as them would be too greedy.

‘Right.’

Seol Jihu wasn’t a full-fledged leader yet. He had only taken his first step. He had many things to experience and many things to learn. Today’s failure would only be one of the countless failures of the future.

When he thought about things this way, not only did he stop feeling so complicated, but even courage welled up inside him.

‘In Stage 2….’

He didn’t expect to be perfect. But he could try to do better by using the experience he gained from Stage 1’s failure.

Seol Jihu tightened his grip around his Ice Spear. Then, he confidently stepped towards the portal.

His heart began to pound once again.

*

The white light blocking his vision slowly dissipated. Seol Jihu checked his surroundings the moment he opened his eyes.

Thankfully, he wasn’t separated from his teammates like in Stage 1. He could see both Chohong and Hugo. This was surely good news, but he could also see over a hundred others.

‘165… no, 166.’ After remembering the bloodied man who walked up at the end, Seol Jihu slowly walked forward. He was about to sneak up to Chohong and poke her side when he felt someone tug at the hem of his clothes.

Glancing back, he saw Maria pulling on him.

“Stay still.”

“Huh?”

“The atmosphere is weird,” Maria whispered.

Seol Jihu looked around the area once again. Indeed, something seemed off. He couldn’t quite put it into words, but the air felt strangely heavy.

Even Chohong’s eyes were gleaming with a cold light. It was the same with Hugo. Their usual cheerful appearances were nowhere to be seen, and they were staring blankly into the air with the eyes of a hunter searching for prey.

Plus, they weren’t the only ones like this. Everybody he saw seemed to be seriously infuriated, adding to the area’s hostile atmosphere.

It didn’t take long for him to realize something must have happened during Stage 1.

‘Wait!’

He remembered that he started to feel bad after Stage 1 ended. If he didn’t vent his pent-up frustration by talking with Kazuki, he wouldn’t have been any different than the people here.

‘This place….’

When he activated his Nine Eyes and looked around the area, he couldn’t hide his shock.

He was in a meadow, an open field where green grass gently swayed from a light breeze. All of the remaining 166 participants had been thrown into this vast plain.

Of course, the grass wasn’t the only thing here. At a spot close to where they were teleported, there were two large holes about 2 meters in diameter. They were about 10 meters away from each other, and a rectangular stone stele was standing between them.

And above this stone stele was a familiar object — a giant hourglass.

‘What is that?’

People, who likewise finished surveying the area, either approached the stone stele or watched it attentively. It was then…

DING—!

An intense pain struck Seol Jihu’s head, similar to when he went through Synchronization. Muffled groans rang out from the surroundings, but the strange phenomenon only lasted a moment.

Seol Jihu was pressing his temples when he realized that information he didn’t have before was etched in his brain, and his eyes widened.

‘Information was… planted in my brain?’

Clearly, previously unknown information had been forced into everyone’s brains. But as Seol Jihu had experienced something similar before, he wasn’t too taken aback.

He closed his eyes and focused on the new information.

[1. The Plaza of Sacrifice (Left)]
Activation Condition: At least 6 people must enter.
Difficulty: Static
—Exit blocked once entered.
—Exit automatically opened once all enemies eliminated or no challengers remain.

[2. The Plaza of the Dissonant Wish (Right)]
Activation Condition: The Activation of the Plaza of Sacrifice
—Activated every time the Plaza of Sacrifice is activated. At most 6 people can enter.
—Can acquire the Dissonant Wish
—Stepping on the red portal on top of the altar will transport the challenger to Stage 3 or Paradise. Leaving through the exit will return them to Stage 2.

[3. Miscellaneous]
—10 people can enter Stage 3.
—Successfully defeating the Plaza of Sacrifice 20 times will permanently activate the Plaza of the Dissonant Wish and disable the entree limit (All can enter).

After reading all the information available, Seol Jihu muttered out, ‘God damn it.’

There were several conditions to worry about, but the general nuance of the stage seemed to lie on getting to the Plaza of the Dissonant Wish. The question, of course, was ‘how’.

Frankly speaking, it was clear what these dirty conditions were trying to say.

Tang! Suddenly, a harsh crashing sound rang out.

The information was not finished. There was one condition left in the Miscellaneous section.

[If the Plaza of Sacrifice is not activated before the hourglass’s sand completely trickles down, a huge group of monsters will appear in the field.]

Seol Jihu opened his eyes. He began to see sand falling from the overturned hourglass.

“….”

Everyone’s faces contorted viciously as they stared at the stone stele.

A deadly silence ensued.

Sssss-!

While only the sound of sand trickling down rang out….

“S-Shouldn’t we hurry inside?”

A voice from somewhere made everyone stare at each other. The Timing Game had begun the moment the sand began to fall.

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