Chapter 21. A Star Shining Again (1)

The biggest difference between the area where the Tutorial took place and the Neutral Zone was the facilities available at the latter. If Seol were to get technical about it, then the Neutral Zone could only exist in Paradise and nowhere else.

He could definitely agree to the notion of this sanctuary being very special – after all, the seven deities combined their might to create this place.

Seol sensed that they paid a considerable amount of attention to the safe integration and adaptation of the survivors. Such a thing was easy to figure out when recalling the initial reactions of who all saw this place for the first time. Even he thought he was looking at a high-end department store. The plaza located in the middle of the ground floor or the mock cafes where one could buy something to drink were good examples of that.

However, such considerations could only be extended so far. Just with a casual glance, he spotted several items that people from modern Earth wouldn't have the chance to see or use in their everyday lives.

But that was to be expected. Paradise wasn’t as scientifically advanced as Earth, and its culture was different as well.

In other words, certain things to remind one about what to come was essential – all in order to minimise the sense of incongruence one might feel during their initial days spent outside the walls of the Neutral Zone.

The upper floors were solely reserved for those who managed to amass more than 1000 points during the Tutorial. When looking down from the guardrail of the winding corridor, one could easily take in nearly everything happening below. That proved to be quite a view.

Seol couldn't hide his anticipation, wondering what it would be like inside the room.

Maria led him to a door with '1' engraved on it. Seol opened it and entered the room beyond – only to struggle very hard to keep his jaw shut that threatened to drop to the floor.

The floor space of the so-called room was as wide open as an ocean; so much so, he couldn't even figure out how big this place was. And as his eyes took in the many luxurious paintings and sculptures decorating the walls and pockets of space, as well as the gorgeous chandelier hanging high in the ceiling, he couldn't help but mistakenly believe that this room ought to have belonged to a king.

For all of his 26 years of life, Seol had never ever stepped foot inside any room or space as luxurious as this one. He had clapped his eyes on something this grand only through the magic of the internet. As a comparison, probably the legendary Ambassador Suite of Brunei's Empire Hotel – supposedly there were only two such rooms in the world – would be able to rival the level of opulence seen here.

Seol took his time checking out this room that was obviously far too large to be called a mere room, before sitting down on the edge of the equally-too-large-for-one-person bed and decided to relax for a bit.

His elation lasted for a brief moment, though. Finding himself all alone in such an expansive room, he ended up getting bored quite quickly. What was the point of such a wide-open space and all this luxury? There was no TV here. No fridge. No computer, too.

The only object that operated on electricity he had on his person was the smartphone he got at the beginning of the Tutorial, used to receive the missions and the like.

….He had basically nothing to do here. So, he ended up checking out the pamphlet Maria left behind once more. And as he browsed through it, his eyes remained wide in surprise, but the expression on his face was getting more and more complicated in the meantime.

*Greetings to you!

The Neutral Zone operates a very special store for those of you with plenty of Survival Points burning a hole in your pocket!

The VIP store possesses three distinct characteristics that separate it from other stores within the Zone:

Firstly, this is a very unique store created through the combined guidance of the seven deities.

Secondly, the products from this store won't be restocked ever again once it's been purchased.

And finally, the number of people who have used the services of this store can be counted on one hand.

Although the pricing on each item might be unimaginably high, we can confidently guarantee their effects.

The following are the list of items purchasable from the VIP store.
We eagerly look forward to your patronage, so see you soon!

—VIP Item List

1. Ambrosia: 30,000 SP each, x2
2. Pneuma's Sky Boots: 50,000 SP per pair, x1
3. Moirai's Souvenir: 600,000 SP, x1
4. Miyal's Branding Iron: 100,000 SP, x1
5. Divine Elixirs: 30,000 SP each – Strength x1, Endurance x1, Agility x2, Stamina x2, Magic x1, Luck x3
6. The Divine Stigmata: 300,000 SP, x1
7. The Seed of the World Tree: 400,000 SP, x1
8. Sidus's Divine Strength: 80,000 SP, x1
9. Aphrodite's Sedge: 150,000 SP each, x5
10. Psychi's Tears: 250,000 SP, x1

There were only ten items on the list, but every single one of them possessed outstanding effects. The obvious problem was, of course…. The prices were incredibly, absurdly, nonsensically, sky-high.

'Crazy….'

He felt like swearing out here. Just looking at that 'Moirai's Souvenir' told him seemingly everything he needed to know.

Were they actually being serious here? Wasn't this like making fun of him or something, by showing off an item so profound and desirable, only to declare loudly, 'Ohh, look how expensive it is!! Kekeke!!'

'Just who in their right minds can afford things this expensive?!'

….He kept thinking like this, yet he couldn't just forget about it. Especially so, he couldn't let go of his interest in the first and the fifth items on the list.

The 'Ambrosia' was supposedly a 'drop' of morning dew that forcibly evolved one of the awakened abilities to the next level. As for the Divine Elixirs, they were miraculous medicines that increased the physical stats by one level higher. Their pricing seemed reasonable too, comparatively speaking.

Currently, out of the possible five directions, Seol's Nine Eyes had opened up the central and the left directions. If he could drink two Ambrosias, then he'd get to open two more directions out of the remaining three. Which meant….

Seol would be that much closer to unraveling the mystery that he had to live with for the last 26 years.

'….I shouldn't be wasting time like this.'

The time period of one month was not long at all. No, he thought it was far, far too short. He felt the sense of urgency take over his thought process.

After picking up the bag, Seol left the room.

*

Back on the ground floor.

There was still a crowd in the plaza there, but it was much smaller than when Seol first came out of the theatre.

Seol took a look around to see if he could find anyone he was familiar with, only to realize that other people were, for some reason, inching away from him. Thanks to that, he was able to approach the noticeboard in peace.

As Maria had mentioned earlier, the board was choke-a-full with numerous parchments. After deciding on the mission to undertake, one just had to take its parchment and rip it in half. That would teleport the person to space where the given mission took place.

There was this one rule that had to be adhered to, though. There were many missions available here that allowed the survivors to band together in order to complete. However, one couldn't form a party where more than half of the minimum required number of participants were from the same Area as him- or herself. In other words, one was forced to cooperate with survivors from other Areas.

Seol wasn't thinking of forming a party now, anyways. Thinking like this, he quickly took a sweeping look at the board.

[Survive on a mountainside (remaining number of attempts: 14/15)]

Avoid the fangs of a starving beast and survive for the next two hours within the mountainside!

Difficulty: Very Easy
When successful: +10 Survival Points
When unsuccessful: N/A
*Cooperation not allowed

'Nope. Pass.'

It was an easy mission, but the reward on offer was too low. What Seol wanted was a mission that could be done in the shortest amount of time while also having the highest possible rewards. And if it was safe to boot, then there would be nothing more he'd ask for.

What with his numerous prerequisites, his search didn't go easily; but there were literally hundreds of missions available here, so it was only a matter of time.

Soon enough, he spotted a certain mission parchment.

[Find your path inside a maze! (remaining number of attempts: 90/90)]

Escape from an underground maze in six hours! If you end up in the wrong path….

Difficulty: Normal
When successful: +100 Survival points
When unsuccessful: Starting from the beginning again or death
*Cooperation allowed (up to two people)

Just by looking at the reward, he wasn't too keen on it. However, he could repeat it as much as he wanted to, and more importantly, he liked the fact that he could potentially rely on his innate ability. The mission explanation implied that he could die if he entered the wrong path. However, wouldn't it be fine if he only stuck to the paths that shone in green?

It was certainly worth a shot.

Seol made up his mind and took one parchment out from the thick bundle. He checked the time with his smartphone; it was 11:31 AM. After confirming the time, he ripped the paper in half.

A bright light exploded and he felt a strong suction force sucking in from his midriff. Seol closed his eyes and opened again a bit later. He realised that he was now standing inside a cavern.

The novelty of his new surroundings wore off really quickly, though. He tightly grasped the steel bar and cautiously surveyed the immediate area around him. However, even after one, two minutes of solid waiting, not a single thing showed up.

He breathed a sigh of relief and shifted his gaze to his front. There were five big holes in the wall, shaped like entrances.

As soon as he activated his Nine Eyes, things unfolded as he suspected it might; the hole to his far-left glowed in green; the middle three glowed in yellow; while the right-most one was in the hues of orange.

Seol stepped forward in this slightly-bending cavern and entered the left entrance.

*

[You have completed the 'Normal' rated mission.]

[100 Survival points has been awarded.]

[Current SP: 26600 SP]

With the announcement ringing in his ears, Seol's vision was filled with the sight of the ground floor plaza. As soon as he made out of the maze, he was transferred back to the Neutral Zone.

The clock on his phone displayed 12:56 PM – he only needed one hour and 25 minutes to complete a 6-hour mission.

He only walked in the direction dictated by his innate ability, so he didn't encounter anything that could've been called 'dangerous'. Clearing the mission took a bit longer than he'd liked because it was his first time attempting it. However, he figured that as soon as he became familiar with it, he might be able to finish the maze in less than one hour.

Seol nodded his head, now convinced. He then returned to the noticeboard in a hurry to rip up the mission parchment for the maze once more.

And so, he proceeded to vanish and return to the plaza several more times.

After he completed the mission that nominally needed six hours to complete six more times, a couple of unexpected problems rose up.

The first problem was that the number of attempts remaining had decreased quite noticeably. This was because the other survivors witnessed Seol continuously completing this particular mission; they figured that it must've been easier than they initially feared, and one or two people began trying their luck. After all, for a regular survivor, 100 Survival points amounted to one-tenth of their aim, so the allure was indeed great.

And the second problem was….

“Euhck….”

A sharp pain momentarily bore through his brain. Seol had no choice but to halt his hands from ripping up another mission parchment. There was no need to even mention what this pain signified. He was all too acutely familiar with it, after all.

It was a warning. Or, perhaps, an omen.

He had been using 'Nine Eyes' for over six hours straight now, so it wasn't all that surprising for his brain to cry out in anguish.

'But, I still need to do a few more….'

The level of pain wasn't all that great if he thought about it.

However, back in the past, back a few years ago when he proceeded to ignore similar warning signs…. He ended up wallowing in the harsh reality of losing his ability and suffering the consequences of it.

'Now that I think about it, my whole body kind of feels fatigued, too.'
No matter how important evolving his ability was, if the ability itself was lost through recklessness, then that would be the worst way to waste his time, ever. He didn't want to repeat the mistake of losing his ability ever again.

In the end, Seol returned the mission parchment back to the board, and decided to take a break in his room upstairs.

*

Seol woke up from his slumber feeling completely refreshed. Not only his head, but his entire body felt alive and rejuvenated. His body, which did feel a bit heavy – although not to the extent of feeling like a mountain – felt quite normal now.

Maria explained that there was definitely a reason why expensive rooms cost so much. There were dozens of rooms in the Neutral Zone but their pricing varied to quite a ridiculous degree.

According to her, the cheap rooms were only good for sleeping, but as the price increased, the environment found in the rooms gradually became more 'beneficial' towards the survivor trying to rest there.

More importantly, Seol's room was one of its kind in the whole Zone. Even if he rested as long as everyone else, he'd get to enjoy the effects of a rest that seemingly had lasted for several times longer.

The phone's display now showed 11:12 PM.

'I slept for around five hours, huh.'

Seol pulled out the convenience store food from the bag. He could eat for free in the restaurants, but he couldn't waste the time going there to order and eat. While chewing on a sandwich, he organized his thoughts.

'The efficiency is too poor.'

Including the break, he spent 11 hours to earn 600 Survival points. If he earned 1200 points in 24 hours, then in a month, that would be 36,000 points. He might be able to somehow afford two Ambrosias at this rate, but….

'The problem is with the remaining number of attempts.'

Seol knew very well that it was impossible to go and repeat the same mission over and over again. He also needed to consider those people who would try to follow whatever he painstakingly chose to do next as well.

Seol felt the distinct need to revise his strategy. The two prerequisite conditions of 'short time requirement/high rewards upon completion' were non-negotiable, but he thought he could forego his safety. No, he had to forget about it. Why? Higher the danger, higher the payout, that was why.

Honestly, he was very much tempted by what was on offer at the VIP store. Besides, he was told that once he left, it'd be exceedingly difficult to return to the Neutral Zone, too. So, he earnestly wanted to at least drink the Divine Elixir as soon as possible.

He wondered whether he should visit the other stores, too. But, he just shook his head in the end. Really now, he couldn't afford to waste a single point, so what was there for him to possibly buy?

However, he couldn't neglect to make thorough preparations. So, Seol pulled his bag closer and began inspecting its contents.

'Let's see…. The quill pen of flowing consciousness is… not for combat. And this Mirror of Understanding is for…. Damn it, it's only useful against the Deceased!'

There wasn't a mission to get rid of the walking dead in the Tutorial, nor would the survivors be given such a mission in the first place, so why….

Fortunately, though, he possessed a box full of spell balls. He only needed four of these balls to take care of that terrifying Gaekgwi, so he was sure of these coming in handy in the near future.

Seol extracted the familiar combination of Poison Fog, Ignite, Spider Web, and Hydrochloric Acid and put them in his pockets. Then, he headed towards the ground floor.

The hour may have been late, yet there were still twenty-plus people loitering around the plaza. Even the second-place Odelette Delphine and Hao Win could be seen among them as well.

When the 'first place' Seol made his entrance, both of them turned around to meet him as if they had a prior agreement. However, Seol was too preoccupied with earning more Survival points, so he failed to notice their actions. He simply poured his attention on the noticeboard.

“Excuse me.”

Just as Seol's gaze headed upwards, Odelette Delphine called out to him.

“Uhm, yes?”

Seol tilted his head slightly. She was fidgeting with a strand of her brown hair – unlike the first time he saw her, she seemed to be in a slight bind over something.

“Did you know? Do you perchance remember Mister Tong Chai?”

“Mister Tong Chai, you say…. You mean, the man wearing a turban?”

“Yes. He was the fifth-place finisher. That man…. I think he has met his doom.”

“….Met his doom? He's dead?”

A survivor who managed to amass more than 1000 points during the Tutorial died already? Now that was something Seol couldn't just gloss over.

“That one. I think he died while attempting that mission.”

The mission parchment Odelette pointed at was the very same mission Seol was repeating earlier in the day.

“Indeed, there is a warning that you might die, but…. Why do you think he's dead?”

“It's been six hours since he disappeared, but he hasn't returned yet.”

“Mmm. I'm not so sure about that…. No matter what, to say he died while attempting something as simple as this Normal difficulty mission is a bit….”

Odelette's expression became complicated when she heard his words.

“Something as simple…. I see. Well, will you be attempting the same mission again?”

“Ah, no. I was thinking of trying my hands on a different mission this time.”

Seol shifted his gaze back to the noticeboard. Odelette Delphine stood there licking her lips for a little while longer, before opening her mouth again.

“Can you spare some time to share a cup of tea with me?”

….

Although her suggestion didn't sound so bad – meeting a girl possessing an amazing beauty late at night – Seol had something far more pressing to attend to first. He needed to select a new mission and attempt it at least once.

“I apologize, but there is something I really need to confirm first…. If it's not too much trouble, can I take a rain check?”

Seol spoke while considering the fact that she was a foreigner. After listening to his formal rejection, Odelette formed a wistful expression.

“I guess it can't be helped, then”

She turned around to leave.

Seol resumed checking the board out – then, he thought what if, and activated his ability.

Most of the mission parchments placed lower down on the board didn't emit any color, but as he raised his gaze upwards, he saw yellow, vermillion and crimson, in that ascending order.

'Does that mean missions found higher up on the board are harder?'

Seol then stared in disbelief at the mission parchment dyed in deep crimson color located at the very top of the board which proudly boasted the mission reward of 172,800 points. However, his gaze spotted something odd nearby and stayed there. Among the sea of orange, there was one mission parchment dyed in yellow.

'1000 Survival points as the mission reward?'

The difficulty was one step above the 'Slightly Hard' – 'Hard'. Remaining attempts? 15 out of 15. Most importantly, there was no time limit, either.

As he looked up at that piece of paper, greed filled up Seol's expression.

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