The witch disappeared through the wide open door, but the team did not mindlessly wander in and instead exchanged glances with each other. They all knew that the witch should not be easily trusted.
“What are the chances that this is a trap?”
Jin Seyeon asked, but Kim Suho and Yi Yongha did not answer. Despite their urge to disbelieve, they weren’t left with any other choice at this point as they were mere intruders.
—You don’t need to worry.
At that moment, the witch spoke again.
—Our King loves challenges. He wholeheartedly welcomes worthy challengers. Once I confirm that you’re qualified, the King will gladly show himself and confront you, with the existence of the Tower at stake.
Though the witch sounded truthful, the team was still somewhat suspicious of her.
Jin Seyeon stepped forward and asked.
“How can we trust demons?”
—I shall ask you the same question. How can you trust humans?
—We can be as righteous as humans, as cowardly as humans, as evil as humans, and as honorable as humans. Of course, I understand that you’re prejudiced against us. You have experienced the madness of the Colosseum, after all.
The witch’s words flowed smoothly like a stream from a mountain river.
—But the Colosseum was only one of the series of ordeals designed to measure your capabilities. We’re more impartial than you might think.
Objections immediately popped up Jin Seyeon’s mind. ‘You can’t just kill someone and claim it was only a test. Also, it’s hard to believe that demons are as diverse as humans….’
Still, Jin Seyeon knew they had little choice but to follow the witch. Otherwise, they would never be able to proceed to the next step.
“What should we do?”
Kim Suho asked.
The trio exchanged glances and nodded their heads hesitantly.
“Black Lotus returned without dying. He wouldn’t have said what he said if this was a trap, right?”
Jin Seyeon’s reasoning was convincing.
The trio increased the magic power around their bodies. They surrounded themselves with all kinds of barriers to prepare for the worst, then slowly approached the gate.
Heavy footsteps echoed off the walls.
Their steps were filled with tension.
They marched forward courageously and entered the room behind the door.
At that moment, the witch’s voice blew past them like a bleak wind.
“…I welcome you, challengers who have come this far.”
The other side of the gate was a distinctly different space.
What greeted them was a wide, circular lobby, and numerous demons standing in a line at its far end. Each demon gave off overwhelming presence as they stared at the trio.
Jin Seyeon bit her lips.
“Is this a trap?”
“No, they’re here to test you. Originally there were five, not counting me, but one of them I couldn’t control at all, so now there are just four. It’s good that the numbers are identical.”
There were four demons excluding the witch; ten, if you include the monsters led by one of the demons. Unless the witch couldn’t count numbers, this was an intentional mocking on her part.
Jin Seyeon’s gaze suddenly sharpened.
“What are you….”
“Ah, the other one is already here.”
Suddenly the witch shifted her gaze past them and put on a small smile. Kim Suho and the others also turned back after her gaze.
There, a man whom none of them had expected to see here stood.
He had a gigantic physique made up of well-developed muscles that placed him in the same category as monsters, rather than humans. Even his steps were surrounded by an aura of arrogance.
“Long time no see.”
The warrior whose every body part could serve as a lethal weapon, Cheok Jungyeong, looked down at them and broke into a smile.
“You, why are you here?”
Jin Seyeon asked.
However, to answer her question truthfully, Cheok Jungyeong would have to reveal that he was following Kim Hajin’s orders. Therefore, he chose not to answer.
“…That’s none of your business, archer.”
He was simply embarrassed. These days, he never challenged Kim Hajin’s decisions and always complied with Kim Hajin’s requests.
[Energy Blast], [Secret March], and the equipment that surrounded his body… All were the fruits of his obedience.
Cheok Jungeyong let out a dry cough in embarrassment and stepped forward onto the battlefield.
Meanwhile, I was looking after Aileen as I watched the whole scene from afar.
“Aileen-ssi, how are you feeling?”
12 hours had already passed since Aileen began her recuperation.
Patient Aileen seemed to be feeling better as her sassiness had come back.
“Mm. I’m a lot better, but… I think I still, maybe, have some fever~?”
Was that a question or an assertion? She had quite a unique way of talking.
I simply stared at Aileen. Aileen, unable to withstand the silence, spoke first.
“…W-What I’m saying is, I’ll be fine if I have something to eat.”
“Ah. Something to eat?”
I nodded. I had plenty of food on me, so much so that I didn’t even need to make them.
I took out a Lv.5 Luxurious Chocolate and handed it to Aileen.
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“It’s a first grade chocolate.”
Aileen was cautious like a stray cat. She carefully took it.
She had to sniff the wrapper first before tearing it open and taking a bite.
I waited for her to finish the chocolate and spoke.
“Go back once you finish eating that.”
Aileen, who was enjoying the aftertaste of the chocolate in her mouth, trembled slightly.
“W-What? You want me to leave?”
Aileen glared at me with a frown.
“Why should I?”
“Because you won’t be able to fight well in a place full of demonic energy.”
While Aileen slept, I had time to think about why Aileen was the only one to suffer when everyone else was fine.
The answer was simple.
The problem was Aileen’s skill.
“I’m fine now. Can’t you see?”
Aileen suddenly began to stretch her body in an effort to prove she was fine.
One, two. One, two.
I stopped her midway.
“…You may be fine now, but once you get surrounded by demonic energy the situation will change. You shouldn’t use [Magic Power Amplification] so hastily.”
I kindly explained to the naïve Player who thought of her skill as being all-powerful, and not about its repercussions.
Magic Power Amplification worked by absorbing the air around the user, then purifying and refining it to increase the output of magic power. Naturally, absorbing air filled with demonic energy, when she was already wounded by it, was dangerous.
“….W-What? Are you saying that I’ll never get better?”
Aileen asked, trying to conceal her fear.
“No, you’ll get better if you rest well, in places like Baekdu Mountain and Kumgang Mountain.”
“Aha,” She quickly regained her calm and let out a sigh of relief. “Phew.”
Watching her like that, I began to wonder if she was really in her thirties. Her backstory was that she became a Hero at such an early age that she never learned worldly customs and social manners, but still….
“So you’ll go back?”
“Well, I don’t have any other choice, but… ow.”
Ouch, ow, agh.
For whatever the reason, she began to feign pain.
“I, I’m dizzy….”
“I need, I need sugar….”
Dumbfounded, I watched Aileen stagger.
“It’s my anemia… so dizzy… need chocolate….”
Because I was out of high-level desserts, I couldn’t give one to her even if I wanted to.
I continued to stare at her in silence, and suddenly she recovered from her ‘anemia’ on her own.
She let out a dry cough and spoke with gravity.
“You’ll be like this too when you’re my age.”
‘If she’s willing to go to such lengths, then I guess I have no choice.’
I took out a [Random Dice] that I’d been saving for a while.
I rolled it with desserts in my mind and luckily received a set of chocolates, which was enough to satisfy Aileen’s needs.
Aileen’s eyes quickly widened at the sight of the chocolates.
[Himalayan Mountain Range, the gym behind the inn]
Metallic sounds of blades rang sharply in the gym behind the inn. A fierce duel between the teacher and student was currently ongoing.
Chae Nayun swung her sword with a spirited shout.
The surface of her sword blazed up with azure magic power. The magic power surrounding her body was strong enough to shatter bones to dust.
Her skill with the sword was textbook-perfect, completely faultless. The magic power around the longsword soared like a waterfall and rushed towards its opponent.
And its opponent was an old man soon to be ninety years old.
Ordinary people would be astonished at this sight and accuse her of elder abuse.
But the old man did not yield easily. He twisted his body, evading her blade.
The longsword had a long reach but also a long delay between attacks.
Therefore, he planned to evade her sword and counterattack during the gap in time.
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Another sword shot up behind Chae Nayun.
The sword was made of azure magic power.
This was Flying Sword— a skill Chae Nayun invented using her past experience as an archer.
Heynckes’ intuition told him that this wasn’t the type of attack that he could block.
He had made a mistake by assuming Chae Nayun wouldn’t have a trick up her sleeve because of her denseness. Things wouldn’t have turned out like this only if he payed attention to the flow of magic power in the atmosphere.
‘At any rate, it’s impossible to block in this position….’
Dozens of magic blades rushed to Heynckes’ vital points in accordance with Chae Nayun’s will.
Yet, the Lord of Steel did not give up. Heynckes brandished his sword forcefully.
His fortitude brought about his Gift. The steel of his blade resonated with Heynckes and blazed up.
The Nine Star’s Steel Spirit stopped Chae Nayun’s secret technique. Every single one of Chae Nayun’s magic swords bounced off Heynckes’ Steel Blade, and heavy silence slowly descended in the gym.
No human could possibly show off such skill barehanded. The Steel Blade moved autonomously to block Chae Nayun’s attacks. Therefore, it was Heynckes’ defeat, for he failed to keep his own words.
Chae Nayun said in all seriousness.
“One telling blow. I won.”
“…You’re right. And I lost my precious lifespan thanks to you.”
Although Heynckes sounded as if he was blaming her, a smile was on his face. Chae Nayun responded with a respectful nod.
“Old man, I… learned a lot from you, in many ways.”
‘In many ways’.
Her words were charged with meaning.
She had recently come to realize the true meaning behind Heynckes’ words.
Kim Joongho, who took Chae Jinyoon’s body, insisted that he owned the corpse of a devil.
As much as it was easy to piece together those two facts, it was difficult to believe the woven truth.
Heynckes entered the inn. Chae Nayun followed behind him.
“A promise is a promise. I’m an honorable man.”
Heynckes said as he handed Chae Nayun an old compass. Chae Nayun’s eyes widened.
“It’s a compass that bears my will.”
Nine Star Heynckes’ life was filled with items that encompassed his ‘Will of Steel’. Heynckes called them his comrades, and they were clever and dependable.
Heynckes had received countless help from his comrades. The Steel Blade kept him away from defeat, and the Steel Shield protected him from the attacks of Djinns and monsters. The Steel Pin embedded in his back and his waist helped him achieve immunity against all kinds of magic, and his Steel Heart offered him an indomitable will.
It was all thanks to his comrades that Heynckes could become an honorable member of the Nine Stars.
“He’s a friend of mine who helped me trace villains in the olden days. He’s seen Kim Joongho before, so he’ll gladly tell you where to find him.”
Chae Nayun understood the meaning of the ‘steel magic power’ embedded in the old compass. It meant Heynckes was entrusting her with his friend whom he had spent half of his life with.
“He’s rather precious to me. Be sure to return him.”
Heynckes said gravely, to which Chae Nayun nodded.
She bowed forward, with all her feelings of appreciation.
Then, she turned back on the spot.
There was nothing she needed to pack since she came barehanded.
She would leave barehanded as well.
However, when Chae Nayun grabbed the inn’s doorknob….
“Don’t turn away even if the truth is not what you think it is.”
A voice as solemn as steel stopped her.
“Accept what you witness with your own eyes and your own heart. Don’t give up. That’s the only way you’ll become stronger.”
His advice fit his nickname—Steel Spirit—perfectly well. Chae Nayun nodded, with her back still against him.
“Yeah, I’ll keep that in mind.”
Chae Nayun opened the door and took a step into the snowy field outside the inn. But before leaving the inn for good, she decided to leave one last message.
The message was directed to her friend, Yoo Yeonha.
[I’m about to find Kim Joongho. I’ll bring him with me to see you.]
Because the weather was clear and there was no snowstorm, the message was delivered successfully.
Chae Nayun once again thanked Heynckes for installing wifi for her sake.
Chae Nayun walked towards the direction shown on the compass. For 3 hours she walked and walked.
The road was rugged. She almost fell down a cliff hidden from view by snow, she was ambushed by the notorious ‘Himalayan Mountain Tyrant’, and nearly became a snowman, quite literally, when she got surrounded by a blizzard.
Still, Chae Nayun walked tenaciously and arrived at the destination marked on the compass.
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“Ha, I don’t even know what to say.”
A wave of blank amazement encompassed her.
This was definitely a spot no one could find. There was a cave covered in snow, set halfway down a cliff.
Chae Nayun wove a rope out of magic power and jumped down the cliff, and entered the cave.
Chae Nayun advanced through the snow. A faint light emerged from somewhere deep within the cave. With her perfect eyesight, Chae Nayun spotted Kim Joongho—something that could be Kim Joongho, to be precise—lying on the floor next to the light.
At that moment, her heart pounded violently.
She couldn’t hold back any longer.
This story had tormented her for too long.
The damned tragedy that had changed her life and her values entirely.
She ran frantically towards its end.
[28F — Demon King’s Castle]
Now that the test was over, everyone was busy catching their breath.
The format of the qualification test which began three hours prior was simply a one-on-one fight.
The list of matches were pretty interesting. Cheok Jungyeong was up against a demonic summoner who controlled mystic monsters, Kim Suho fought against a warrior wielding a double-edged axe, and Jin Seyeon and Yi Yongha faced twin magicians together.
After a three-hour brawl, the winners were finally decided.
The humans were all alive but the demons were either dead or passed out.
Of course, Kim Suho and others weren’t unscathed; in fact, they were barely breathing.
“Piece of cake.”
Only Cheok Jungyeong boasted. However, contrary to his words, Cheok Jungyeong appeared completely beat up too. He had just fought against two demons in a row and the side effect of his skill was worse than he expected.
“Everybody, congratulations. The King has acknowledged you as worthy challengers.”
The witch spoke a moment later.
The team wondered whether they should be happy or sad.
Except for one— Cheok Jungyeong.
The witch ignored Cheok Jungyeong’s loud laughter and continued.
“But the King does not appreciate a fight in which one is against many. He longs for a just, impartial duel, one against one.”
Cheok Jungyeong gave a smile of approval. The Demon King’s taste suited his own.
“Therefore, I shall rank you accordingly and determine the order of challenge. Only when the Player before you loses, you may challenge the King….”
‘I’m definitely the first,’ thought Cheok Jungyeong.
He had defeated two demons already: ‘Kain’ the puppeteer, and ‘Klemo’ the summoner.
His contribution was definitely unrivaled by others.
But the name that came out of the witch’s mouth was a completely different one.
“Kim Suho, you’re first.”
Kim Suho’s name was announced out of the blue.
Cheok Jungyeong immediately rebelled.
No, he tried to rebel.
But his senses, including his sight and his hearing, stopped functioning all of a sudden. Cheok Jungyeong wriggled, surrounded by dark emptiness.
“Now, the castle gate will close.”
The witch’s voice wobbled in his head, and….
‘Kim Suho’, not Cheok Jungyeong, opened his eyes with a cry. He was now surrounded by a mysterious scenery.
“This is where you will stay.”
The witch reappeared quietly and explained.
The witch nodded nonchalantly at his remark.
“Yes. Right now, the Demon King is away at a banquet. But I cannot allow you, a challenger, to lose your sense of urgency.”
The witch looked at Kim Suho and continued.
“So I shall provide you with an opponent for a practice match. Choose any opponent you’d like. But you need to decide right now.”
The suggestion was all too sudden.
Kim Suho frowned slightly.
“I didn’t anticipate this….”
“You need to answer now.”
The witch pressed him coldly, and Kim Suho began to contemplate.
Jin Seyeon, Aileen, Shin Jonghak, Cheok Jungyeong, Kim Junwoo… dozens of names popped up in his mind, but the one he finally chose was….
“Black Lotus…. No, wait.”
But he immediately shook his head. Black Lotus had already withdrawn from his match against the Demon King. ‘More importantly, I don’t think I’ll be able to even have a conversation with him,’ thought Kim Suho.
His next choice was, in a sense, only natural.
“Kim Hajin. I choose Hajin.”
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