Chapter 123. Timing Game (3)

“Hic…. Hic….” A sorrowful cry rang out.

A white-haired girl wearing a white headband was sitting on the grassy field. She was Seol Jihu’s comrade from Stage 1, and someone who had given him valuable advice to help him arrive at his answer.

“Huang….”

This girl was currently crying in a suppressed voice with her head buried between her knees. Seol Jihu’s pity increased as her sorrowful weeps continued to ring out.

He slowly reached out to console her but paused before his hand touched her shoulder.

“….”

After retrieving his hand, Seol Jihu bit down on his lower lip and looked around the field. He could see several people standing in their own groups, and as they all had their weapons out, a rather hostile, belligerent air flowed in the area.

Moreover…

‘How?’

110 people. That was the number of people currently left in Stage 2.

There were 166 people when Stage 2 began, and the number had dwindled by 56 in just two days. They had either run away or were forced to sacrifice themselves.

‘How did this happen?’

He furrowed his brows before slowly closing his eyes. Seol Jihu quietly began to recall the events that happened in the last two days.

*

First day.

The remaining participants of the Banquet had sent an advance team into the Plaza of Sacrifice in exchange for allowing four of their comrades to exit.

The result was a total failure. As all twenty members of the advance team perished, those waiting outside were not able to recover any information.

That wasn’t all. The advance team had consisted of Evangeline Rose, a High Ranker, and a large number of Level 4s. The fact that they were wiped out was not something that could be ignored.

Almost 12% of the total force, including an elite among elites, had fallen without achieving anything. The situation quickly worsened after that.

The pit continued to spit out one corpse after another, and sand continued to fall from the hourglass.

It was a confusing situation, but there were people like Seol Jihu who tried to act calm.

Kazuki quickly moved while carefully examining the corpses. He scrutinized several of them and finally, after picking up the decapitated head of Evangeline Rose and inspecting it, he came to a conclusion.

“A Devourer….” He muttered quietly with a troubled voice.

“Damn it! The condition was a trap.” He murmured like he was talking to himself, but as Seol Jihu was standing next to him, he could clearly hear him.

“A trap?”

Kazuki glanced to the side and nodded gently, “Devourers are one of the most powerful undead monsters. They’re especially frightening because of their strange sexual inclination towards the living.”

‘Sexual inclination toward the living?’ Seol Jihu didn’t understand what this meant, but he didn’t ask to find out. He felt like that was the better choice.

“Saying that only six people are needed when something like this comes out…. I can only think of it as a trap.”

“It would have been hard to defeat it even with twenty people?”

“Just one wouldn’t have been a problem. I don’t know how many of them appeared, but they wouldn’t have stood a chance if even ten of them came out.” Kazuki spoke firmly before making a worried expression. “…If only they had a High Ranker specialized for battle….”

Evangeline Rose was a Grand Pathfinder. As she had specialized in scouting abilities, her battle prowess was lacking in comparison.

In other words, this Devourer had to be a monster that even Kazuki couldn’t face easily.

“What’s the chance it’s a Lich?” At that moment, a familiar voice cut in. Oh Rahee was looking at them from a little distance away.

Kazuki shook his head, “Liches also covet the living, but since the organs of the corpses are severely damaged, Devourers should be the most likely enemy.”

“Hnng. Well, I trust you.” Oh Rahee muttered quietly before turning her head at a sudden cheer. Seol Jihu also turned his gaze, only to furrow his brows in the next moment.

A headless, naked body seemingly belonging to Evangeline Rose was rolling around the grass field. Next to it, Snake Eyes, or rather Audrey Basler, was picking apart her equipment one by one and evaluating it.

“Whoo~! As expected of a High Ranker. All of these are things I couldn’t even dream of buying because of their price…. Damn, her equipment really is as voluptuous as her body! Hm?” Audrey Basler giggled in joy.

Oh Rahee clicked her tongue before staring at the hourglass with narrowed eyes. More than half of the sand had already fallen.

“There’s no guarantee that Devourers will appear again, right?”

“No, but the difficulty should be similar.”

“Will you be going in?”

“…We will have to. All of us.”

“Good. Get ready.” Oh Rahee moved as soon as she heard Kazuki’s answer.

“Seol.” Kazuki placed his hand on Seol’s shoulder and whispered into his ear, “Listen well. Soon, no matter how it happens, the people remaining on the field will enter the Plaza of Sacrifice.”

“Yes.”

“Don’t go in first. Wait for a bit and enter around the middle. And from this moment on, whether you’re inside that pit or outside, never stray far from your comrades. Got it?”

Kazuki’s deathly serious expression made Seol Jihu nervous.

“Got it.”

“Good. I’m going to look for Hugo and that person. You bring Maria and Chung Chohong here.”

Hearing Kazuki say that the team should first meet up, Seol Jihu nodded his head immediately.

Soon, the Umi Tsubame and Carpe Diem alliance met up. Now that things had turned out like this, everyone had no choice but to enter together.

The ones who realized this entered the pit even while feeling apprehensive, but the problem was with the ones who had no intention of entering Stage 3. They vehemently refused to go in.

The sand in the hourglass kept trickling down, and there wasn’t enough time to persuade them. In the end, the strong ones, who were in the majority, began to take a more forceful approach.

Could threats be considered a method of persuasion? Without giving the others a chance to speak out, they began to intimidate others into going in.

One man trudged into the pit, practically crying. With several Archers threatening to kill him if he didn’t enter, what other choice did he have?

The ones who entered from verbal threats had it nice. There were some who refused and stood their ground even when they were threatened by people vastly stronger than them. These people were dragged away by force.

One woman screamed and struggled desperately with all her strength, but Oh Rahee pulled her by her hair and threw her into the Plaza of Sacrifice.

And as more and more people were forcefully thrown into the Plaza of Sacrifice, the screams of protest began to die down.

With two or three minutes remaining, the majority succeeded in suppressing the minority and finally began to enter the pit with breaths of relief.

Meanwhile, Seol Jihu quietly stood on the sidelines. He had no other choice.

The weak, who had no interest in Stage 3, but were forcefully dragged into the left pit where they had a high chance of dying.

The strong, who refused to take the risk and sacrifice themselves.

He agreed with each side’s logic.

When the number of people remaining on the field diminished to only about a third, Seol Jihu walked toward the pit with a bitter face.

*

The inside of the Plaza of Sacrifice was chaos itself.

Since people were thrown in with the plan, ‘let’s enter first and think afterwards’, not a shred of orderliness could be found.

From the inside, The Plaza of Sacrifice wasn’t dark, but bright. Unlike how it seemed from the outside, it was spacious enough to hold a thousand people.

Around its circular wall were ten doors evenly spaced apart. It felt like they had entered an ancient Roman Colosseum.

Not as spectators, but as gladiators.

At that moment, seven doors simultaneously opened, and a shrill cry rang out.

Huaaaa-!

The cry was chilling enough to cover one’s back with goosebumps. Next, when Seol Jihu caught sight of the group of monsters trudging out of the doors, he scowled.

Over twenty monsters walked out of each door. Moreover, they were monsters he had faced once before.

Short, yellow fur covered their bodies. Even the smallest one surpassed two meters in length, and their sharp claws caught his eye.

That wasn’t all. He saw three or four with especially agile or muscular bodies. Soon….

“LIONERS!!”

The moment someone shouted out loud, the group of Lioners fiercely charged forward simultaneously.

*

The battle ended with the humans’ victory. Although Lioners weren’t easy opponents, with every participant in the Plaza of Sacrifice, the human force was nothing to scoff at.

There were several female Lioners, which surpassed Level 4 Warriors in strength, and even a few Lioner pack leaders, which were said to rival Level 5 Warriors in power.

But as expected of the famous biannual Banquet, there were many Level 4s on the human side, as well as a handful of High Rankers.

Although they suffered twelve casualties, the deaths had all occurred in the beginning when they were attacked before they could form a plan. Soon, when they came up with a formation and entered battle, the general consensus among the strong was that the battle was ‘better’ than they expected.

And once the battle ended, those who barely managed to escape with their lives checked the hourglass first.

The timing device had stopped. They waited for a few moments with great anxiety in their hearts, but the hourglass showed no sign of flipping over. Only then did they breathe a sigh of relief.

Conquering the Plaza of Sacrifice seemed to be the condition required to stop the hourglass.

Of course, they couldn’t set aside the possibility of the hourglass moving again. Sincerely hoping that this wouldn’t be the case, the worried participants began to search for members of their teams.

That was where the problem occurred.

142 people had entered the Plaza of Sacrifice. Since 12 of them had died, there should be 130 people remaining. But when they went and opened up the lid, only 128 people remained.

This meant two people had used the commotion to sneak into the Plaza of the Dissonant Wish.

“Those sons of bitches….”

The remaining people grit their teeth in fury, but it was impossible to capture those who had escaped.

Next, representatives of those who chose to focus on Stage 2 came together to hold a conference. Now that the hourglass had stopped, they felt the need to establish a rule.

The conference went at a snail’s pace.

Considering the sheer number of participants, it was obvious that there would be many differing opinions. But the biggest conflict was between ‘everyone should continue to go in’ and ‘we refuse to go in’.

“You want us to go in there again? Isn’t that too harsh?” A male representative from the latter faction vented his anger.

“You are trying to be obstinate after experiencing what’s down there? It’s obvious what we should do!” And a female representative from the former faction struck back coldly.

In truth, judging only by the result, it was more effective for everyone to go in.

“I’m saying this precisely because I experienced it!” However, the man also had things to say. “People with huge backings like you all aren’t the only people coming to this Banquet! You might be working in carefully formed teams, but we are working as individuals! The average level of your side is between Level 4 and 5, but it’s between Level 2 and 3 for us!”

“So what is it that you’re trying to say?”

“Speaking bluntly, didn’t you play by yourselves in the previous battle?”

This time, the woman became speechless.

“You forced us into the pit so we could fight together, but when the battle started, you acted as if we didn’t exist! If we enter again, we will be the first ones to die. Would you enter if you were in our shoes?”

“Aigo~ Cry me a bucket, will ya? It’s your fault for entering the Banquet with your measly skills.”

“We know how weak we are. That’s why we’re saying we’ll quit and leave!” The woman’s snarky remark was met with an angry rebuttal.

“Then what are you saying we should do!?” The woman also raised her voice.

“…Whew, fine. Let’s do this.” The fuming man took a deep breath and spoke. “You don’t want us to enter the Plaza of the Dissonant Wish because it might ruin your chance of entering Stage 3, correct?”

“….”

“Then it’s simple. We will not enter the Plaza of Sacrifice. In return, we will enter the Plaza of the Dissonant Wish last.”

“What?”

“I’m saying we’ll go in after you all. Doesn’t that solve the problem?”

“Ha!” The woman laughed as if she found the statement hilarious. “Are you trying to pretend the Dissonant Wish doesn’t exist? You’re telling us to sacrifice ourselves!”

“In my eyes, this is much more humane than what you suggested, which is to use us as meat shields!”

“Humane? You’re trying to discuss humanity in Paradise? Besides, who’s going to ensure that you won’t run off to the Plaza of the Dissonant Wish while we are toiling away to beat the Plaza of Sacrifice?”

The man thought for a moment before opening his mouth, “If you’re that worried, just have someone monitor us.”

“Hilarious! To monitor dozens of people on your side, we’ll need ten to twenty people from our side. You really expect us to do that when even one person is vital to our survival?”

“You don’t like this, you don’t like that. What the hell do you want us to do?”

“I’m telling you to pay if you want to eat.”

In truth, the man’s offer was a good compromise if it was changed just slightly. No, it could have been a good compromise. If the strong faction had a few more people, then they might have seriously considered it.

But with one High Ranker and nineteen Level 4s perishing in vain, there really was no room left for compromise.

Just missing the ones who didn’t want to enter would create a huge gap in their overall prowess, and to top it off, if even the strong were left out, the burden on the remaining fighters would become too big.

Thus, following the man’s suggestion was out of the question.

Seol Jihu pressed his temples. Watching the conference unfold, he felt like he was staring into a horizon stretching endlessly into the distance.

With the situation being what it is, one might expect some compromise from both sides, but that wasn’t happening because both sides were yelling at the top of their lungs to not lose a single inch.

“Do you really think we’re asking for your opinion because we can’t force you?”

“Well…. Fine, try it. Even a worm squirms when you step on it. You think we’ll just sit still?”

As the atmosphere began to take a violent turn….

“Now, now! Calm down, everyone!” A man with an aquiline nose and slicked-back hair cut in. “It’s nice to voice each side’s opinions, but let’s not be so hostile. What if a catastrophe similar to the one from the fourth Banquet breaks out?”

Hearing this, the bickering man and woman turned their gazes with dumbfounded expressions. This was because this slick-haired man was the same man who was the most passionate in suppressing the minority before the first battle.

“The sun’s setting soon. Why don’t we call it a night?”

Speaking of which, the sun seemed to rise and set in this place as well. The grassy plain was currently dyed orange by the evening glow.

“I think everyone is too worked up. Let’s cool our heads a bit.”

“What if the hourglass flips while we’re lounging around?”

“There are more than just one or two people keeping an eye out on that thing. If that happens, we’ll just meet back up quickly. Besides, we need to rest too. Otherwise, we won’t have the energy to fight.”

He certainly wasn’t wrong.

Those who cleared Stage 1 towards the end had not rested a single moment. Everyone likely needed some time to recharge.

Thus, to calm down and to eat, the conference was adjourned, and the different groups formed their little campsites around the field.

That was a mistake.

The incident broke out towards the end of the evening when the tension had loosened slightly.

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