Chapter 20. Rewards Befitting One’s Achievements (3)

Seol saw the blonde maid who guided him in Area 1. But she wasn’t the only maid. A total of nine maids all wearing the same outfit stood there, their hands neatly folded and resting in front of their stomachs.

A lone woman sat in the middle of them all. This woman wasn't wearing a French maid outfit like the rest, which naturally drew everyone's attention towards her. It was unknown whether the lighting was to blame, but her silky hair reaching the arms of her chair had a bit of a sanguine hue.

A thick coat hung loosely from her shoulders; her eyes were closed and her arms crossed in front of her chest as if she was in a state of deep contemplation.

A short while later, all nine maids began clapping their hands in unison.

—Congratulations~ and celebrations~.

—When I tell everyone that you're in love with me~.

…They even started singing Cliff Richard’s famous song.

“What are they doing now?”

Someone from the back asked, sounding somewhat flabbergasted. Other people's reactions weren't all that different, either. They were all dumbfounded at this unexpected 'celebration' featuring a singing routine.

Eventually, the song came to an end. The eyes of the woman sitting in the middle half-opened. She slightly jutted her chin out, and as if she was appraising high-end luxury goods in a store, her eyes slowly swept across those sitting in the audience seats.

The inside of the theatre remained deathly silent. The reactions of those meeting her gaze were similar to one another – either they got nervous and lowered their heads, or sneakily averted their gazes. The sounds of saliva being swallowed could be heard here and there as well.

Her heated gaze that reminded one of a predator surveying its potential prey, caused subtle fear to rise up in the hearts of those meeting it.

Her crossed legs slowly unfurled. And when she elegantly stood up from her chair and walked leisurely towards the front, Seol got rather surprised by how tall she was – she was tall enough to stand shoulder to shoulder with a tall man.

The woman suddenly halted her steps and directed her gaze towards Seol's general direction. Or, to be more specific, towards where the survivors from Area 2 were seated. There, the girl who shared wordless greetings with Seol was raising her hand up in the air.

“Are you also a Tutorial guide?”

‘She can still ask a question even under such an atmosphere?’ thought Seol. He couldn't help but be impressed, and at the same time, slightly worried. Even he was feeling a certain unexplainable sense of danger from this woman. If he were to put it in words, she reminded him of a wild, untamed beast.

The tall woman didn't reply, simply standing there in utter silence and staring back. While her gaze never wavered, she reached inside the thick coat and fished out a cigarette. The light from flame catching on to the end of her smoke illuminated the darkness just enough for the scar extending from her eye down to her cheek to be highlighted in all of its glory.

If the girl was sensible enough to pick up on the awkward atmosphere, she would have lowered her hand already. But maybe she was either exceedingly brave or simply daring as she threw another question out instead.

“Or…. What should I call you? Who are you?”

The tall woman's head tilted slightly towards her back. A maid standing two spots to the left of Seol's blonde maid stepped forward.

“Area 2, Odelette Delphine.”

Upon hearing that name, the half-closed eyes of the tall woman opened up fully, and she shifted her gaze back to the girl, Odelette Delphine. Her red lips slowly parted and the thin blue smoke eased out.

“….Just call me Cinzia.”

The girl lowered her hand then.

“What have they been talking about?”

“That tall lady said that her name is Cinzia. And the person who asked the question must be named Odelette Delphine from Area 2.”

Shin Sang-Ah grumbled softly in a low voice, and Yi Seol-Ah proceeded to whisper back.

“Cinzia? Othello Delphine? What kind of names are those?!”

“I think Cinzia is an Italian name. And, um, it's not Othello, but Odelette….”

Yi Seol-Ah smiled awkwardly and tried to explain. However….

[The synchronization will now commence.]

Suddenly, a sharp and grating pain assaulted the brains of everyone sitting in the audience section without warning. Seol was in the midst of concentrating on Yi Seol-Ah's explanations and was caught off-guard. A heavy frown formed on his face as the pain attacked him relentlessly. Whimpers and moans came from pretty much everywhere as people began grasping their own heads.

Thankfully, the assault didn't last for long.

[The synchronization has been completed.]

As soon as that announcement was made, the pain washed away as if it was all a lie. Now suddenly freed from the brain-melting pain, the crowd fell into a state of chaotic confusion.

“I guess the synchronization was delayed somewhat. Oh well, I'm sure you can all understand me now.”

The tall woman who introduced herself as Cinzia was looking on as if she found this whole affair quite entertaining. She spoke so fluently that even native speakers would have been impressed. At a bare minimum, it sounded like Korean to Seol's ears.

Perhaps finding the stunned silence to her liking, the corners of Cinzia’s mouth rose up.

“It sure is much more preferable to filter them out at least once, right? If they started yapping on and on like a bunch of goddamn parrots, I'd have been really pissed off by now.”

Her steps rang around loudly as she started walking again.

“As a show of respect for you all not raising a fuss regarding the synchronization, let me inform you of something important before we start. I don't like beating around the bush. Also, you should have a general idea what this place is by now. So, I'll get straight to the point.”

Cinzia took a couple more steps forward and spoke up in a low but powerful voice.

“This place is the sanctuary created through the combined powers of the seven deities, called the Neutral Zone.”

Seol recalled Han's words after hearing that. The butler did wish for Seol to enjoy the kiss of lady luck in the Neutral Zone, didn't he?

“And in this place, all of you shall be given the chance to prove that you are capable of surviving in the Paradise. You've all received your Survival Points, right?”

Seol's points tally was 21500. Han confidently declared that it was the highest in history.

“Long story short, you must increase your points to over 1000. That is the only way to leave this Neutral Zone. Although we've prepared various methods to increase your points tally, we are not going to mind other ways you cook up yourselves. However, you only have one month to do so.”

A small commotion began rising up. After all, most of them present here heard that, as soon as they cleared the Tutorial, they would be allowed to enter Paradise. So, this was contrary to what they were promised.

Of course, there were few here that displayed a relaxed demeanor as well. These were the people who got to hear a more in-depth explanation beforehand, so they knew what was going on already.

“If you fail to gather the points in a month's time….”

“What is the meaning of this?”

The loud voice of dissent came from Area 4. A man with an imposing physique and a beard stood up from his seat. However, Cinzia only spared him a cursory glance.

“Hmph…. If you don't want to regurgitate that burrito you shoved down your throat before you got here, you'd better sit your ass back down. I really hate being asked a question in the middle of my sentence.”

The bearded man blinked his eyes in surprise for a few seconds before his expression crumpled in anger.

“The hell did you say? Watch your mouth, you spaghetti bitch!”

Cinzia threw her head back in a loud fit of laughter.

“Certainly a barbaric Mexican, ain't ya? You from the Sinaloa, right?”

“How do you know….”

“It's obvious. Out of those with the authority to recruit, the only one who can mass mobilize the Bronze Marks is found there.”

Cinzia's laughter abruptly came to halt and she beckoned with her index finger. The fourth maid from the left stepped forward and handed over a piece of paper to her.

“Let's see. I'm getting curious here if your results match that mouth of yours.”

Cinzia took a look at the paper, and a mocking smile formed on her lips.

“0 points? What? Is this real?”

The maid quietly nodded her head.

“You’re not even a Red Mark. Getting a 0 as a Bronze….”

Cinzia threw away the paper and coldly looked at the burly Mexican.

“I can't bother to talk to you again. Sit back down, burrito.”

“You…!”

“Sit. Otherwise, I’m going to make the ones who invited you regret it.”

The abrupt change in the tone of her voice was so eerie and terrifying that it roused goosebumps on all who heard it. The Mexican man shrunk back in an instant and collapsed back down to his seats unsteadily.

“…I think you're all misunderstanding something here.”

Cinzia continued to smoke without saying anything for while before sweeping her gaze across the audience seats with eyes belonging to a wild beast.

“The official title of this land is Lost Paradise. Got that?”

She emphasized the last part of her words. Specifically, the name.

“Did you all think that because it's called 'Paradise' that you'd get to ride in roller coasters and have a jolly good time? You all better wake up. If I were to compare this place to Earth, then the land you're about to step into is a battlefield full of gunshots and explosions happening every single day. This is a warzone, where you will be permitted to survive only after your enemies are all dead.”

She flicked the butt of the cigarette away and crossed her arms again.

“Just because you managed to somehow escape from a weakling monster, you think you got the right to bark at me? Don't you get the meaning behind the Tutorial? Don't get cocky. You better not fool yourselves into thinking that things you'll encounter in Lost Paradise are around the same level as what you experienced in the Tutorial.”

The reality of the situation must have sunk in as the small commotion died down almost immediately.

“That's right. If you understood, then keep your mouths shut, you useless bunch of woodpeckers.”

It was at this moment that a giggle escaped out from Seol's lips. He was seriously concentrating on Cinzia's words but couldn't help himself when she blared out the woodpecker bit. He realized he made a mistake right away and tried to cover his mouth – but he had already become the center of attention by then.

“You’re…”

A strange glimmer flickered in Cinzia's eyes.

“Oh, I see. Indeed, you may find all of this rather… adorable.”

“?”

“But, you should try to understand too. No matter how careful the selection process was, there will always be some dirt that manages to escape the filtering.”

Seol was expecting to hear an earful, but upon hearing her voice that seemingly asked for his understanding, he could only feel confusion.

“Well, this place will be the end of that anyways.”

Cinzia shifted her gaze back to Area 4's direction and giggled.

“You are going to go through a lot of hardship, that's for sure. To get to 1000 points from 0, now that isn’t going to be a walk in the park.”

Hearing this, several people began to flinch noticeably.

“This is the consequence of your own actions. Who told you to get a free pass through the Tutorial?”

Even Yi Seol-Ah's complexion wasn't so good. Her points only amounted to 46.

“Now that we're here, we might as well get the awards ceremony done and dusted too. If there's someone deserving of punishment, then there should be others deserving of rewards….”

Cinzia let off a lengthy groan and reached into her inner coat pocket.

“From now, if I call out your name, stand up. Area 5, Tong Chai?”

A thin man wearing a white turban stood up.

“You already meet the requirements. If you want, you can enter Paradise right away.”

“I choose to remain.”

“Then, take this.”

Cinzia threw something at Tong Chai. He easily snatched it off the air and asked her, full of curiosity.

“What’s this?”

“What, a member of the assassination squad is asking for info?”

An unreadable smile formed on Tong Chai's face as he sat back down.

“If you're really curious, then ask your maid standing behind me later. Area 2, Salvatore Leorda.”

This time, a man with a buzz-cut stood up.

Cinzia didn't bother to say anything and simply threw something at his way. The unexpectedly-youthful man caught it, bowed slightly, and sat back down on his seat.

“Area 7, Hao Win.”

One of the identically-kitted Chinese men, a man with good physique and looking somewhere around in the mid-thirties, stood up.

“Seeing how you carry yourself, I can easily guess where you're from. So, will you be staying?”

“That is a foolish question. I will be staying, of course.”

The man named Hao Win smiled refreshingly.

“Okay. And then…. Area 2, Odelette Delphine.”

“I'm also staying.”

The girl answered right away. She quickly caught the thrown item that drew a long arc in the air. She checked it and then, promptly raised her hand up high again.

“Excuse me for a second!”

“Mm?”

“I think you gave me the wrong one because it says No.2 on the plate.”

“Nope. I know full well that you earned 7500 points.”

Shocked and impressed gasps came from the various parts of the audience. Most of the crowd here stared at the girl with the white hairband with disbelieving eyes.

“If I deduct the 1000 Survival points you got as your starting bonus, then your original points tally is 6500. And your Silver Mark got you a Mark of Survival with the 5 times multiplier. So, you earned 1300 points during the Tutorial. Am I right?”

“Y, yes, you are right….”

“How regretful. That amount would have been enough to get you to the top of the rankings. But this time, it's only enough for the second place.”

The girl's jaw dropped. Quite likely, she hadn't thought of the possibility that someone else could've surpassed her in the points tally.

'Wait a minute? Didn't I also receive some Survival points as the starting bonus?'

Now that he thought about it, Seol did receive 5000 points in the assembly hall as starting bonus. It seemed that the points he got back then were not subjected to the multiplier effect of the Mark of the Survival. In any case, that meant the actual total of Seol's Survival points was not 21500, but 26500, instead.

“Area 1…”

“I'm staying.”

Seol quickly got up from his seat. The back of his head was getting really itchy right about now.

“How many points did that guy receive, then?”

“You shouldn't even ask. Just tallying up the original points alone, it's 2150. It's higher than yours by 850.”

“W, wow…”

'Doesn't she know any shame?!'

Seol inwardly complained while catching the incoming object. It was a key with a golden numeral '1' engraved on the attached plate.

“You know, I find it really amazing.”

Cinzia unexpectedly displayed a certain amount of admiration.

“It’s already impressive that your tiny country earned the right to recruit people independently, but now a second Irregular has appeared….”

Thanks to her declaration, the eyes that fell on Odelette was now firmly fixed on Seol. He really wanted to decline all this attention.

Finally, Cinzia gave out a signal, prompting the maids to hurriedly descend from the stage and move to either side of the audience area.

“What are you all doing? Stand up!”

Seol was about halfway down to his chair, but he had to stand back up again.

“The countdown to the month's deadline has begun already. What, you want me to spoon feed you everything you need before you'll starting moving your asses?”

Hearing this, Seol quickly picked up his bag.

The blonde maid was waiting for him in a different doorway than the one he used to enter the theatre. It was as if she was telling him to use this one now.

*

Everyone formed the same sort of surprised expressions once they exited from the theatre and took in the sights unfolding before their eyes.

The so-called Neutral Zone reminded one of a super-massive department store with its spectacular interior. The ground floor was shaped in a huge circle, and wherever they looked, they could find lounges and shops as well as other facilities. And none here could even start figuring out just how many floors, interconnected with spiraling staircases, there were above their heads.

They couldn't exit from the Neutral Zone yet, but it wasn't hard to imagine how this place might've looked from the outside – like the legendary Tower of Babel, a tall and round tower.

Seol found an empty chair inside one of the ground floor's lounges and settled down to survey the area around him. The most eye-catching object within this 'lobby' was a giant noticeboard set up next to a fountain in the middle of the floor. On this board, there were countless pieces of paper that resembled paper talismans stuck to it. And a healthy crowd of people had gathered in front.

Seol decided to go and check out that later, once things had calmed down a little bit. So, he sat here and organized his thoughts.

He was initially thinking of leaving the Neutral Zone right away. Since he already possessed the qualifications, he believed that there was no real need to waste his time here. However, the other four people who had amassed over 1000 points all chose to remain. They didn't even show a hint of hesitation, either.

And also, didn't that man Hao Win say it out loud, too? He said that was a 'foolish question'.

'Okay, then. What did I dream about this place….?'

….He couldn't remember anything about this place at all.

There must be a reason why all four of them said they'd rather remain here. In times like this, Seol couldn't help but grow resentful of Kim Hannah.

Seol remained sitting there while rubbing his face, unsure of what to do next. He felt someone approaching him and raised his head.

“How do you do?”

The woman greeting him with dignified elegance as soon as their eyes met, was decked out in a rather familiar attire. Seeing her neatly tied hair, as well as the pair of spectacles sitting on her nose, Seol easily recognized her – she was the second maid standing to the left on the stage.

'She's from… Area 2, isn't she?'

“Hi. Is there anything I can help you with?”

“I'm called Agnes. If it’s okay with you, I'd like the honor of guiding you around this facility.”

Now that was a wonderful thing to hear. But it also raised a question in Seol's head.

“I thought we were supposed to find the necessary info by ourselves?”

“Indeed that is the case. However, we are tasked with providing basic information. And also, providing more information on our own volition isn't against the rules.”

Seol figured that this nice treatment had something to do with his Gold Mark. He nodded his head in acceptance. Being guided around, instead of stumbling around by himself, certainly saved him a lot of time.

“Thank you for your help. I'll be in your care, then.”

“Ahh, in that case….”

Just as Agnes's complexions brightened, she began glancing behind Seol with a stiffened face. He looked behind and found the blonde maid from the Tutorial standing there. Not only that, there was a… refreshing smile on her face too. Agnes did her best to reciprocate a smile on her own.

“M, Maria… Of course, I know that Area 1 isn't my jurisdiction. But the Tutorial has ended already. Isn't it fine to yield this little thing to me this time?”

The blonde maid, Maria, continued to smile radiantly. Meanwhile, she began raising her middle finger. Agnes's expression hardened instantly.

“What's the meaning of that gesture?”

“Excuse me~.”

“?”

“Don't fuck around, please.”

“….You're still as coarse as ever, I see.”

Agnes let off a soft but resolute hurumph before silently bowing to Seol and leaving without saying anything else.

“Still with that disgusting habit of trying to wag your tail everywhere, you Sicilian bitch.”

Seol couldn't help but doubt his own hearing. He had already confirmed that the blonde maid could speak just fine, but to see such hardcore swearing jumping out of that adorable and radiant face of hers was just….

“Well, then. Allow me to guide you.”

“….You are pretty good. With talking, I mean.”

“Ahh, that. I am currently practicing the vow of silence, you know.”

“The vow of… silence?”

“Yes. I'm trying to fix this bad habit of mine. You see, my words tend to not get filtered by my brain and just jump out of my mouth first.”

Maria was implying that she talked without thinking. Somehow, Seol could see that.

“Well, uh…. I'll be in your care, then.”

When Seol stood up from his seat, Maria began tugging at the corners of his clothes. Then, she pointed towards the inside of the lounge area. The facilities there resembled a cafe.

“Before we get started…. Would you like to buy me something to drink from there first?”

“….”

Seol turned around to call for Agnes. Maria jumped up and down in alarm.

“Wait, wait!! Okay, fine. Fine! But, what's wrong with buying me something to drink?!”

“But, why should I….?”

“Scrooge. You have a lot of Survival Points, don't you?”

Seol blinked his eyes a couple of times. While she was begging him to buy her something, she mentioned the Survival Points. Why?

“Does that mean you have to use Survival Points to use the facilities in this place?”

“Yes. Within the Neutral Zone, Survival Points act as the sole currency. In order to eat, sleep, and buy things to wear, you need Survival Points for all of those.”

Seol furrowed his brows. Not just needing to amass lots of points but also needing to spend them – now that would spike the difficulty upwards rather steeply.

“How do you gather more Survival Points?”

Rather than a verbal answer, Maria pointed at the noticeboard, instead. There was still a healthy crowd of people in front of it.

“By taking on the missions placed on that noticeboard and clearing them, you'll be eligible to receive points as rewards. That's the normal way of getting the points.”

“The normal way, huh….”

“The Survival Points can be loaned out or transferred to others, too.”

A bitter smile formed on Seol's face. By connecting what Maria said to Cinzia's words of 'we are not going to mind other ways you cook up yourselves', Seol could make a pretty good guess here. Most would go about solving their problems by getting a loan or, more likely, resorting to robbery.

“Since I told you, you'll buy me something, right?”

“I refuse.”

“Ehhh? But, why?”

“I'll have to conserve my points. It's not like they fall down from the sky or something.”

“But, why so stingy?! You know you will get free accommodation and food, so how come?”

Seol tilted his head, wondering what she was on about now.

Maria sneakily looked around her and began whispering to his ear.

“Even here, you'll see lots of discrimination, you know. The Contracted has to pay the full amount when using the facilities found here, but that's not the case for the Invited, right? The Bronze Marks get 10% discount, the Silver Marks gets 20% discount, and….”

“If that's the case….”

“As a Gold Mark, you get 30% off on every available facility here. On top of that, you were the highest-ranked survivor. So, not only are you given an exclusive residence, but you also receive 70% discount when utilizing the services of certain shops and restaurants.”

When Seol stared at her in disbelief, Maria nodded her head quite animatedly.

And as it turned out, she was telling the truth.

The cheapest drink available cost one Survival Point. Maria chose a drink that cost 10 points, but as soon as he showed off his Gold Mark and the plate attached to his key, he didn't even have to pay a single point.

“You really made a wise decision to stay behind, you know.”

As they were headed off to his residence located on the upper floors, Maria suddenly told him thus. Her expression was one full of happiness as she sucked in the drink through the straw.

“You see, it's really difficult to return to the Neutral Zone once you leave. Since you already have secured your right to leave, you might as well suck out every little benefit you can from here, right?”

“And what benefits are there that can make my stay worthwhile?”

“The VIP store.”

Maria answered him right away and pulled out a pamphlet from seemingly out of nowhere.

“This here is the list of some of the things you can buy from the VIP store.”

Seol's eyes grew wider and wider in surprise as he scanned contents of the list.

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