Sorry for the slower release rate, everyone.I'm going to have my first child in a few weeks and my schedule is overturned!
Sila—along with Alpha, Isaac and Midnight—rushed out of their headquarters. His badge created a mini holographic arrow pointing to the west. After running on the street for two hundred meters, however, they no longer needed the badge’s search function. That was because they could hear Miki’s shouts from a distance. Ahead of them was a crowd, though they could see Miki in the middle.
She was confronting five men, including the leader of the 16th squad. Sila could tell because the man had a badge like his, except with the number 16 printed on it.
“Miki, can’t you just simply back off? We’re on the same side. Please don’t make it hard on us,” The 16th Squad Leader asked politely.
“No! Not until you admit your team cheated me, Mugen! Your team arrived after I did. How could you get the booze?”
Mugen wore tailor-made fabric armor, perfectly fit for his physique. His long braided black hair reached his back. On his waist were two katana with different lengths. His behavior and speech were sleek. He gave off the vibe of a refined man.
“Erm... Miss Miki, this gentleman didn’t cheat, I assure you. I set aside his portion beforehand.” The man, who seemed to be the shop’s clerk, came out and explained what happened.
“Beforehand? That’s obviously cheating! Your sign here clearly says “No reservation. There are only thirty bottles for sales.” If it’s possible to reserve, I would have already done that. I wouldn’t have wasted my time getting into the queue.”
Sila and his squad’s members looked at the sign, which clearly said as much. Still, Mugen didn’t seem like a despicable person, his expression showing distress. Sila and his team were close enough to join and help Miki anytime, so they didn’t act rashly. They chose to wait for further explanations.
The liquor shop was a small business outlet operated by the 15th squad. They often hunted nearby monsters for their ingredients or purchased them from other squads, then brewed liquor that they would later sell, earning funds for their squad.
Now that there was a commotion in front of the shop, the leader of the 15th squad eventually came out. Seeing the man, Sila was thoroughly shocked. It was fortunate that he was wearing a mask, or else the people would notice the change in his expression.
“Is there a problem, everyone?”
Miki loudly expressed her rage. “There is! I’m a regular customer, Wolfe! You’re a leader, so you must take responsibility for letting a swindle happen in your shop!”
The 15th Squad Leader was a man by the name of Wolfe, or rather the person who Sila instantly recognized as Lone Wolf since he wasn’t wearing a mask. His face had many wrinkles and seemed to be older by twenty years. There were dark circles around his eyes, which looked rather hollow like they belonged to an undead. He also had a messy beard. Even Ratri wouldn’t recognize the man if she was present.
Following the man was an elder with a mask covering his face. As things stood, Sila guessed he must be Hermit.
“Actually, this is just a misunderstanding. We could only make these Snow Liquors because Mister Mugen here had brought us a rare ingredient called Snow Dust without charging. He just asked us to keep one bottle for him. Thus, that bottle is the thirty-first one, separate from the batch.”
With the shop owner’s explanation, bystanders finally understood the situation. In conclusion, Miki was just too quick to snap without asking. Things seemed like they were going to end well, but no, they didn’t.
“The 15th and 16th squads are on friendly terms. Your explanation fits the situation too well. Maybe you’re lying, who knows?” Miki continued to accuse.
Her claim was possible, at least. Still, Sila knew Lone Wolf’s personality. The man wouldn’t do something like that.
“Let’s get Miki out,” muttered Sila, to which Alpha and Isaac easily complied. They moved through the crowd and approached her.
“Let’s go back, Miss Miki,” Isaac told his comrade. He and Alpha tried to pull her back while Mugen and his people opened a way for them.
“Alpha! Isaac! Let me go! They cheated us! How can you guys forgive them so easily?!”
“You’re in the wrong here. Don’t make things up. Quit bringing more shame to our squad,” Alpha bluntly told her. From Sila’s observation, Alpha seemed to be the center of the 99th squad since he was the most reliable out of the four.
Turning his head to Mugen, Alpha apologized, “We’re sorry. Also, about the debt, we will pay it soon.”
“No problem. Please take care of Miki,” Mugen replied, his voice gentle.
“I can take care of myself! Don’t pretend to be nice!” Miki struggled, trying to break free from Alpha’s and Isaac’s restraints. Her shake-off technique was executed beautifully as if she were the embodiment of a martial arts manual. Since Alpha and Isaac weren’t serious in containing her, she easily broke free.
“You’re so annoying! Isaac, wrap her up!” Alpha frowned.
A long vine flew out of Isaac’s palm. It fastened around Miki’s body and lifted her up. However, she continued to struggle. While Isaac could hold her leg, Alpha failed to catch her, causing her head to knock the ground.
“Ouch! Are you for real? Catch me properly, man!” Miki yelled.
“Just behave yourself. Stop struggling!” Alpha complained as he pulled her other leg.
“Miss Miki, did you become heavier?” Isaac blurted without thinking. Noticing her returning sharp gaze, however, he bowed his head. “Ah... it’s all just my imagination, I guess.”
“Let’s get going. Sorry again for the trouble, everyone.” Alpha turned to bow his head to the other side.
Miki turned her head around, spotting Midnight and Sila from afar. “Midnight, you didn’t help me again. Oh! Leader, you’re also here. Help me, Leader!!”
The word Leader from Miki’s mouth seemed to come with a spotlight. As soon as she said it, all eyes were on Sila. Some people even paved ways in order to take a look at him. Silently, Midnight stepped aside as if he didn’t want others to misunderstand that the Leader in question was him.
Sila received the intense gazes from everyone. They seemed to alternate between his mask and his leader badge. If each of their gazes represented a matchstick, his body would have been burned to dust by now.
Since the attention was unavoidable, Sila joined the scene and introduced himself, “I’m the new leader of the 99th squad. I heard that my squad has caused a lot of trouble. Please accept my apology.”
Sila specifically directed his eyes toward Mugen since he knew that Miki had caused trouble for the 16th squad at least twice now.
“Our Leader has come! You all are finished! Let’s do it, Leader! Punish them all!”
Everyone mostly ignored her provocation, everyone except Mugen, that is. The man sensed some kind of expectation in Miki’s tone. Apparently, Miki expected a lot from this so-called new leader, even more so than Alpha, Isaac, or Midnight, all of which had been in the same squad with her for so long. It made him wonder why.
“Please excuse my rudeness. Can you tell me your name again, Mister New Leader? I didn’t hear you very well just now.”
In fact, Sila had deliberately skipped over his name. He actually wanted to avoid attention until he got his hands on information about the person he was pretending to be, the Thief Monarch Nero. However, it seemed it could no longer be delayed.
After hearing his name, no one showed any particular reaction. It seemed Nero wasn’t as renowned as Sila had thought, which was very good for him. Unfortunately, Miki seemed to be displeased at the fact that no one knew about her new leader despite her initial reaction being identical to theirs.
“He is none other than Nero, the legendary Thief Monarch, you dimwits! Let’s do it, Leader. Don’t let them look down on us!”
Sila and his teammates regretted not asking Isaac to gag Miki’s mouth. Things seemed to end well many times, the other side forgiving them time and time again. However, Miki never stopped provoking. Eventually, one of the Mugen’s men couldn’t take it anymore.
“Enough! Our Leader already forgave you many times, but you never stop. This is beyond my endurance. What the heck is a Thief Monarch? I don’t know him. I bet he just made that title up himself. He is just the leader of a crappy squad, so his skills must be on the same level.”
“Stop!!” Mugen loudly scolded his man, causing the man to bow his head and stop talking.
Mugen turned to Sila, bowing his head. “I’m sorry my man lacks manners.”
“It’s okay. I don’t care,” replied Sila.
Lone Wolf suddenly interrupted, “I failed to notice it when you mentioned Nero, but the term Thief Monarch Nero indeed rings a bell. I heard of you a long time ago. It’s unexpected that I’m only just meeting you now after playing this game for years.”
Actually, everyone else also searched for the name Nero from their system windows. They wouldn’t normally do it when they came across strangers, but Miki’s claim that Nero was famous piqued their interest. Still, Nero’s stories were very old. The intel about him was dated several years ago.
“A player from the pioneer era. One of the Ten Rising Stars, the Thief Monarch, Nero.”
The Ten Rising Stars was a list of powerhouses, made by players back in the early days. The list included Zero and Lone Wolf. The list soon shrunk as it was unreliable, especially when a particular newcomer—Cross—publicly and single-handedly beat two people on the list. In the end, the list changed to Four Emperors. Thus, Ten Rising Stars were like an outdated fashion magazine—unreliable and unhelpful. Just based on the fact that Montra wasn’t included in one of the ten already indicated a lot about their inaccuracy.
As for Nero’s epics, excluding the tale about him establishing the first-ever bandit group, there were only rumors about him and his band robbing other players. Still, he was only in the list because he was a pioneer for bandits. The feats he had achieved in the past could be seen anywhere by now. Even his skills were said to be mediocre, with Magic Arrow seeming to be his only decent move. He tended to fight with a group, rarely acting alone.
Fortunately, the real Nero seemed to be a magic-type, or at least was viewed as one from the majority’s perspectives. Well, it wasn’t strange since most players are prone to try using magic abilities when they first enter the game. Magic points are the only visible energy resource in the initial stage. Magic Arrow is also a basic skill that any player can learn. It is easy to cast and very safe to use, so it suits a new player.
Most veteran players, Nero probably included, tended to avoid selecting their main energy type even when they met the qualifications. They would play the game using standard and item skills. It would appear as if they could use all three energy types this way, but that wasn’t the truth at all. As long as they hadn’t selected the energy type, their rank would be stuck at Squire Rank. More importantly, not selecting the energy type would block them from learning the most important supportive skills—Basic Qi, Basic Magic, or Basic Psychic—which severely hindered the growth of their characters.
As it turned out, Nero also relied a lot on Magic Arrow in his early days. No one, at least in the majority of players, really knew which energy type he belonged to. It wouldn’t even be strange if the real Nero chose to become a magic-type player like Sila had claimed.
Based on the information found in the forum, Nero’s life as a gamer was that of a total loser. He became renowned for the briefest of moments then disappeared like a firework. Whatever he attempted had failed. Trying to play a prank on a new player? The guy turned out to be Zero, and Nero was beaten instead. Trying to flirt with a young woman? She killed him and one of his most important items dropped. The saddest event of them all was that no one even noticed when he had left the game.
Going through the information he asked Zarnak to recite for him, Sila couldn’t help but pity the man. Maybe the 16th member’s previous speech would have infuriated the real Nero. Well, Sila wasn’t Nero. He wasn’t angry, just sympathetic.
“The Shadow Army doesn’t ask about the past. Let’s stop talking about what has already happened. It’s good that we came to an understanding. Please beg my pardon,” Sila ended the conversation and asked to leave. He didn’t want the situation to escalate any further.
Sila beckoned his squad to leave. Nevertheless, the same member from the 16th squad rudely shouted at him behind his back.
“You can run away today, but we will see tomorrow how ‘legendary’ you are!”
Mugen directed his sharp gaze at the man again before saying goodbye. “We have to go back as well. See you tomorrow.”
The conflict had ended, so the crowd gradually left the scene. Sila and his squad brought Miki back to their headquarters. Some people looked at them on their way back. Sila had a feeling that the situation where they had to carry Miki back like this must have happened before. At the very least, Alpha and Isaac seemed to know where their hands should go in order to avoid setting her off.
When they finally arrived at their headquarters, Sila asked the gang about the meaning behind the 16th squad’s member’s departing words.
“Back then... the man said something like we won’t be able to run away tomorrow. What did he mean?”
Alpha shook his head. “No clue. Maybe he was just being a jerk?”
“I don’t know... he seemed pretty serious about it. Maybe something will really happen tomorrow...” added Isaac.
Miki continued, “Whatever. If they come at us tomorrow, we will just beat them down, one by one!”
“It’s about the Monthly Re-Ranking Tournament,” Midnight interrupted.
“Ah, that!” Alpha just realized. “We never had a leader, so we never bothered.”
“What tournament?” asked Sila. Seeing Miki stop struggling, he told Isaac to let her down.
Isaac deactivated his magic, causing Miki to fall to the ground. No one helped her up, but she didn’t care in the least. She got up and wiped off the dirt on her clothing as if nothing had happened.
“It’s the Monthly Re-Ranking Tournament. It’s a system Cross put in place to measure the strength of his members. The Shadow Army was established a while back, but we only seized Colossia City recently. Knowing that the city was once called the Battle City, Sir Zero desired to revive its past glory by reintroducing the Monthly Re-Ranking Tournament. We didn’t have a squad leader so we never bothered to participate,” Alpha explained.
Sila’s objective wasn’t about taking care of the squad. He asked, “Can we not participate?”
“We could when the squad didn’t have a leader, but they said it’s mandatory when that isn’t the case. They want leaders from each squad to get to know each other. We have to at least participate, though I think we can give up halfway, maybe?”
“Should we do this kind of event? We’re at war and are currently surrounded by goblins. It isn’t the time to do something like this,” Sila expressed his opinion.
“No, Leader. This tournament is very important. The members of the Shadow Army don’t fight each other. Our ranking is mostly determined by accomplishments. However, for bottom-line squads like us, we don’t get many jobs to prove ourselves, so the event is another decisive way to promote. It also helps us get to know each other, making us ready to fight external foes.”
“Are you afraid you will lose, Leader? No worries. We’ll win this for sure!” Miki declared with absolute confidence.
“The event doesn’t only measure the strength of leaders, but also the squad’s teamwork. There are many details. Do you want to read it yourself?” Isaac handed Sila a notice.
Sila flipped through it without thinking. However, Zarnak suddenly spoke up in his head, quite loudly, “My inattentive master, look at the reward.”
“The reward for placing first is a decent building with a free upgrade ticket, together with a swimming pool and training facilities. It can hold a hundred people inside.”
“Not that. I mean the consolation prize. Look at the fifth page.”
Sila hurriedly followed its instructions, looking at the said price. “D-Grade Short Dagger. Light and easy to use. Suitable for use in kitchens.”
“The image in this book is very small, but I spot Lady Igsia’s symbol engraved on the dagger’s handle. This dagger must have been made by a chieftain-level goblin. It could be a clue to help us find the sword.”
Sila squinted his eyes, intently glaring at the image. All he could see on the dagger’s handle was a small dot, however. In fact, the paper’s quality was quite bad. It could’ve just been an ink stain.
“Are you sure? You won’t tell me later that you misunderstood it, right?”
“My vision is different than yours. I can see what you can’t.”
Actually, there were only three real rewards for squads who got first to third place. The other rewards were miscellaneous and were granted to the squads with Best Teamwork, Best Qi-Type Player, Best Magic-Type Player, Best Psychic-Type Player, Most Popular, and etc. As a matter of fact, most squads participated in order to get a better rank for their squads. The rewards were just a bonus.
This was especially the case for the dagger, which was a consolation prize, so no one really cared about it. The condition to get this reward was to rank last in an activity.
Checking his squad members, Sila was relieved. ‘There is nothing to worry about. This reward is already in the bag.’
Sorry for the slower release rate, everyone.I'm going to have my first child in a few weeks and my schedule is overturned!
Congratulations. Family is important.
Can someone answer me please. Why Pumin do not give Sila the soul yet ? If Pumin give Sila the soul maybe Sila already have Angelic or Demonic Armanent. Or maybe I'm simple wrong ?
@Dragoonity Thank you for the answer. I understand now why Pumin do not give Sila the soul. I know one person can only have one demonic or angelic armanent but why Sila want to search that Demonic Armament, Dichotomous Crucifix Sword ? Is he can use it even though he already have Zarnak the Dragon ? Or maybe I do not read the information carefully when Zarnak and Montra explain that armanent ? Maybe some missing information.If Sila can use more than one demonic or angelic armanent, it is not better if his father just give that soul to him ?
Dragoonity said:In regards to the second question, we could never know what might have happen if that were the case since Sila both did not get the soul and he also did not care for a prize at the end, content with having that pup instead and leaving the city to the other guild, now run by Ratri.There does not seem to be any mention in any of the chapters that I have skimmed through that say that you can only have 1 Demonic/Angelic Armament. The only thing that pops up was when Montra was talking to the Goblins about how to obtain a Angelic Armament for himself, in which the Goblin said that you can only have either one since once you get either a Demonic or Angelic Armament, you are basically locked out of getting the other one. So from what it seems, you can get either or but at does not lock you out of getting more than one Demonic/Angelic Armament.So to answer your question of can Sila have more than one Demonic Armament or not, the answer for now until it say otherwise is a Yes, Sila can have more than one Demonic Armament. Just like how Montra can also have more than 1 Angelic Armament if he wants to as well.
Due to long battles without any breaks in between, the Snow Region in the north had been restless for two days already. Buildings had collapsed and there were fires everywhere, creating black smoke that blocked the night sky. Citizens and monsters were running non-stop. Above them were groups of countless birds flying in circles, each serving as an omen of death.
Sebastian raised his head, looking at the sky. Next to him were White and Vogue. The three of them were like the strategists of Belacia City, so they stayed in the safest place in the city, observing the birds’ movements.
The citizens in Belacia City, White included, were already familiar with northern monsters. She could now speak to Lord-Rank monsters as equals without feeling pressured.
“This is already the second day. It seems our enemies are bombarding us in shifts. If we don’t change how we defend, we will lose.”
Vogue generated a holographic map with his psychic power. It showed the positions of members from both sides. He pointed his finger at a group of triangular symbols, representing the enemies, who were fighting against the circular symbols, that represented their side.
“The enemies came from the air, so the underground tunnel and most of the traps prepared by the dwarves became ineffective. Even worse, only half of our combatants, humans included, can fight well against flying enemies.”
The enemies bombarding them from the sky proved to be extremely troublesome. While it was true that each and every one of Belacia’s citizens and monsters possessed a way to fight flying enemies, such fighting styles weren’t their forte. Due to the situation, some monsters had to stay on standby even though they came from races that were very active in wars. This included the Giant King Karum and the Dwarf King Bul, who were currently in the headquarters, waiting for further instructions.
Keeping in mind the overall situation, Sebastian had been preserving their forces, not dispatching them in their entirety. He ordered the army to alternate their shifts in order to conserve strength.
“Normally in wars, the attacking side has to be quick while the defending side has to let it drag out. This is our terrain. If we can stall for a couple of days, the other side will surely change their tactics,” commented Sebastian.
“It’s difficult for us though. Although these birds are only Knight Rank, their numbers are a problem. How can they endlessly keep on coming?”
Vogue shared his intel, “Furthermore, their kings haven’t shown up yet. From the information provided by Gigan, the bird race must have six kings. Two are qi type, one is magic type, and the remaining three are psychics. The absurd number of birds must be the result of the Psychic Bird Clone skill from the Sky King. However, even Gigan doesn’t know how the summoned birds have such high ranks.”
The Sky King’s Psychic Bird Clone could split a monster under his rule into two, the target’s resources and overall power also being split in half. As a matter of fact, he could repeatedly use the skill on the same target. It was a method to create an unlimited number of soldiers. Still, the more the target was split up, the weaker they became, so the skill was oftentimes used for diversion purposes rather than direct assaults.
“Those birds are even a bit stronger than ordinary Knight Rank monsters.”
White didn’t understand. Knight Rank monsters were normally no match for them. However, these birds were as strong as early-stage Marquis Rank monsters. It was fortunate that they had low health points, so AOE skills were extremely effective against them. If it wasn’t for this, Belacia City would have been broken on the first day of the siege.
“Must be the work of the Emerald-Winged King, one of the other psychic-types. The bird race’s strong suit is their ability to work together, generating great synergy. It’s highly likely that their kings are hiding themselves and pouring their power through the Emerald-Winged King, strengthening the summoned birds.”
Having seen Bluebird using a similar skill, Sebastian wasn’t that surprised. It would be extremely helpful if Sila was here to use Omniscient Evil God Qi. However, he was asked to handle things from here, so he didn’t want to bother his master.
Sebastian had been recently travelling around between Belacia City and Skull Mountain Pass, but at this rate, it seemed he ought to stay in the city for a longer visit this time.
“The opposing side is keeping their trump cards back. They want to probe us to see whether we have any tricks in our bags. I expect they will elevate the level of the attack in less than two days. If we can’t keep up, they will fully assault us until we’ve been defeated. This is the reason why I haven’t used Death Magic yet. With more casualties, regardless of which side they come from, my spells will become increasingly powerful.”
“What if their level of assault goes beyond what we can handle?”
“Well, sometimes we have to rely on luck. I’m betting on it.”
“Betting on what?”
“On whether the enemies will crush us first, or if my lantern will light up before they do.”
Sebastian chuckled lightly. Reminded of Lord Yama, Vogue felt chills run down his spine. On the other hand, White didn’t know what the lantern did, so she was confused.
Glancing at the lantern’s continuous blinking faint aura, Sebastian laughed at his past idiocy for idly waiting for its next use for almost a month. Its name, the Manifesting Soul Lantern, already hinted that its fuel was none other than souls of monsters dying near it.
If these birds hadn’t come, it probably would’ve taken him much longer to discover this secret. Thus, when the flame in the lantern returned, Sebastian intended to‘return the favor’ in full.
The Slime Kingdom was under a powerful magic domain. The darkness was strong, blocking the slimes’ vision and preventing them from seeing things further than two meters ahead. On their bodies were chain-shaped tattoos that suppressed 30% of their total stats.
Most slimes were protected under a domain made of Viola’s Divine Raiment. However, no matter how capable she was or how high her stats were, she couldn’t maintain a domain this large for so long.
“You can’t borrow ambient mana, I take it? How long can this domain last?” The Slime King approached Viola, who was sitting in the kingdom’s central square.
She shook her head. “No, I can only use my own magic power. To sustain a domain this large, another 16-17 hours are the longest I can last.”
“Well, our opponent is Kritsana. Her Unison Percentage is at 98%, which is the highest in Monster Soul.”
Some enemies managed to invade the Divine Raiment. The skeletons were parts of the Sovereign of Grave Keepers. The more they fought, the stronger they became. Every time they died, they would adapt themselves to make fighting against them become increasingly harder.
“Death Magic at this level isn’t something we can withstand. We have to quickly find Kritsana's whereabouts and defeat her,” Divine proposed the most obvious solution to counter a powerful spell—defeating the caster.
“Pinpointing her location is not difficult. She is underwater, on the northern side of the Island of Beginnings, around one kilometer from the shore,” the Slime King announced.
Divine frowned. “She knows that seawater is our racial weakness and how to exploit it. It’s possible that she already expected us to come.”
The Slime King and the Guardians were full-fledged monsters, so—unlike Sila—they didn’t get the privileges available for players. Goddess Cynthia had bestowed upon humankind divine protections, negating some debuffs. Seawater wouldn’t work against Sila, but it worked against other slimes.
Although Montra had asked her to get rid of the protections, things were changing slowly. Cynthia didn’t lift all of her blessings at once but gradually canceled them in order to keep aftereffect at the minimum level. It hadn’t been long since Montra made the request, so players were still unaware of the effects.
Kritsana’s only weakness was the fact that he was too famous, meaning everyone in the closed beta knew who he was and what he could do. Still, knowing was one thing and being able to fight him was another. During the closed beta, Kritsana’s strength was comparable to Hu Xian’s, maybe being just slightly inferior.
“She hasn’t made use of her S-grade set items suitable for close combat, the Rings of Sovereigns, yet. Even Hu Xian suffered from them back then.”
The Rings of Sovereigns are set items similar to the dual swords set—Dorolia and Solaria Swords—in a sense that they are useless at first, but exert tyrannical might both individually and together once the set has been completely obtained. Set items are naturally stronger in accordance to the number of items within the sets in the user’s possession. The Rings of Sovereigns were a set of eight items and Kritsana managed to obtain them all, so their abilities were unfathomable.
“Our solution is to keep defending until Luaid successfully destroys Kritsana’s magic domain. When the time comes, Divine will teleport us to Kritsana. The four of us will pour our attacks at her without holding back. Defeat her as soon as possible to minimize our losses.”
Only the Slime King and Divine were fortunate enough to have personally witnessed Kritsana’s fight in the Monster Realm. On the other hand, Poluk wondered.
“Against a man who knows nothing about profound arts... won’t that be going a little overboard?”
Divine shook his head. “Kritsana is an enemy we can’t afford to fight solo. In my opinion, even when it’s four against one, to defeat Kritsana, one or two of us will die.”
The Slime King agreed. “By the way, she is a woman, not a man. Well, she deliberately pilots an old man avatar, so I guess she wants to keep her real identity a secret.”
Even the Slime King himself managed to bring Bow into the game as a monster, so he guessed Kritsana must have some kind of agreement with Joshua as well. In any case, he accidentally discovered her gender thanks to the power of his Marvelous Bible. Nevertheless, he found nothing about her even after he tried to investigate her background. She never showed her real self in public and always selected a male avatar as her character in every game she played. It was a wonder how could she manage to keep her secret for this long.
Each and every player had their own reasons for entering the world of Monster Soul. It would be great if they could join forces. However, if their interests collided, it was natural that a battle would break out.
That was a law of the world that the four were fully aware of. All they could do for now was preserve their strength, waiting for the storm to pass by in order to turn the tables in the decisive moment.
A certain small hut, located within a very special dimension, was a place normally unapproachable by most people. Joshua, too, was a distinguished person, so meeting him was a difficult feat. The hut was his peaceful space, exclusively for him and his wife.
However, on this particular day, an anomaly was happening.
The air around the hut was heavily shaking like a television in the environment with a poor signal. The grass, wind, and artificial sunlight turned greyish. A black screen unfolded itself before Joshua’s eyes, completely interrupting his and his wife’s afternoon teatime.
“You’re as carefree as ever, huh, Frankenstein.” An electronic voice greeted him.
Even with the artificial voice with no face, Joshua didn’t even have to guess who the speaker was. There was only one man capable of causing a disturbance in Monster Soul’s system. The former World’s Most Wanted cyber-criminal—Boss’ left-hand man.
“Ziz,” Joshua greeted the opposing side with a serious expression, “Is there an emergency?”
Their ‘organization’ rarely contacted each other, much less confronting one another. Even Joshua had only encountered two executives so far. Most of the time, Boss would send news through his two most trusted lieutenants, though every time they did make a call, it was almost guaranteed that something big was going to happen.
Ziz said with a casual attitude, “You know what? The most troublesome thing about having a double agent is that we can never be sure whether the person is really on our side or not.”
“Does Boss think I’ve switched sides?”
“Nah, I merely expressed my concern,” Ziz said, pausing briefly, before continuing, “You are still on our side, right?”
“Of course I am,” Joshua replied as he restated his allegiance to the organization. He tightly held Cynthia’s hand. “Only the organization can make my dream come true.”
“That’s a relief. The intel I got recently is unreliable, then. It’s great that I can pleasantly inform Boss that there is nothing to worry about.”
Joshua’s expression remained unchanged, but he panicked inside. The fact that Boss got wind of his possible betrayal implied that his past actions had somehow leaked to Boss’ ears. Joshua had always been so vigilant around the organization, so this meant there was a spy among someone close to Sila or Montra.
“You actually didn’t have to hack into the system. If you prefer, I can appoint you as an NPC. You can observe the Wulin Masters Association’s movements together with me this way.” Joshua probed for Ziz’s reaction.
“It’s okay. I’m not interested in playing games. We already have three executives in the game anyway.”
‘Three? ...Including me, there should be only Faceless, right? Or is he trying to see if I react as well?’ Joshua thought.
“Oh, by the way, Boss has already scheduled D-Day. I will forward the details to you later.”
“Is everyone going to assemble?” Joshua wondered. The gathering of all executives was unprecedented.
“Nah, everyone should continue doing their usual jobs. I’m just here to notify you. Only Boss and Typhon will participate in the attack,” Ziz replied, then left.
Joshua felt chills in his chest. He had thought Boss would send two executives and a group of members. However, it turned out that Boss would personally take action against the Wulin Masters Association.
In fact, even if Boss dispatched his right-hand man—Typhon—alone, Joshua believed that it would already spell despair for the association. No one in the association could stand a chance against Typhon. Even against the Three Elders fighting together, Typhon would still come out victorious.
The basis behind Joshua’s belief was the fact that the Three Elders were the Demon God Zenga’s disciples. Even now, each of their strengths still fell far behind compared to Zenga at his strongest.
Typhon was the one who had forced a draw against Zenga back in the day. This was even done a long time ago in the past, back when the organization’s martial development technology was nothing compared to how it is now.
With the plethora of bad news, Joshua’s worries grew by leaps and bounds. He quickly opened his system window and input several commands. Now he sincerely hoped the Wulin Lord selection would come to an end soon. Their chances of survival would only diminish further the longer the selection took to finish.
As he toured Colossia City during the night to better familiarize himself with the situation and the city’s layout, Sila suddenly collapsed on the ground. His strength left him, rendering him completely immobile like a doll with its strings cut, his head hurting as if someone were banging drumsticks on it. Soon, a light enveloped him similar to when he logged out.
“W-What’s happening?” Sila was shocked.
Opening his eyes, he found himself in a white room with absolutely nothing inside beside him.
“Sorry for such a drastic measure, Sila, but it’s really necessary,” Joshua said as he suddenly appeared.
“Sila, something urgent has come up, so I used my right as a Game Master to temporarily force you to log out. No worry. It won’t take long. I, too, don’t have any time to spare.”
“What is the urgent matter?” It was the first time Sila had seen Joshua looking distressed. The man’s usual calm demeanor was nowhere to be seen.
“I just adjusted your synchronization rate to its maximum level. I actually have been gradually adjusting it in order to let your brain flawlessly adapt to the new value. However, that would be too slow. Doing this way is faster, but comes with a downside. You will notice the difference immediately. Originally the idea behind virtual reality technology is to initiate virtual movements using brainwaves. By forcefully accelerating your brainwaves, you will feel the burden. I guess you will feel like your body has become heavier and you can’t execute movements properly. Still, it will be fine once you successfully adapt to it.”
Sila frowned. “Is there a need to do that?”
“Mn. The organization is starting to move. The association doesn’t have much time left. If it’s possible, I want you to end the war as soon as you can. Actually, please don’t make it longer than one month, in-game time.”
“One month?!” Sila loudly exclaimed. “But... our underground raid alone needs a whole month for the tunnel to be ready. This is without mentioning the next phase, when we’ll invade the Magic Kingdom.”
“If the digging is going to take that long, then you must help them dig, I’d say. I’m telling you this because I wish you well. The sooner the selection comes to an end, the more time you’ll have to cope with the organization.”
Sila was deep in thought. Actually, idly waiting was never his style. If he managed to solve the goblin problem within a few days, his next assignment would be helping Cross’ raid. There were as many strategies as there were stars in the sky, so maybe he could find some way to accelerate the end of the war.
“That’s all I have to say. Oh, another thing. Don’t trust anyone too much. I know for certain that there is a traitor close to us. It’s unfortunate that I can’t discern their identity.”
Sila nodded. Before he could say anything, however, Joshua forcefully expelled him from the room.
Still in the same room, Joshua opened his system window and continued his work. In order to not raise Ziz’s suspicions, he mustn’t contact Sila or Montra until after all of this was over.
“This way, Sila’s synchronization rate is now on par with Typhon’s. The rest is on him as to how far he can push himself with it. As for Montra... his brain scanner is a normal model, so I can’t directly interfere with him. Still, even if he is not aware of it, Cynthia gave him the special reward. Beyond that, I can only hope that he doesn’t get caught by Ziz.”
Within the organization, Joshua was one of the core members in the Research and Development Department. He had been spending a significant amount of funds, provided by the organization, on his personal project. Each technology he provided them was a degraded version of the original. For example, the brain scanner that Typhon had used was worse than what Sila was currently using. Thus, the realm that Typhon reached in ten years would be within Sila’s reach after only a few months.
Joshua had done everything he could think of. The future would be decided by the victor of the war event.
Sila reappeared on the cold, hard street of Colossia City. He slowly got up and swept dirt from his Beggar’s Cloak. It took him an instant to understand what Joshua told him. Despite everything being the same, he clearly felt that merely moving his muscles required more effort. It was as if he was an athlete who had stopped working out for years. His senses were still as sharp as before, but that only made the sluggish state of his body clearer.
“Well, it’s fine. I have always thought that I need to train harder. This feels like I have weights strapped to my body.”
Sila tried moving his body around. He discovered that his qi still circulated at its usual speed, and only his movements had become slightly unsmooth. It wouldn’t make much of a difference in normal situations but would prove to be fatal during battles against someone of Kawin or Montra’s caliber.
This made Sila more eager to train himself diligently. He kept circulating qi even when he walked around, staying focused on qi concealment. At the same time, he deliberately gradually released magic power from his skin. This way, from the eyes of high-level magic-type players who had attained the essence of magic, he wouldn’t look any different from other magic-type players.
“There is no need to overcomplicate things.” Sila opened his system window and contacted Bluebird.
Before Joshua forced him to log out, Sila was preoccupied with how to get his hands on the consolation reward. It was a reward for the squad that placed last, so no one really cared about it. Thus, he planned to bluntly ask Bluebird, the host of the activity, for it. He was willing to trade it for something of higher value.
Listening to Sila’s proposal, Bluebird opened his system window, then he showed a distressed expression.
“Too bad. Sorry, pal, but I can’t do that.”
“Why not?” Sila didn’t understand. He saw no problem, especially when this was about the reward for the last place.
“You still don’t get how Colossia City’s tournament system works. The host like us can request the system for the type of tournament and add rewards, but—to prevent cheating—the system will handle the rest. You can say it’s like we’re sponsoring the system to hold a tournament. We can add rewards, but we can’t withdraw them.”
Sila frowned. “Is there a cheating prevention measure? Why now? Back then when I participated, Cross cheated me time and time again. He had no issues making my life harder.”
“The Royal Armament Guild didn’t cheat you over the rewards. They just bent the rules, which can always be adjusted. The system will ask for the participants’ permissions though. Do you remember?”
“So I have no choice but to participate, I guess.”
Bluebird looked up the details of the tournament. “Mn. By the way, this tournament is not a direct fight. It’s more about measuring each squad’s overall ability. Even if you try your best, your squad might get last place anyway. There should be no problems if you’re aiming for that reward... Ah?”
Sila was about to feel relief that things were going well. Noticing Bluebird’s sudden frown, however, his worry grew.
“This is bad... Who included such a rule? Boss, maybe.” Bluebird swept his eyes across the details again, sighing. “Tough luck. There is no leeway for this.”
“Listen, about this tournament, it’s okay for your team’s score to be the lowest. However, at least half of the team’s members must advance to the final round in order for the squad to be able to obtain any reward. In your case, your squad has five members, so it should round up to three.”
“It depends on the other members, then?” Sila became more worried. He was very confident if the result would be decided solely by him. On the contrary, he didn’t know what he could expect from his teammates.
“Some squads have many members while some don’t. I guess Boss included this rule to make it a fair game,” speculated Bluebird.
Sila started reading the details again. They were written in small letters and could be easily overlooked. Nevertheless, the rules indeed stated this much.
“What kind of activities are included anyway? This notice doesn’t explain much. All I know is that the tournament will measure members’ abilities, the squad’s performance, and the leader’s ability.”
Bluebird showed a distressed expression again, “Honestly speaking, I also have no idea. We’re busy with many things, so we leave everything about the tournament to the system’s care. Unlike other events in other cities, Colossia City’s tournament can be randomized, which I guess is for the sake of excitement. Well, it’s a lot cheaper, so we let the system randomly decide what kind of mini-events the tournament will contain.”
“Random? Won’t that be dangerous? The Shadow Army shouldn’t risk competing against themselves too much. What if there is an accident and people die?”
“Easy, man. It’s gonna be fine. We already informed the system about it and they said there is no need to worry. There won’t be any fights to the death. In any dangerous mini-events, they will give each participant a substitution doll. It’s an event-exclusive item. When one dies, it will break, and the owner of the doll will live on, but be eliminated from the event.”
Sila sighed. He had been talking to Bluebird for quite a while but got nothing useful. Since he didn’t have to sleep, he planned to use his time wisely, finding more clues in the city.
“Whatever. I will find a way. Maybe I will try to purchase it from the squad that gets the prize.”
“Oh, smart move. That should be easy. My role ends here, right? It’s late at night, you’re not being considerate at all. I only slept for a few minutes before you came along.”
“You can sleep in my mansion, you know. That place has a high recovery rate. Sleeping a couple of hours there will refresh you,” suggested Sila.
“I don’t want to feel refreshed! I want to sleep! The more I sleep, the less I have to work. Who in their right mind would want to work a lot?”
Sila was close to Bluebird, but he was still fed up with the man.
“Up to you, then. One last question though. Are there strange things happening in Colossia City? It can be anything, even trivial matters. I’m searching for something that might or might not be hiding in Colossia City.”
Bluebird yawned, wiping a teardrop from the corner of his eye. “Are you looking for fireflies?”
“Outside of the city in the north, there is a small grass hill. Fireflies have recently been coming out at night there. The view is exceptionally beautiful with them around. It has become one of the ten most romantic spots in Monster Soul. You’ll get a good score if you bring your date there.” Bluebird gave Sila a thumbs up.
Sila felt it was rather dumb. “Anything else?”
“Well, you should already know this, but goblins are setting up camps on the west side. Be careful if you plan to go in that direction.”
“Thanks. Before you sleep, please send me the information about fireflies,” Sila requested as he closed his system window. He had expected to hear useful intel from Bluebird. However, as it turned out, he got nothing aside from the sudden appearance of fireflies.
“Zarnak, are fireflies related in any way to the Goddess Igsia?”
“I think not.”
The intel soon arrived in Sila's system window. It was unexpectedly well-written. Key messages were highlighted and the document was well-organized. It was the kind of work that Bluebird wouldn’t do.
“Fireflies didn’t just show up yesterday, so they shouldn’t be related to the release of Demonic Armaments. Some people have already investigated the spot but discovered nothing. They can only speculate that the area is somehow special since monsters have never shown up.”
“Such a phenomenon means that the area is under Lady Cynthia’s divine protection. Most human habitats are like that.”
“I guess so. Well, I heard that monsters have been invading some cities lately. I’m starting to wonder whether the Goddess is really protecting humanity or not.”
Sila walked slowly to the north of the city. The world was at war, so the atmosphere was quite tense. He could spot members of some squads stationed on roofs and walls. Fortunately, he had the leader badge, so no one came to question him. This was the first time he was thankful for the fact that he was appointed as a squad leader. At least he could roam free in the city to some degree.
The main gate located on the north side of the city was shut tight, but a small gate next to it was still open for entering and exiting, albeit having a security check. The Shadow Army didn’t care about people’s past or their real identities, so guards only checked the validation of the badge. One of the guards came to touch Sila’s badge once, then let him go.
The grass hill had a gradual slope, glowing under the moonlight and several groups of fireflies. Some couples had chosen to take some time off, escaping from the brutality of the war to enjoy the mesmerizing sight.
Sila heard a whistle. This place had many people, so he didn’t expect someone to call him.
“Nero— I mean, Leader! This way!”
At first, Sila forgot that his alias was Nero. It took a couple of seconds before he realized it and turned his head to see the speaker.
“As expected of our Leader. You even tracked us to this place,” commented Isaac.
Surprisingly, all of his squad members were there, leaning on the city wall. Sila approached them.
“I thought you were at the headquarters,” Sila greeted them. As a matter of fact, he didn’t use the search function of the leader badge. Coming across his squad members was a total coincidence.
“It’s no fun there. Come, Leader, sit with us and watch the show.”
Sila sat down, next to everyone. Alpha turned to Miki. “Leader is with us this time. Don’t make a mistake.”
Miki showed a victory pose and grinned. She donned a mask and a cloak, then approached a particular couple. Confused, Sila was about to ask what she planned to do but was stopped by Alpha.
Miki stopped in front of the couple. She sobbed. “Seeing you happier this way, I can finally be at ease. Farewell, my darling. I will never forget you.”
As the couple were thoroughly shocked and didn’t know how to respond, they couldn’t stop Miki before she ran away, her eyes gradually tearing up.
Sila wondered. “Erm... Why did she do that?”
“For the sake of our job. Just wait and see.”
The couple started to fight as expected. The woman slapped the man and rushed back to the city while the only action the man could do was call out at her. He actually tried to follow her, but stumbled on the grass, falling.
Sila noticed that Isaac had controlled the grass to catch the man’s ankle beforehand. By the time the man had gotten back on his feet, his girlfriend was long gone.
Alpha calmly approached the man. “Did your girlfriend catch you having an affair? Too bad, bro.”
“What? I’m not having an affair. This is just a misunderstanding. I will explain it to her later.”
Alpha tapped the man’s shoulder. “Man, seeing this sure brings back painful memories. You know what, bro? I also broke up with my girlfriend because of a misunderstanding like this. Women won’t listen to us when they’re angry.”
“Oi? Really? Will this dumb misunderstanding lead to us breaking up?”
“From what I saw just now, I think she really isn’t going to listen to you. How about this, bro? My squad is quite free. Do you want me to explain it to her in your place?”
The man’s face was brimming with hope. “Can you? Thanks! I will return this favor later.”
“There is no need for that, bro. I just want to help. By the way, I’m Alpha from the 99th squad. This is my name card. You can keep it.” Alpha handed the man his name card and agreed to meet again later in a restaurant.
Alpha returned to the team. He didn’t have to see through Sila’s mask to know that his new leader was making a doubtful expression right now.
“No need to worry, Leader. Miki already followed that woman. She will apologize to her for mistaking her boyfriend for someone else.”
Isaac explained, “This way, later when he has some trivial jobs, he might ask us to support his squad and share some of the earnings.”
“Have you been doing this a lot?” asked Sila.
“If you mean ‘this approach’, then no. We don’t always do this since the success rate is rather low. We have to observe whether the woman is hot-tempered. Most of the time, we let Isaac run in front of a caravan and cry like a little girl, asking for compensation. Other times, we let Midnight act depressed in a restaurant, begging for sympathy,” Alpha explained.
“I didn’t cry like a little girl!! I was just completely immersed in the character!” Isaac argued loudly.
Sila shook his head, wearing a dumbfounded expression. Apparently, his squad wasn’t just the weakest. Even the squad members themselves were troublemakers. As their leader, he believed he had to do something to fix this.
If he failed to properly guide these four people, he wouldn’t dare to imagine the future when he became the Wulin Lord and had all of the people in the underworld working under him.
All of the 99th squad’s members, with the exception of Miki, had been waiting for about fifteen minutes by the time their final member returned from mending the relationship the squad had intentionally fractured. She walked up to the team and reported her success.
“It’s done. Those two have already made up.”
Sila was relieved to know that their prank didn’t cause any irreversible consequences while the others were content that they would probably get more jobs in the future, earning some money and eventually clearing the debt.
“Today’s work is done!” Alpha spread his arms. “Ah... By the way, we came here to work, but what about you, Leader? Why did you come?”
“Finding some chicks?” Miki quickly guessed.
“Or are you here to peep on them?” Isaac tried.
Alpha frowned. “That would be you, Isaac. You don’t even blink whenever you stare at that lady from the 9th squad. Be brave, little bro. Don’t just stare. There are many men eyeing her. Some guy will steal her heart before you do if you don’t take action.”
Isaac’s face reddened. “I-I don’t have weird feelings for her!”
“Heh. I think it would be pointless even if you did. In fact, I heard Miss Risa already has a boyfriend. She has been refusing every guy coming her way.”
“Eh?! I have never seen her boyfriend though! Who is he?”
“Dunno. Maybe he just doesn’t play Monster Soul.” Alpha smirked. “Ahem. Didn’t you just say you don’t have any feelings for her? You look desperate now that it’s possible she might be taken though.”
Meanwhile, Sila noticed a disturbance of power around one of his members.
‘Hm? Midnight’s magic power lost its calm edge a bit when they said her name. Could it be that this guy likes her too? Wow... even a quiet guy like him likes her, so I guess she must be quite pretty.’
Midnight was a quiet person, so no one aside from Sila noticed how he became even more silent than usual.
“Hey, hey. So, why exactly did you come to this place, Leader? If it’s interesting, we’ll help. If you want to impress a girl, we can send Isaac or Alpha to play delinquent, courting the girl, and then let you rescue her. How about it?” Miki urged Sila to answer.
Sila waved his hand. “No, I’m not here for that. I just heard that the area around the north gate has something strange going on, so I’m here to check. There’s no real purpose.”
Alpha nodded. “Mn. I understand you. People flocked here to investigate back then. Most of them have left though. Only couples remain.” He pointed at a certain hill. “That spot is called the Firefly Hill. The grass there is especially soft and the area is wide, very suitable for taking in the scenery at night. Despite its name, however, fireflies don’t come out from there. They are just flying around throughout the area.”
This information was new to Sila since the document he received from Bluebird didn’t mention it. Apparently, what Alpha said just now was the intel members of the Shadow Army exchanged after they had conquered the city and done a thorough investigation.
“Is that so? Where do they come from, then?”
“You have to go north two hundred meters further ahead. It’s not that far. A lot more fireflies are flocking around there. However, the terrain is full of sharp rocks, large and small, so it’s not romantic.”
It was also wartime. The spot was further from the city’s wall. If something urgent were to happen, they would be at risk.
“Can I go and have a look?” asked Sila.
“You don’t need permission from anyone, Leader,” replied Alpha. “Come on, I will guide you there.”
Sila couldn’t find any excuse to reject Alpha’s good will, so the whole 99th squad traveled together. There was nothing notable that happened along their journey.
Once they arrived at their destination, Sila discovered that the spot really wasn’t romantic for couples. The rocks were sharp and the road was bumpy. If they weren’t careful when they walked, they would get injured. In addition, there were so many fireflies that they became annoying instead of beautiful.
“There is nothing.” Isaac threw some rocks in a bored manner.
“I told you. Many people already investigated and found nothing.” Alpha shrugged.
Sila, too, didn’t notice anything out of place. On the other hand, Midnight bent over and inspected a couple of rocks, then approached a bigger one.
“Midnight, did you find something interesting?” Miki approached Midnight and snuggled up to the rock he was inspecting.
“Maybe there is something... below,” Midnight spoke up to no one in particular.
Alpha and Isaac attached their ears to the rock. They tried knocking it and heard a thudding sound, though they failed to notice how it was different from the other rocks.
Midnight handed one of the small rocks to Sila. “They’re pumices. They can normally be found several hundred meters underground. The fact that they are here means someone dug up the ground around there. The soil must have been washed away by rain, leaving only these rocks behind.”
Alpha tapped Midnight’s shoulder. “Wow. You sure are knowledgeable. Could it be that you’re actually an amazing person in disguise?”
“No, I’m not. I used to do some volunteer work while I studied at university. The Geology Department was moving their room back then, so I got to help them arrange various kinds of rocks. I remember some of the names and details.”
“So, you think there is something beneath us?” asked Sila.
“Maybe not exactly here, but it shouldn’t be too far away,” replied Midnight.
Alpha nodded in agreement. “I suppose so. They wouldn’t have bothered to move these rocks too far away from where they were digging.”
Sila swept his eyes all over the area. “There are only rocks. If the rain really washed away all the soil, it must mean the digging happened a long time ago.”
“It didn’t have to be done by a player though,” Isaac guessed.
Everyone turned their heads to Isaac. Alpha exclaimed, “Right, it wasn’t necessarily done by a player! Maybe it has been this way since the game launched. It’s some kind of clue for players to discover.”
Miki argued, “These fireflies showed up just recently, however.”
Midnight expressed his opinion, “Well, it’s still possible that something underground has always been there. There is a chance that some conditions have been met or someone completed some quests, leading the fireflies to come out and act as an additional clue. Something like a chained quest.”
“But if we can’t do anything about it, that would mean we are like all the others, stumbling upon a dead end. We’ve only gotten a little bit further than them.” Alpha sighed.
Isaac smiled. “It’s enjoyable so far though. I feel like I’ve become an adventurer.”
“You idiot. There is no such thing as feeling like an adventurer. Either you start an adventure or do nothing. We’ve come this far. Let’s put more effort in before giving up,” Miki declared. She walked around, inspecting other rocks and searching for clues.
“How about we split up and search?” Isaac proposed.
“Better not. It’s dangerous. At the very least, we should come back during the day. It would be safer.”
Since he didn’t want to waste time, Sila threw his body down, putting his ear on the ground. He secretly circulated qi to enhance his sense of hearing. It was a method that the magic-types couldn’t imitate unless they had specific skills for searching. While magic-types can discern abnormalities through reading the surrounding ambient mana, qi-types are superior at more basic investigations, such as if one simply wants to inspect a structure or use their senses to scan the area.
Of course, it doesn’t mean every qi-type can do this. They have to train to acquire a sufficient level of mastery and at least possess God’s Cathedral qi technique as a foundation. Sila fit both criteria, so he could easily do it.
Sila lightly knocked on the ground. Sound travels fastest through solids. He only obtained a vague idea about the layout of the ground below him since he couldn’t determine the entire structure using only sound like the user of Goddess’ Resonance. He had to knock on the ground in four different spots to discover that a certain boulder was blocking some kind of hole.
“That boulder is suspicious. Let’s take a look.” Sila pointed at the boulder, which was slightly larger than most of the boulders around there. It was fifty meters away, but could be seen easily even at night thanks to the fireflies.
“Leader, are you actually quite skilled?” Alpha, Miki, and Isaac imitated Sila’s actions by putting their ears on the ground and knocking. After a few tries, Isaac groaned.
“I only heard a thud-thud sound.”
The same was true for Alpha. He got up and swept dirt from his clothing. “Well, let’s take a look for now.”
With excitement, Miki rushed to the rock, prompting the others to quickly follow her. The distance was short, but the terrain was sharp and steep. Isaac accidentally stepped on the sharp edge of a rock, causing him to yelp in pain. Despite a bit of a struggle, they eventually arrived at the destination.
“How about we try lifting it up?” Sila suggested.
Alpha, Miki, and Isaac frowned. Since Midnight was wearing a mask, Sila couldn’t tell whether the man was frowning as well or not.
“It’s too big for us. Since we’re gentlemen, we’ll let Miki handle it alone.” Alpha stepped back. “Ladies first.”
“Again? I’m but a fragile girl.”
“If someone like Miss Miki is considered fragile, the bull around Zhongsuyuan City would look like one too— Arff!” Isaac could only say so much before he became speechless, clasping his stomach which had received Miki’s “fragile” left hook.
Alpha completely ignored the man. He turned to Midnight. “Midnight, let’s do the same thing we did when we moved into the base.”
Midnight apathetically nodded and took his cross-shaped spear out.
Actually, lifting the boulder up was an easy task for Sila, but he wanted to see what they would do.
Magic power of the dark element poured out from Midnight’s body. Sila studied the ambient mana and noticed that it didn’t respond to Midnight’s magic power, meaning the man had yet to attain the essence of magic.
The cross-shaped spear functioned like a mage staff, or maybe it was actually a mage staff with a sharp tip. Sila couldn’t tell for sure. Meanwhile, Midnight mumbled something to himself.
“Confinement of Darkness.”
A black shadow wrapped around Miki. However, once it came into contact with Miki’s white magic power, it strengthened her instead of weakening its target. Miki hugged the boulder and tried to lift it up, but it only budged. Her strength wasn’t enough to move it.
Observing Miki’s stance, Sila couldn’t help but be reminded of his old knowledge. He was an assistant teacher in real life and also had a degree in physical education, so he gave Miki some pointers.
“Miki, when lifting something up, you ought to use your leg strength as well, not just arm strength. Try to straighten your back. Lifting weights will require less strength if you do it right. Also, pull your left leg back. You may fall easily, sticking your legs together like that.”
Miki followed the instructions. She pulled her left leg back and put forth her strength from her lower body. The boulder finally escaped from its former spot.
“How about it? Is there a secret passage?” she asked.
“Regretfully... take a look at it yourself,” replied Alpha.
Miki placed the boulder next to her and took a look. There was nothing there, only one more ordinary rock. However, Sila saw that the rock was quite blurry. He was confident that it was an illusion. He extended his hand, which flew through the rock as if nothing was there.
“Whoa! There is really a secret passage! Awesome!” Isaac exclaimed.
Sila lit a magical flame on his palm and was the first to enter, followed by Alpha, Miki, Isaac, and Midnight respectively. The entrance was narrow, but the layout inside was a bit wider. Though it wasn’t to the point where two people could walk side-by-side, it was wide enough for them to walk through one at a time with reasonable space between their shoulders and the walls. The ventilation was also decent.
This secret tunnel didn’t have stairs despite leading underground. Instead, the trail was gradually steep and there was no light. It was quite difficult just to travel.
After walking for a while, Isaac asked amidst the darkness, “Are we near the destination yet?”
“How should we know? We’re clueless about where we are going and how long it will take to arrive there. Maybe we still haven’t reached halfway yet,” replied Alpha.
“Should we go back and make some preparations first? We can return later.”
“Don’t chicken out, Isaac. We have been walking for half an hour already. We don’t feel tired because we’re descending. Going back right now means you have to climb up. I’d say we better risk it and go further.”
“Midnight has been so silent... Please don’t tell me he has been swallowed up by some dark creature like in a horror movie.” Isaac slowly turned around and was relieved to see that Midnight was still following him.
Sila was concentrating on his perception, studying the echolocation of their footsteps. Eventually, he sensed a wide room up ahead. From the shape, he suspected that it would either be some sort of resting spot along the trail or their final destination.
“We’re almost there. Be careful,” Sila warned everyone and slowed down.
Finally, they arrived at the room that was as spacious as two soccer fields. It appeared that they had come out from one of many holes scattered around the room. The place was dark. While Sila could see everything easily, the same couldn’t be said for everyone else.
While they were contemplating what to do next, the room suddenly brightened. Their eyes immediately squinted as they couldn’t adjust to the abrupt change in lighting. It took a while before they noticed that they were in a giant arena ring. There were several more rings located throughout the room.
White fog manifested and took the shape of a human body in the center of the ring where they were standing. Looking around, they found that a similar phenomenon was happening all over the place. An overwhelming number of white clouds, albeit smaller ones, were forming. The reason why the system didn’t inform them about these clouds implied that they were either taking their human form or were capable psychic-types that could hide their presence.
Sila took a stance, ready for battle. The largest silhouette pointed its fingers at his team and a list of numbers soon appeared above their heads. The silhouette then read them in order of how they stood, going Sila, Alpha, Miki, Isaac, then Midnight.
“41 points. 16 points. 8 points. 5 points. 35 points. All of you suck. Well, it’s better than having no visitors at all, I guess.”
The surrounding clouds of white fog transformed into several stuffed dolls wearing small cloaks, each of them holding a confetti popper. They simultaneously pulled the strings and colorful confetti flew out all over, along with cheerful popping sounds. The largest one among them, the white silhouette who gave grades to Sila and his comrades, also transformed into a woman in a white cloak.
“Welcome to Colossia Club, dear customers. How much money do you...” She didn’t get to finish her sentence as one of the stuffed dolls gently yanked the edge of her cloak. She looked at it and saw it shaking its head twice.
“Oh, right! Introductions first, right? Thank you for reminding me. You’re so cute~” The woman lifted the doll up, kissed it on the cheek, and put it down. That particular doll rushed back to join its friends, blushing.
Sila and his team slowly let their guard down. As a matter of fact, apart from Sila, Alpha, and Midnight, the rest of his team—Miki and Isaac—didn’t put up energy reinforcement at all. This really proved how his squad ranked dead last. Putting up energy reinforcement was the most standard move when encountering an unexpected situation.
“Ahem. Hello again, humans. This great one standing in front of you is the majestic Queen of the Fog Race, Fowl.” She bowed her head slightly, albeit a bit unwillingly.
“Nice to meet you, Miss Fowl,” Sila greeted the woman in a friendly manner.
Fowl leaned over and took a better look at Sila, her eyes squinting. “Don’t try to get friendly with me. Your skill won’t work on me. I only care about wealthy people.”
Sila was surprised. He was sure she was referring to the skill Monster Heir, which normally caused monsters to show more respect toward him and become friendlier. This strengthened his belief that she must be a high-level psychic-type monster.
“Where is this place?” Sila changed his approach, asking directly.
Fowl snapped her fingers. The stuffed dolls made haste to fly up and unwrap a fabric sheet hanging from the ceiling, showing the words: “The Skills Training Ground of Colossia.”
“This place is the Skills Training Ground of Colossia, a special place where humans can practice their skills in preparation to enter the Word of Ten... Hmm, wait a second.” Fowl took out a note from her pocket and read it. “Oh, so I can tell them now... but they have to be the ones asking me. How annoying.” Her last sentence was only a mumble, but Sila just happened to hear it.
“Let’s just say it’s a place where you can train yourself to become stronger,” She concluded and didn’t fail to finish her sentence, “...for a trivial fee or two.”
Aside from Sila and Midnight, the other squad members seemed to be extremely excited. Now that the room was bright, they could inspect it better. Not only was this room spacious and had good ventilation, but it also had rows of shelves filled with various kinds of weapons and even automatic vending machines. All in all, it looked like a giant luxury recreation room.
“This is a hidden quest, right? Are we getting a reward?” Miki was delighted.
“What reward? Don’t spout random bullshit. You come first, you get to pay first. That is your reward,” Fowl said, her expression unchanged.
Seeing Miki's face turning pale, Alpha asked Fowl, “Shouldn’t you first explain to us what kind of benefits this place will give us? How can we pay for the service when we don’t know what it is?”
Fowl nodded. “Logical. That’s logical. Let’s do this, then. Since you’re my first batch of customers, I will show you around for free. Think of it as a reward. Do know that this service normally costs you. If anyone else comes here after you, I will charge them.”
Sila and his people didn’t know what to expect, so they readily accepted the reward. Fowl started leading them around the room, explaining the venue’s features.
“Actually, this place has been partially opened for a long time, but no one ever found it. Anyway, our facilities are fully unlocked once the Secluded Temple, the Psychic Refinery, and Magical Library become available in their respective main cities. Together with this training ground, these four places exist for the same purpose—preparing humans to enter the Monster Realm.”
“Oh. The name of this place is the Skills Training Ground, so I take it that we’ll get to train our skills here, right?” asked Alpha.
“You’re right. Still, this place is different from the other three places, which focus on advancement. The services of this place include going back to fix past mistakes, so I’d say we’re more special.”
“Fix past mistakes?” Sila became interested.
“Correct. The Secluded Temple tempers your body and qi, strengthening your foundation and guiding you to develop your own unique qi. Well, to be fair, if you’re truly capable, you wouldn’t need their services. Coming up with your own exclusive qi is a feat that one can do without entering the Secluded Temple.”
Fowl secretly blinked at Sila. Maybe she possessed some inspection skill which had informed her that Sila’s qi was unique.
“The Psychic Refinery is the same. It helps humans refine and stabilize their psychic power, including elevating it through crisis stimulation. Unlike facing real crises, however, there is a limit to how high it can improve by utilizing this method. Thus, those risk-lovers and adventurous types wouldn’t require this place.
“Lastly, the Magical Library is slightly different from the former two, but their objectives are mostly the same. You can sacrifice your basic Element Magic in order to learn one Unique Magic. For the record, Unique Magic is generally better than Element Magic and more difficult to acquire. Still, one can discover Unique Magic through other means such as a hidden quest.”
Fowl took a deep breath, causing her bosoms to lean forward. Isaac stared at them without batting an eye. Such a display of perversion prompted Miki to poke her fingers into the man’s unblinking eyes.
“The best of them all is here, the Skills Training Ground. No matter how hard you try, the service that this place offers is not something you can find elsewhere. It’s quite difficult to explain. Let me show you a demonstration.”
Using Psychic Body, Fowl split her body into five identical ones. In each body’s hand was a neutral-element magic arrow. Each of them shot the arrow to a different member of Sila’s squad. The speeds of the arrows varied.
It was noticeably clear that the arrows flying toward Sila and Midnight were several times faster than others. Their speeds were properly calculated, ensuring that each of the squad members couldn’t help each other.
Sila shifted his body to dodge the arrow coming his way. However, the magic arrow—which normally flew in a straight line or at a slight curve—mysteriously swerved, following its former target. In the end, he had to clad his forehead with qi reinforcement to directly receive the hit.
Bang—! Bang—! Bang—! Bang—! Bang—!
Explosions rang out five times consecutively, but there was no damage. Apparently, these arrows only generated loud sounds upon hitting their targets.
The only one left standing was Sila while the remaining four fell to the floor. No one was injured though. They were simply confused.
“I shall explain. Ranging from the scores, you, the 41 points one.” Fowl pointed at Sila. “Your movements were excellent. Your foundation is quite solid. Your mastery of energy reinforcement is also decent. However, you failed to realize that the attack was a mere sound arrow. You would have discerned the kind of magic I was using by simply taking a look at ambient mana around me. The essence of magic is wasted on you.”
She then pointed at Midnight. It seemed pointing at someone’s face was her habit. “You, the 35 points one. You couldn’t tell the arrow was harmless either. Still, you did a good job stepping back at the last possible moment, disturbing the point of explosion, and creating a defensive magic barrier in front of you. Anyway, it’s lame that you stumbled because your control of magic power was poor, being pushed by your own barrier.
“You, the 16 points one. You pulled a dagger out very quickly. You would have coped with the arrow as well as the former two. Your decision-making speed was a bit too slow, however, so you failed.”
Lastly, Fowl spared her glance at Miki and Isaac, the mood in her eyes changing. “About these two, I don’t have many things to say except...”
“Brilliant?” Isaac tried to fill in the blank.
“You suck!” Fowl almost shouted. “Your arrows were slower than the others yet you failed to defend yourselves. This girl thoughtlessly lifted her arms to guard against the arrow... without using energy reinforcement, no less! As for you, you’re busy contemplating which skills to use. You should have instantly used whatever one! How terrible are you?! Do you think your opponent will just wait for you to take your turn, huh?!!”
One of the stuffed dolls quickly ran to her before tugging on her cloak. Fowl stopped and stroked its head. “Erm... Sorry, I was too emotional. I’m always like this every time I see a crappy... I mean, a person still in development.”
The stuffed doll seemed dejected. Apparently, it had hoped for a better act of love, more so than getting a pat in the head. With its head hung low, it regrouped with its friends, who patted its shoulder to encourage it.
“In conclusion, the Skills Training Ground will grade you based on how well you can make use of your skills. Those that are good with their skills will get high scores while those that are bad will get low scores. The average is 55 points, meaning every one of you is below average.”
Sila was shocked to know that his mastery regarding skills-handling was below average. “What does the score portray?”
“Don’t mind it too much. It’s just the evaluation system of this place. Generally, you can’t use “Rhythm” if your score is below 70. The score is evaluated by the average mastery of all your skills. You actually possess many skills with high scores. However, you also have several skills with very low scores. That is the reason why your score comes out low despite you believing you’re not weak.”
Sila realized that Fowl must have discerned his fighting strength and determined he was quite strong. For the record, if one considered only qi-type skills, Sila would have scored 75-80 points given his proficiency. His psychic-type counterpart would have been a bit lower, but should at least be average, so probably 50-55 points. The problem was his magic-type skills, which should be around 0-5 points, so the outcome turned out the way it was.
“Some people lack training while some lack knowledge, or lack other necessary skills that will unlock their potential. The Skills Training Ground is the place where these problems can be fixed... with some trivial fees involved.”
Sila already had Zarnak, who had been teaching him how to utilize skills, so he didn’t think he would benefit from this place. However, it seemed Fowl knew what he was thinking. She sent a sound transmission to him.
“Let me tell you that this place can teach you better than your Demonic Armament. You don’t even realize the real importance of the Blade-Sharpening Dragon. Its vast knowledge is merely a small feature. There is some information that Demonic Armaments themselves can’t directly impart to the users, but expect the users to realize on their own. What makes the Blade-Sharpening Dragon truly dangerous is not its ability to train its master, but its ability to negate downsides.”
‘How?’ Sila thought, but he believed Fowl could hear him.
“Consider this my first and last free service for you,” Fowl conversed with Sila through mental connection. “Monsters or humans can wield a maximum number of three Demonic Armaments. Wielding the Blade-Sharpening Dragon means you can wield two other powerful Demonic Armaments, which always come with fatal downsides, without receiving any negative effects. That is its most terrifying ability.”
Sila’s thought process sparked like it was hit by a lightning bolt. He finally got it. Zarnak had tried to hint at it many times, but he always failed to notice. He only realized it now that Fowl had directly revealed the answer.
Sila quickly asked Zarnak to reaffirm his theory, “Zarnak, what is the downside of the Dichotomous Crucifix Sword?”
“My slow-to-realize master, once someone wields the Dichotomous Crucifix Sword, they shall lose all of their power, undoing all of their efforts and sending them back to the start. Qi, psychic, magic power, special skills, and basic skills will all be erased. Lucifer acquired it in order to reset himself to Level 1 Squire Rank, restarting his life as a qi-type being instead of a magic type.”
“What will happen if I’m the one who wields it?”
Zarnak continued its usual monotonous speech, but Sila could tell from its tone that it was quite proud of itself, “Nothing will happen. You shall acquire its power without receiving any side effects. Conquering me means you don’t have to worry about the negative effects of any equipment you wear.”
Now that he understood Fowl’s capability, Sila asked out loud, “Can you please explain it clearly how this place will help us? Please don’t say something vague like ‘fixing mistakes’, be specific.”
The rest of his team also looked forward to an explanation. Fowl pointed at arena rings all over the place. “These ten rings are teleportation circles, leading you to training grounds. Although there are only ten rings, each one splits into a hundred rooms, meaning we can serve as many as a thousand customers at any given time.
“In each room, you will find my Psychic Body ready to coach you and go over which skills you need to obtain and which you already have but should improve. As long as you pay a... moderate service fee, I will teach them to you. By demoting your rank, I can even teach you the skills that you are normally unable to learn anymore.”
“Demoting our rank?” Everyone exclaimed, surprised.
“I have a certain skill that will temporarily demote the target’s rank. It can be used in combat, of course. Due to some necessity, however, I intend to use it here.”
“Why does rank demotion become necessary?” Alpha was interested.
“You humans are really ignorant creatures, aren't you? The majority of you are already Marquis Rank, but your strength is subpar at most. It’s to be expected though, for those too focused on leveling up without caring about skills,” Fowl irritably explained. “Listen. A higher rank is beneficial for increasing your health points and energy reserve, unlocking higher-tier skills, entering special locations, and wearing better gear. Those are obvious advantages. However, there are downsides that you humans always fail to notice.”
“Some skills specify the rank you have to be in order to obtain them. There are many support skills that are only obtainable if you are Squire or Knight Rank. The smart ones won’t be in a hurry to promote their rank. They will stay at the same rank and grind until they have all of the support skills before ranking up. While it’s true that higher-tier skills are better, some of them require other low-tier skills as prerequisites to learn them. Do you get it now?”
No one ever knew about this. Sila finally understood the reason why he didn’t get other mastery skills aside from Bare Hands Mastery. He had easily gotten Dagger Mastery after killing a few slimes in the past, but never got other weapon mastery skills despite trying various weapons.
The other members also came to a realization. It was natural that every player wanted to level up faster in order to equip greater battle gear and access better skills. However, such a mindset led to the path of a character with a poor foundation as they overlooked a certain serious problem. Some high-tier skills required lower-tier skills in order to learn them, meaning they lost the rights to acquire them by ranking up too quickly. To fix this problem, they would need to deliberately get themselves killed by boss monsters and demote their rank. Thus, the service provided by the Skills Training Ground was extremely valuable.
The chance for them to acquire important skills and consolidate their foundation had come. They would be willing to pay no matter how expensive the service fee was. The price wasn’t a problem at all.
“How much is the service?” asked Alpha.
“Including registration fees and miscellaneous expenses, it’s not expensive at all.” Fowl held up her hand with all of her fingers spread out, smiling. “Only this much.”
“Five gold?! Wow!” Isaac exclaimed. He didn’t expect ‘the trivial fees’ to be this trivial.
“It’s five thousand gold. No discount. FIVE-THOUSAND-PER-PERSON.” Fowl’s voice became serious. She even emphasized the fact that it was the price per person, not per group. “Pay it, or get out. The exit is there.”
Or maybe the price was a problem... for poor people such as their squad.
“Five thousand gold? I’ve never had more than even five hundred,” Isaac murmured.
Compared to the service they would get, Sila deemed that the price was reasonable. Still, it was undeniable that such a price was more than what the average individual player would have. He rechecked his remaining balance and found that Julia, his personal assistant, had used most of his gold for funding the union, leaving less than a thousand gold available. Nevertheless, he had good credit and could pay this through his credit card.
As Sila was about to take out his credit card, Midnight suddenly threw a question at Fowl.
“Is it possible to pay for it through other means?”
Everyone turned their gazes to Midnight. Isaac stammered, “D-Don’t tell me you want to pay for it with your body? ...I didn’t expect you to be so loose...”
Miki smacked Isaac’s head. “You pervert! You did it again! You need to think before saying something so inappropriate!”
Fowl seemed stingy. They guessed she wouldn’t accept anything other than gold. However, her reply surprised them.
“You’re not an amateur, I see.” She led the way. “Since you dared to ask, I will give you one. Follow me.”
The squad slowly followed Fowl to a corner of the room.
Along the way, Alpha poked Midnight, asking, “Hey. How do you plan to pay her?”
The reply was short. “I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?” The team repeated.
Midnight nodded. “Yeah. It’s just that most quests in Monster Soul have more than one completion method. If you can’t do it the traditional way, there will be an alternative path to get the same reward. When stumbling upon this kind of encounter, you should try to find other options to complete the quest.”
It was basic gaming knowledge in Monster Soul. Exactly like Midnight said, most quests really had other ways they could be completed. There were many players sticking with the traditional mindset from old games that quests were to be followed letter by letter. On the other hand, almost all Monster Soul veteran gamers knew full well that there were always alternatives if they sought them. The reward might change according to how they tackle the quest. Sometimes it got worse and sometimes it became better.
‘Wow. I never knew,’ Sila thought to himself, wondering whether there were alternative ways to complete the Decolonizing the Slime Kingdom quest.
He was clueless about how valuable gold was in Monster Soul. Only elite monsters drop gold, meaning most players only have silver on them. The majority of rich players in Monster Soul gained their wealth from doing business, not hunting monsters. Non-merchant players tended to save their money as much as they could afford.
The world of Monster Soul wasn’t too cruel for players, however. All basic needs—such as potions, normal weapons, or hotel fees—could be paid for using silver. Even average players could get by just fine if they don’t spend money extravagantly.
Fowl led them to a stone wall. She knocked on it three times with pauses in-between and distinct rhythms to each sequence. The wall lifted up, revealing a hidden passageway. The squad followed her inside. It took only a few steps before they arrived in a hall with a well in the center. Next to the well was a sculpture of a woman in a black robe, casting her eyes toward them. Despite it being merely a sculpture, it seemed as if she was alive.
Fowl bowed her head low with deep respect and told Sila and his team to do the same. The squad followed her instruction by bowing their heads a little. The gaze of the sculpture then seemed to become gentler despite no changes appearing on its face.
“This is an altar dedicated to the Goddess of the Night, Nyx, the ruler of all shadows in the three worlds,” Fowl introduced.
“She seems gorgeous,” Isaac commented, his voice dreamy.
Fowl chuckled. “You may compliment her, but don’t speak rudely. Even though this is just her sculpture, you will have a hard life if you displease Lady Nyx.”
Sila frowned and asked, “I always thought Goddesses can’t directly make a move against humans.”
Fowl shifted her gaze to Sila. “You’re quite knowledgeable. Only a few know about the Goddesses’ existence. Many believe that they are mere legends. True, they can’t directly bring harm to humans, or even monsters. However, there are many ways to make your life miserable. For example, Lady Nyx can make nighttime your enemy. Your night will be darker than anyone else’s. You won’t be able to see further than a meter even with the help of artificial light. She is also the mother of the Goddess of Fortune, so she can influence your luck.”
Sila got the hang of it. His gaming life would feel like he was being constantly bullied that way.
“What do you want us to do?” asked Alpha.
Fowl beckoned the squad to approach the well. The inside of the well was deep and dark. Staring into it, they could see nothing but tiny specks of gold glittering in the distance.
“I did something wrong to Lady Nyx in the past, so I was cursed by her. To get rid of the curse and regain freedom, I have to fill the well with gold.”
The squad looked at each other. “Fill the well with gold? Erm... this well seems very... deep. You would need more than a million.”
“A hundred trillion gold. That’s the debt I have to pay.”
“A hundred trillion gold!!! How many zeroes are there? One, two, three, four...” Miki counted her fingers. The amount was so absurd that it went beyond her imagination.
Fowl pointed into the well. “I have been facing a serious problem for years. Goblins were there to help me in the past. They are kind. Hearing my story, they immediately agreed to help me without asking anything in return. They always came to visit me and throw their money, apparently obtained from trading with humans, into the well for me. Lately, however, they disappeared, which I think means they must have migrated to another place. I can’t go outside, so I can’t find more gold. One day, however, I noticed that the amount of gold decreased.”
“Decreased? How is that possible? Even if you didn’t add more gold, it should have stayed there.”
“It seems the smell of gold attracted a particular monster. It’s called the Devourer. It is fond of deep holes, and they mainly eat gold. As long as it lives at the bottom of this well, I can’t possibly collect all of the required money. Thus, my task is for you to defeat that ugly creature. If you can complete the task, all of you may use every service in this place for free.”
Compared to not having the Devourer eating her accumulated gold, allowing five people to use her services for free was a cheap price Fowl was willing to pay.
“Is the Devourer strong? Why haven’t you taken care of it yourself?”
“No, the Devourer is not strong. Its fighting abilities are mediocre. I will even tell you how to fight it efficiently. It’s just that it worships Lady Nyx, so I can’t bring harm to it. That’s the reason why you people get to do this easy quest.”
“Won’t the Goddess be angry at us instead? For killing this monster,” asked Alpha. He might not know anything about Goddesses, but it wasn’t that hard to comprehend. They must be like transcendent figures such as gods or great demons commonly found in other games.
“She won’t. Goddesses don’t normally interfere with worldly matters. It’s only because I’ve wronged Lady Nyx in the past that I’m afraid to offend her. You can be at ease.”
Isaac looked into the well. “This well is very deep. We’ll die falling.”
“You won’t if you know how to support your body in mid-air using magic power. All of you are capable of doing that much with a bit of training.”
Sila had seen Montra levitating before. Unlike the man, however, he only knew how to push himself from the ground using qi. He had never tried levitating using only magic power.
“I will teach you how to do it if you accept the quest. If it’s just for slow descents, it shouldn’t take more than half an hour. If you want to levitate and move around, I will teach you that after you defeat the Devourer. You don’t have to kill it right now, but do know that I will make the same offer to every visitor. The first group that manages to defeat it will get the privilege of having access to all of the training ground’s services for free. You may attempt to kill it, or go back, collect money, and come again. I don’t care.”
Fowl stepped back, allowing them a moment to discuss their options. Realizing that as their leader he had to start the conversation, Sila asked his members to express their opinions.
“What do you think, everyone?”
“I’m afraid it may be too dangerous. We’re the only group to have discovered this place. It’s possible that no one will come here even if we back off and collect money,” Isaac shared his thoughts.
Alpha agreed with Isaac, but not wholeheartedly, “What you said is highly possible, but don’t forget that five thousand gold isn’t an amount we can gather easily. Considering all of us, that’s twenty-five thousand. It will take us a year to have that much. That’s enough time for other players to discover this place.”
A year was too long for Sila as well. He planned to spend only a few days in Colossia City before going to wage war against Siaferia City.
“In times like this, we should ask the quest giver for more information,” said Midnight.
Sila turned to Fowl. “Can you tell us more about the Devourer?”
Fowl clapped her hands twice. Her psychic power formed into the hologram of a small fluffy evil. It had a pair of big white eyes and two rows of fangs. Apparently, its height was only a third of Miki’s, who was the shortest in their group.
“I already investigated. What you’re seeing is its actual size. The King of Gold Coins, Arden. Gremlin race. Title: the Devourer. It’s a psychic-type monster. Level 1,000 Lord Rank.”
“Lord Rank?! I can’t even handle a Marquis Rank monster,” Isaac exclaimed.
“Rest assured. I wouldn’t send you on a suicide mission. Although it’s at Lord Rank, the Devourer is essentially very weak. If you rely on a tip I have, it will be like a fight against a Knight Rank monster with high health points.”
“Is there such a great tip?”
Fowl nodded. “This tip only works on this particular monster. The Devourer’s strength and stats are subpar. No fraudulent skills. It has a trick or two, but they’re not fatal. What makes it so special is the unique passive ability that causes it to become stronger according to the amount of gold its targets have on them. As long as you don’t carry money with you, it will take less than half an hour for you people to kill it.”
“Hahaha! Lucky us. We’re poor, so we have an overwhelming advantage.” Miki laughed.
“Will it be that easy?” asked Alpha.
“Yes, it will,” Fowl reaffirmed. If it wasn’t for the debt she owed to the Goddess, she would have taken care of this problem herself.
“Is its ability affected by credit cards?” Sila asked to make sure. He didn’t want something unexpected to happen.
“It doesn’t. Silver also doesn’t count. Only gold matters. You can leave your money with me. I will return it after you defeat the Devourer.”
“If it really will take us only half an hour, we can finish the quest today! We shouldn’t miss such an opportunity.” Miki was excited.
Sila asked again. He actually was confident that he alone could defeat the Devourer. Even though he didn’t know its capabilities, there shouldn’t be a problem if what Fowl said was true. This confidence didn’t come from arrogance but experience born from fighting against high-level monsters frequently. He could more or less gauge how capable Fowl was. If Fowl said their five-man team could defeat the Devourer, it must mean the monster was truly weak.
“Up to you, Leader.” Alpha shrugged.
“I’m fine with whatever. Nevertheless, I would like to try if possible,” Isaac said, half hesitant and half confident.
On the other hand, Midnight simply nodded. Sila decided. “We accept the quest, Miss Fowl. We’ll take care of the Devourer tonight. Please teach us how to use magic as we agreed.”
Fowl smiled merrily. She led Sila and his friends back to the Skills Training Ground, gesturing at them to enter teleportation circles.
“My psychic bodies will teach each of you how to support your body in mid-air using magic power. You have an hour to learn. If you finish your lesson early, I will teach you other skills. Consider it my personal thanks.”
“In that case, see you again in an hour,” Sila said goodbye to his squad. The five of them then entered different teleportation circles.
An hour is neither short nor long. Whether it feels like not enough time to get things done or too much time depends on how you use the time you’re given. People who use time wisely will benefit from it the most.
After exactly an hour had passed, the five people left their circles. There were no obvious changes in them, but Sila was confident that they had somehow become stronger. The numbers above their heads were indicators of this.
Sila’s number had improved from 41 to 56. Midnight’s 35 became 54. The two’s numerical changes were the most obvious, followed by Alpha’s, which improved from 16 to 25. Miki’s 8 rose to 20 while Isaac’s 5 managed to become 14.
Fowl had informed them beforehand that the number would increase easier the fewer number of skills they had. The fact that Midnight’s number increased more than Sila’s might be because the man had fewer skills.
“How did Leader and Midnight’s numbers increase so much?” Isaac asked with a hint of jealousy. He had thought his increment of 9 was already a lot, but it turned out that everyone else was better than him.
“Aren’t you too lazy? Look. Everyone else has at least 20 points.” Alpha chuckled.
Just to be sure, Sila asked, “Are you all capable of levitating?”
Instead of answering, the four squad members all floated half a meter from the ground. Isaac confidently puffed up his chest. “Miss Fowl said it normally took half an hour, but I only needed twenty minutes to learn it.”
“What a brag. I only spent fifteen minutes learning,” said Miki.
“I used thirteen minutes,” Alpha replied with a smug smile.
“Ten minutes,” Midnight expressionlessly declared.
Everyone turned to Sila. “Leader? How long did it take for you?”
Flinching, Sila murmured, “Erm... Half an hour...”
“Eh?! What took you so long, Leader? Levitating is quite easy,” Alpha wondered.
“Maybe it isn’t my thing,” replied Sila. He wondered whether it was because everyone else was a direct magic-type player that made it feel easy for them. For him, using magic was very difficult. Its principle was completely different from qi and psychic power.
For the record, Sila’s special points were enormous in quantity and high in quality, yet he had never tried manipulating magic power. It was natural that he couldn’t properly control it the first few attempts. It was already praiseworthy that he could learn how to levitate in half an hour.
Also, unbeknownst to him, his lesson was different from what the others went through. It wasn’t because Fowl favored him, of course. Knowing that Sila had the essence of magic, Fowl taught him a different way to levitate, using the approach that would benefit Sila in the future.
The five of them left their money with Fowl. It wasn’t like there was a lot though. Only Sila had more than a hundred gold on him, causing Isaac’s irises to enlarge.
They gathered in front of the well. Given Fowl’s signal, they jumped into it. Isaac, in particular, tightly closed his eyes, gulped his saliva, and slowly leaned forward. Annoyed, Fowl kicked the man to follow his teammates.
Having Isaac’s scream as background music, Sila noticed that his squad members properly controlled their magic power to support their bodies. Their descent was as slow as they had hoped.
Everything was going well. So well that Sila felt relief. Below them were mountains of gold. By estimation, there must be at least ten million gold there. Sila waited until everyone landed on the mountain of gold before landing himself.
Suddenly, the mountain shrunk by half. Around half of the gold in the room disappeared, making them lose their balance and fall.
“What happened? Did our fall shift the gold?” Alpha tilted his head.
Sila received a system notification. He frowned as he had noticed half the gold transforming into a light and flying into him. He opened his system window in a hurry. Reading the contents, his expression turned grave.
“This is bad!! Everyone, be extra careful!! Don’t underestimate our opponent!! It’s going to be much stronger than we anticipated!”
His system window was left open. Only Sila had seen what was written on the last notification.
You have received 5,000,000 gold. It’s the maximum amount you can carry in your system window.
Apparently, he had totally forgotten the skill he obtained from Mamon—King’s Treasury—and it was far too late to do anything about it now.
Now that he was here and got to see the place up close, Sila discovered that the well of gold had a structure similar to a bottle with a narrow neck and a wide body. Gold coins were like a golden carpet under their feet. Even though the 99th squad’s members were incompetent, they were fully aware that the situation was serious. They clearly felt the domineering Psychic Oppression coming from the resident of the well.
Theoretically, psychic power is less outstanding compared to qi and magic power in terms of destructive power. It focuses more on synergistic effects and tricky abilities that allow the user to manipulate the system, monsters, and items. Thus, when it comes to pure pressure, the oppression that emits from a psychic-type being is more powerful than the other two energy types. Some psychic-type creatures even have special Psychic Oppression that deliver several debuffs to their opponents before the fight actually starts.
Fortunately, the King of Gold Coins didn’t have that kind of Psychic Oppression. Still, it was a Lord Rank monster. Even its normal Psychic Oppression was fatal when used against a lower-rank opponent, instilling fear into their minds. The bottom of the well was lonesome and quiet, making the sound of clattering gold coins the loudest.
The actual Devourer was at least five times larger than what Fowl had shown them. It looked like a giant fluffy ball. Its eyes were fierce and glowing yellow. Its arms and legs were thin and long, which didn’t match the creature’s body size in the slightest.
“Retreat!” Sila issued his first order. It was the most correct decision. He might be fine, but he wasn’t confident that he could protect his teammates.
They hurriedly flew back to the top of the well. However, the King of Gold Coins refused to let its prey escape. Four more arms protruded from its left shoulder. Out of a total of six arms, the Devourer pointed five of them to its opponents. On each of its arms, there was a golden chain wrapped around its wrist. The chains flew toward the five players at a speed that they couldn’t possibly outrun.
An identical chain appeared on each of the five’s wrists. Miki’s movements became significantly faster while the rest were forced to stop.
Realizing that the others didn’t come with her, Miki turned back. “What’s wrong?”
“I can’t move!” Alpha shouted.
Millionaire’s Shackle—one of Arden’s skills—forced its opponents into a ‘slow’ state. It was a skill that could only be activated when its enemies collectively carried more than a million gold on them.
Even the flow of their power became slower, so they couldn’t properly levitate.
Sila circulated qi and found that the speed of his qi circulation was affected by Arden’s skill as well, albeit only to a small degree. He assumed that it was due to the nature of power. Psychic power was disadvantaged against qi.
“Let’s at least put some distance between us and it. Try attacking it with long-distance spells while learning its fighting pattern!” Sila shouted instructions to his teammates.
Miki and Alpha were in an awkward position since they were close-combat fighters. On the other hand, Isaac and Midnight began casting spells.
‘I only practiced magic a little in the Skills Training Ground. Hopefully it works.’
Sila clad his body with energy reinforcement. His power was a mix of three energy types, so he could make it appear as any of the three. Every player had all three energy reserves, but only a few would rely on the two non-primary energies.
An hour ago, Fowl had taught Sila how to support his body in the air using magic power. To do so, traditionally, people would shape their magic power, resonating with ambient mana, to form an invisible hand and use it to drag them around.
For those who had already attained the essence of magic, however, they could connect their magic power into ambient mana, which was the same method Montra and Quasar always used. This utilization granted the user more freedom when moving around. Instead of being carried by magic power, they became a part of mana, able to swim freely in a pool of ambient mana.
As a side note, for a psychic-type player to fight in mid-air, they would have to form a foothold out of their psychic power. Still, the magical feeling of being able to float freely in the sky, albeit a bit unstably, was addicting in a way that Sila found it difficult to describe.
Whenever Sila formed thoughts about where he wanted to be, mana would bring him there. It was something to be expected from the easiest energy type. Magic abilities were difficult at first but became easy once the user got the hang of it like children learning how to ride bicycles. All creatures who had attained the essence of magic could do this, but being good at it or not depended on their aptitude. Magic wasn’t about practicing, so putting in a lot of effort might not be helpful. To become great at using magic meant being thoughtful, capturing the right timing to unleash spells.
“Out of all spells in existence, there are two particular spells that are both beginning and finishing points. They are Magic Arrow and Magic Shield. The former is for attacking while the other is for defending. Only when you have mastered the timing of these two spells can you completely comprehend the complexity of other spells.” That was what Fowl had said to Sila during his stay in the Skills Training Ground.
The two spells were of the lowest tier that everyone, regardless of their energy type, could learn. Magic Arrow was the first skill players tended to have. As for Magic Shield, it was a spell that generated a small shield with weak defense, which proved to be difficult to make use of. It was even inferior to energy reinforcement, so the skill wasn’t popular among players.
Just the beginning of the lesson already tapped into Sila’s grave problem. Due to the racial limitation, Sila couldn’t use other kinds of magic except for Orbiting Cosmos. The other magic skills he had were item skills and Element-Changing Nightmare Magical Qi.
“You still don’t understand. Magic power is unlike qi or psychic power. Magic is nature. The greatest is no different from the lowest. All spells started as one tiny root before branching out and expanding endlessly. However, they all share the same beginning, and they all exist under the same sky..”
Firstly, Fowl taught Sila how to read ambient mana. It was an advanced technique only available to those with the essence of magic. Mastering this technique meant having a great start. In the world of Monster Soul, aside from high-level monsters, there were only a handful of players able to sense ambient mana.
Ambient mana was a treasure that nature gave away for free. Those with the higher Unison Percentage had the right to take it first.
You practiced qi to develop qi and acknowledged yourself to strengthen psychic power. However, for magic power, you became one with it.
Fowl didn’t explain further than this, though she did tell him that there were still many ways in which he could grow. Not only did Sila fail to understand the importance of the essence of magic, but he also had a half-baked understanding of the essence of qi and the essence of psychic.
The complexity of “Fusion”, “Unison”, and “Creativity” was far deeper than what Sila believed them to be. Nevertheless, Fowl refused to tell him more since their lesson was supposed to be about levitation.
It took Sila half an hour to learn how to levitate and another half to learn Magic Arrow. There is a saying about Magic Arrow, that it is a skill that even a dumb monkey can use as long as it possesses the skill and enough magic power reserves.
“Anyone can ‘use’ it, but being able to make full use of it is a totally different matter,” Fowl said to Sila.
Using Magic Arrow efficiently is like shooting a gun efficiently. Anyone with enough finger strength can fire a bullet from the gun, but the hard part is hitting your target accurately and neutralising them with the least amount of bullets.
Being able to read ambient mana was just the start of how to become one with magic. Every molecule of mana would change itself to match the kind of magic skills that someone around them was about to trigger. Still, a lot of experience was required to comprehend what the mana is doing.
Sila hardly spotted a difference when Fowl demonstrated various kinds of Magic Arrow. In fact, he never really ‘saw’ ambient mana. Fowl said to Sila that Magic’s Unison meant becoming one with magic. She said he had to give some part of his power to nature, and nature will respond in kind, giving him a part of it back. The cycle of magic was give and take. Trying to selfishly extract mana from nature was, by itself, an incomplete cycle.
Magic power poured out from Sila’s body, densely. With regards to the display of power, magic power was very different from psychic power or qi. It always alerted the surroundings as soon as the user tried to activate it. For Sila, who was rather keen on concealment, it made him feel awkward every time he used it.
Fowl added that, at an advanced level, although a magic user still couldn’t conceal their power, there existed a method to blend their power with their surroundings. There was also an option of using a specific spell that focused on concealment. Nevertheless, she noted that Sila shouldn’t try to run before he could walk.
Borrowing mana was a part of Heaven's Decree Sword Art, so Sila got a hang of how to do it relatively easily. The difficult part was he usually borrowed the power to deliver an attack. Never once did he borrow the mana in order to unite himself with it.
Back to the fight against Arden, the King of Gold Coins, Sila’s magic power that he had sent out slowly resonated with ambient mana and returned to him. Suddenly, his vision became brighter as if he had broken through a bottleneck and received profound enlightenment. The ambient mana seemed like it was alive. An incomprehensible feeling rushed into his mind.
He extended his hand, firing four magic arrows toward Arden.
Sila’s magic arrows weren’t ordinary. They came from the item skill: Artifact Manifestation. Fowl had taught Sila how to unleash the spell without chanting, simply making use of the property of the power instead of the completed spell.
Some magic users weren’t good at chants, such as Revin. They would extract a part of their spells to directly use it without chanting. This method was faster, but the output of the spell would naturally become weaker. The spell would also lose most of its special attributes.
The decrease of output was supposed to be severe, though there was an exception. “Magic” held ranks in high regard and was stable, unlike psychic power. Sila had the essence of magic, so he was considered elite in the world of magic. The output of his Artifact Manifestation only fell by twenty percent when he omitted the chant. They might lose their special options, but the spell itself was already powerful.
This meant if he properly chanted “Artifact Manifestation”, the spell would generate a magical object, which could be stored in his system window. The object would sometimes come with special options, such as the Seven Luminaries Arrow or the Thousand Ruptures Axe. However, if he omitted the chant, the spell would only generate an elemental magic arrow. It was still more powerful than an ordinary magic arrow though.
All four magic arrows flew slowly as they approached their target. Sila discovered that since the arrows weren’t classified as objects, his passive skill—Hidden Weapon Mastery—wouldn’t affect them, resulting in poorer accuracy and speed.
There was also the effect of Millionaire’s Shackle, which made Sila’s arrows become significantly slower. Arden shifted their trajectories with ease using Psychic Manipulation, making them miss their target completely. It curled up and rolled its body toward Sila’s team in the same manner as a steamroller.
Sila glanced at his teammates to see Miki and Alpha protecting Midnight and Isaac, who were still casting their spells. He realized that Arden’s shackles also slowed casting times. Sila was the only one who could move relatively fine, chantlessly firing magic arrows.
The previous first batch of magic arrows was for gauging the distance. Sila had never used magic arrows on a moving target before. In fact, he had just learned how to fire magic arrows an hour ago. He was curious about the difference between magic arrows, moving objects through psychic power, and firing qi-strengthened hidden weapons.
Thanks to Flaming Cloud Qi’s Cloud Part, Sila could spot the differences in no time.
Firing a hidden weapon through qi was like shooting an object with a mini launcher. The object could be anything. The destructive force depended on how well the user flicked the object away. Cladding the object with qi reinforcement would also increase the power.
As for moving an object with psychic power, Sila had experienced it by executing Lookhin’s Oceanic Mind. He still clearly remembered the feeling of that time. With this method, the user could finely control an object similar to moving their arms. The object could fly in a straight line, zigzag, stay still, and more. However, it lacked the destructive power. That was the reason why psychic type players tended to use bombs as their projectiles.
Lastly, a magic arrow was like a rocket with pre-determined capabilities. The spellcaster had to define the target and the amount of power, then the magic arrow would manifest according to them. Thus, the casting process was the most important. Once fired, the user could no longer control it. Though that meant they could shift their focus to their next spells without caring about the arrow anymore.
Because of this, magic arrows excel at one particular aspect, which the other two energy types can’t replicate: overwhelming the enemy with numbers.
There was no need to be wary of qi deviation or psychic power going out of control.
Easy and safe. These were good qualities of magic power.
Now that Sila had realized the excellence of magic, he no longer tried to control the arrows’ trajectories. He manifested fifty wind magic arrows. Think, define, and release. That was all it took. The magic arrows would do their jobs themselves. He didn’t even need them to achieve something complex. Just flying forward was enough.
The wind arrows got their energy from Orbiting Cosmos. Together, they completely covered Sila, presenting themselves as a spiky wall. They flew in a straight line toward Arden, bombarding it.
For a healthy Lord Rank psychic-type monster, each of these arrows was nothing more than a tiny needle. Nevertheless, now that there were so many of them, they weren’t something Arden could scoff at.
Alpha and Miki were stunned. They had been playing the game for a long time, but had never witnessed anyone capable of firing so many magic arrows simultaneously. They, too, were capable of firing magic arrows. However, the most they could fire at the same time was three. The most they had seen someone else did was around ten.
Magic Arrow was among the first few spells players acquired. As they progressed through the game, there were many offensive long-distance skills for them to choose from such as Fireball, Earth Spike, or Ice Lance, so Magic Arrow soon became isolated as it lacked power and complexity. It was only popular among new players, using it as a diversion. No one at a high level would bother to execute it.
Unbeknownst to them, Sila was capable of casting many more. However, the well had a narrow space and the amount of ambient mana was low, so he couldn’t manifest more than he did. If it was an open area, he believed he could muster at least ten thousand arrows at the same time.
A part of the reason he could do that many was due to the fact that he could freely borrow mana from nature. He was the sole being with the essence of magic in this place. If there were other beings with higher Unison Percentage than him, however, he would have to rely on his own magic power. In that case, the most he could muster would be around a hundred magic arrows at the same time.
“Midnight, attack it with offensive spells. Isaac, try to disturb its actions. Miki and Alpha, you two are our defense line. Don’t engage in the battle unless I give you a signal,” Sila ordered as such because he knew dark element magic was potent in its offensive capability while Isaac’s plant summoning magic seemed to be useful as diversion.
“Roger, Leader,” Alpha replied to assure Sila that they understood the command.
Sila’s assault would have been more versatile if he had supporting skills such as Magic Delay. For now, however, he opted to fire another batch of fifty magic arrows to stall for time and observe Arden’s reactions. Wind magic arrows were normally fast, but they were affected by Arden’s Millionaire’s Shackle, resulting in mediocre speed.
Arden resisted the magic arrow’s bombardment while opening its palm, striking at Sila from a long distance. Its Psychic Impact had an incredibly long reach. It hit Sila and sent him flying backward, crashing into the wall behind him.
Sila’s body got buried underneath the stone rubble. Witnessing the scene, Miki was shocked. “Leader!!”
Attacks from Lord Rank monsters are naturally deadly. The impact seemed so powerful that Alpha almost abandoned his post and went to help Sila. Still, he was fully aware that he couldn’t do much. Arden’s Psychic Impact could have killed him in one hit.
There was a certain fact that the 99th squad members were unaware of, however. While Sila’s magic wasn’t effective against Arden, Arden’s psychic power also had little effect on Sila.
The first reason was that Sila was Lord Rank, similar to Arden. Their ranks were the same, so Sila wasn’t bothered by the domineering pressure of Arden’s Psychic Oppression.
The other reason was that Sila was qi-type. Magic power was weak against psychic power, so his spells were ineffective. On the other hand, his body was clad with qi reinforcement, so Arden’s attack hardly worked on him.
‘Magic’s levitation is so slow. It can’t keep up with my thoughts. If I had been relying on qi, dodging that would’ve been much easier. Still, Revin’s speed was very fast. This means there are some tricks behind it that I don’t know yet,’ Sila thought as he pulled himself out of the wall. Movements through magic power required him to form a thought beforehand, unlike qi which mostly relied on intuition, so he felt rather uncomfortable.
Through psychic perception, Arden realized that its previous attack didn’t work on Sila. Three more arms protruded from its body, creating yet another three golden shackles. The same shackles also formed around Sila’s right arm and both legs, meaning now he had a total of four of them on.
‘It can even use the same skill on the same target, huh?’
Sila clearly felt the slowness of his body. His movements became so sluggish that they were like slow motion. The Arden in his vision wasn’t as slow as him, however. It seemed it had realized who was the real threat that must be eliminated first. It rolled toward Sila at a speed that was like teleportation, baring its nine claws against its opponent.
Sila’s body, which remained still in the air, became an easy target for Arden. Its nine claws, clad with psychic power reinforcement, let off a golden glow. Despite the slow state, Sila wasn’t hurried. With Profound Qi Circulation Art, the qi in his body circulated throughout his veins. His body might appear defenseless, but the power within his body was as solid as a stone mountain.
Keep things simple. That was Kiryu’s advice for fighting against psychic-type opponents. Simply defend when being attacked and counterattack when an opportunity appears.
The claws grazed Sila, letting off a screeching sound like someone rubbing a dagger against metal. Sila’s qi properly protected its master from harm. He also activated Universe Momentum, locking Arden’s claws onto his body, making the creature incapable of moving back. Sila slowly moved his hand to Arden’s stomach, his thumb and index fingers forming into a muzzle.
“Ar-te-fact. Ma-ni-fes-ta-tion,” Sila spoke with difficulty. Despite how slow he was, for activating a spell, completing the chant was enough to unleash its power.
Arden realized what kind of fate awaited it. It tried to flee, repeatedly beating its claws on Sila. Its actions didn’t work, however. Sila’s current defense was so high that its claws couldn’t inflict serious damage. Locking the opponent onto oneself was Fargo’s fighting method. Recalling the past and how it was none other than this Colossia City where he had encountered Fargo for the first time, Sila couldn’t help but show a nostalgic smile.
A fire magic arrow flew toward Arden. Using common sense, the arrow moving at a slow pace didn’t seem frightening at all. Nevertheless, magic wasn’t about speed. The spell’s attack power was determined by the user’s related skills. With Sila’s Art of Magic, his magic abilities would be more powerful the closer he was to the target. At such a close range, Arden would suffer severe damage even if it protected itself with psychic reinforcement.
The red metal arrow—flickering with flames—had to be some kind of item, though Sila didn’t get the chance to read its description. Once it collided with Arden, the monster was ignited, exploding in a burst of flames. A pile of gold coins rained from the explosion, before they combined into Arden, its size a bit smaller.
‘Hm? It didn’t die? I thought I hit the center of its forehead. Could it be that its head isn’t its vital spot?’
“My uneducated master, you can’t kill it so easily. Most of the high-level monsters you have fought so far were magic-type, so you’re inexperienced. For us high-level psychic-type monsters, we always possess some kind of skill that lets us survive even if our vital points are attacked. This is one of our promising qualities,” Zarnak said stoically. It referred to psychic-type monsters as ‘us’ because it, too, was a psychic-type monster.
Psychic-type was about synergistic effects and flexibility. Its essence was Creativity. The same skill could show different results depending on the user. The uniqueness coming from a combination of skills made fighting against a psychic-type opponent the most unpredictable.
As a matter of fact, the skill that Arden activated just now was derived from three other skills. The first one was Psychic Dividing Life, which helped the user survive a single powerful attack. The second was Teleportation, and the last was Lurking Psychic, which sent an anomaly to an opponent.
Sila had experienced Lurking Psychic before from Shueria, though it came in the form of Bomb Lurking Psychic—which was the combination of Shueria’s Lurking Psychic and Psychic Boost. Shueria’s skill caused constant and long-term damage to an opponent. Arden’s skill, however, added gold to its opponent every time it survived a deadly attack.
Regretfully for Arden, Sila already carried the maximum amount of gold on him. Thus, its skill was no different from traditional Psychic Dividing Life that helped it escape from immediate death.
‘If it can repeatedly use the skill, doesn’t that mean it is immortal?’ Sila asked Zarnak via their mental connection while he was on the move.
“That won’t be the case. Did you notice that it became smaller? It may be able to escape death, but its health points have been decreased regardless of how skillfully it evaded. When it comes to stats, qi-type is overwhelmingly superior to psychic-type. Keep killing it, and it will eventually die for good.” The response came from Dark Self. Sila sometimes wondered whether Dark Self learned the same things he did. Was it possible that Dark Self actually did research behind his back?
Vines appeared out of Isaac’s shadow, crawling slowly. Arden jumped and stepped on the air, kicking a pile of gold coins toward Isaac and Midnight in the process. On the defense line, Miki and Alpha tried to block the incoming attack.
“Weapon Enchantment!” Alpha’s dagger glowed white, reinforced with defensive aura. He waved the dagger at the gold coins. His movements were slow, however, so he missed the right timing. The gold hit his hand first, rupturing it. As for Miki, she clad her body with magic power reinforcement and directly blocked the attack. The impact still sent her flying several meters back.
‘Eh? They couldn’t block it. Were those gold coins that strong?’ Sila didn’t expect mere coins to easily break their formation. He failed to consider that Arden was a Lord Rank monster, and psychic power was favored against magic power. Even its basic attack was enough to overwhelm the squad. Only if one possessed superior techniques could they cope with an opponent of a higher rank.
Unfortunately for them, Arden’s techniques regarding how to make use of its skills were superior to everyone in the well, Sila included.
The gold coins didn’t only attack its targets, but also vanished, transferring into Alpha and Miki’s pockets. As the collective amount of gold got higher, Arden’s body became larger. Apparently, it deliberately added money to its prey in order to increase its stats, all for the sake of killing Sila.
Sila intended to descend to the ground. However, even his descent speed was so slow as if he were a floating balloon. In the end, he resorted to rely on Kiryu’s teachings: Overwhelm the psychic-type opponent with fear.
Evil God’s Essence — Transcendent Monster Heir.
Sila’s eyes flashed golden. On his mask, all three marbles shone golden. Arden’s body suddenly froze, its yellow eyes trembling. Its control over its skills became poorer, causing Sila to regain some of his speed.
Presented with such a rare opportunity, Sila, along with thirty ice magic arrows, flew to the King of Gold Coins.
The ice arrows repeatedly rammed into Arden, making it explode into gold coins, then recombined into its new body again. Its fear subsided as it became fiercer. Some of the gold coins in the room melted into its claws, making its claws golden.
‘Umm... Monster Heir really doesn’t work too well against a psychic-type opponent,’ Sila mused.
Psychic-types often had some tricks to avoid or reduce the impact of skills, so Sila wasn’t surprised that his Monster Heir quickly lost its effectiveness.
Sila wasn’t greedy. Being able to move slightly faster was enough. He activated the Hidden Weapon Firing skill, firing a million gold coins at Arden. Now that there was space in his system window, however, King’s Treasury did its job again, absorbing money into his pocket. His attempt to decrease the amount of money on him ultimately ended up in vain.
‘Dang. I thought it was a clever move.’
Even the gold coins that he fired were affected by Arden’s skill. They advanced slothfully, so slow that they seemed to simply float in the air. It was a bizarre sight, having numerous gold coins hovering in the room.
Arden swept some of the coins out of his way so he could see clearly. It was ready to jump at Sila yet again.
“Well, at least the backup plan works,” Sila muttered to himself.
The gold in the air shone colorfully with Sila’s magic power, as he had imbued them with six elements, before exploding.
However, Arden seemed relatively fine even after all that. Sila frowned and thought of what was different.
“...This guy is durable against impacts such as blunt attacks or explosions, but weak against sharp attacks.”
Seeing how sluggish his movements were, Sila felt exhausted. He had yet to seriously unleash his qi. It wasn’t that he was afraid that he might expose his secret. In fact, he was very confident in his qi concealment. He believed no one could sense his qi even if he mustered its power. Only a qi practitioner at Lone Wolf’s caliber would be able to see through his qi concealment. The real reason why he had yet to use qi was that Arden’s skill brought him a grave problem, more so he had expected.
If his movements hadn’t been so slow, he might have been able to defeat it quickly with Genesis Punch. Nevertheless, Poluk’s Genesis Punch was a delicate art, requiring the user to exert power in an instant. Now that the flow of his qi became rather abnormal, Sila didn’t dare to use a powerful qi move. If he made even a slight error, the backlash might lead to lethal qi deviation.
There was no need to be hurried anyway. There were five of them. They should eventually be able to defeat it.
“Disintegration Black Swamp.”
Midnight finally finished his casting. It took a long time, though Sila couldn’t tell whether it was Midnight’s fault or not since he himself was totally inexperienced when it came to spell casting. He just felt that Midnight’s casting speed was significantly inferior to Bluebird and Trick Master’s.
A black swamp appeared on the ground, with hands reaching out of it toward Arden. The swamp eroded some of the gold coins, indicating that it was some kind of acid.
Arden unleashed its psychic power, smashing the black hands and making them stop. The hands gradually turned golden. Once the entire swamp was dyed, the golden hands changed their targets, stretching toward the squad members with exceptional speed.
With the combination of Lurking Psychic, Psychic Manipulation, and Psychic Power Reinforcement, Arden could temporarily hijack someone’s skill to work in its favor.
Sila could handle the acid hands, but the rest couldn’t. As soon as the hands touched them, an intense wave of acid eroded their skins, bringing them intense pain. Miki screamed.
For the record, Isaac also let out a girlish scream. Thanks to Miki’s scream being louder, however, his went unheard by his teammates, allowing him to save face.
Arden’s psychic power was flaring in the room and everyone was hurt by it. In that particular chaotic instant, there were two people who moved at speeds which they didn’t think anyone else could notice.
Except, each of them did notice one another.
Sila manifested a sharp sword out of Dark Psychic Corrosion, forming it on his palm, and enhanced his arm with qi. With explosive arm strength, he swung his arm at a speed that almost made it seem like it wasn’t moving at all. It was a move reminiscent of the Heartless Steel Sword’s former master—the Aloof Juang Jing. If the Sword Prodigy was here, he would compliment Sila for that.
At the same time, Midnight subtly swiped his left arm, and Arden’s body was immediately cut in half from a long distance. It was done by a manifested weapon that was so thin it was almost invisible.
It was none other than a magical chakram made of Eroding Nightmare Magical Qi.
In that incredibly brief moment, Sila was made aware that Midnight was Zero. On the other hand, witnessing his moves, Zero also realized that Nero was Sila.
Midnight (0.00 AM) represents three zeroes. For Narin, this life of his was already his third chance.
They both knew each other’s real identity but decided not to pry, at least for now.
Poor King of Gold Coins. Facing off against two of the best qi-type players, it couldn’t hope to stand a chance.
Its body, which was cut into half, recombined into a new one. Yet its new body failed to function. Half of it kept disintegrating while the other half kept getting torn apart.
Sila and Zero didn’t talk to each other. They no longer even paid the Lord Rank monster any mind. Sila had added Dark Psychic Corrosion into his last attack, corroding it from within, while Zero similarly imbued Eroding Nightmare Magical Qi into his. The wound created by his magical chakram would continue to be cut until his target drove his power from its bodily system. His continuous attacks weakened every time they made a cut, but it still proved to be too much for Arden to handle.
The battle was concluded in that manner. Arden might be able to delay its death, but its demise was inevitable. Its body kept getting smaller, eventually to the size of a soccer ball.
As it was about to die, its psychic power erupted, clearing all of the anomalies within its system. Its body emitted intense light, about to undergo a transformation.
Sila, who stood next to it, hit it with the Thousand Ruptures Axe before it could do anything. The Thousand Ruptures Axe’s attack power was fixed at ten million points. Regardless of how great the final form of Arden was, now that its health points were less than ten million, it had no leeway left but to die without being able to reveal any remaining trump cards.
Three items dropped and flew into Sila’s pocket. He didn’t care what they were and planned to share them with his squad later. As such, he turned back to his team and spoke with a soft voice.
“Let’s go back.”
Midnight nodded silently while the others, still confused, agreed. They all flew back to the top of the well, ready to receive the quest’s reward.
Flying up proved to be several times more difficult than descending. Sila, Midnight, and Alpha eventually had to struggle with pulling Miki and Isaac up. Arriving at the destination, Isaac collapsed, panting heavily. His magic power was completely expended.
In Monster Soul, the feeling of fatigue would overcome them when their main energy resource hit zero. Isaac, Miki, and Alpha hurriedly drank magic recovery potions.
High energy consumption was a common weakness of the magic type. Skills that assisted in magic recovery were also hard to come by. Fortunately, one can recover their magic points quite easily by drinking magic recovery potions, which are available for sales in most places.
Sila had the Essence of Qi, resulting in all three energy bars sharing the same resource: Special Points. He could recover his overall power by simply circulating qi, eliminating the need for potions. It was one of the benefits of being qi-type.
“You did a good job. As promised, they’re yours.” Fowl handed each of them a red card with gold edges. “They’re Colossia Club Membership Cards. With it, you can use any service in this place free of charge.”
The five of them accepted the rewards with open arms. Fowl took a glance at the goddess statue and continued her speech.
“It seems Lady Nyx is fond of you and has granted you the right to have all the gold you obtained from the bottom of the well. Since that is the case, I suggest you throw some of it back to express your gratitude.”
They shifted their gaze to the statue. The eyes of the Goddess of the Night really looked gentle and kind. It seemed all goddesses were genuinely compassionate when it came to humanity.
Fowl explained, “It’s a traditional method of worshipping Lady Nyx. Actually, throwing one silver is enough. Please note that it has to be done during the night. If you do it right, the coin you threw will vanish upon landing, and you will get her divine protection for one night. Alternatively, you can throw five hundred thousand gold or more, and you will get a permanent blessing from her instead.”
“Five hundred thousand? That’s a lot!” Miki exclaimed. True, she and the team had gotten some gold when Arden had used a skill to force gold onto them. The amount was around one or two thousand at most, however.
“The choice is yours. It’s not related to me anyway. I just told you as a token of thanks,” Fowl said, though her thoughts were quite different.
‘Hehe. Ten thousand is actually enough. Why should I tell them the truth though?’
“This kind of opportunity doesn’t come often. Let’s do it. You can use my money.” Sila offered the gold he got from the bottom of the well to the squad. It wasn’t his to begin with and had brought his team a lot of problems, so it would be nice to see some good come of it as well.
A total of two and a half million gold was thrown back into the well. Alpha, Isaac, and Miki clearly expressed regret through their eyes.
What followed was a system notification, informing each of them that they had been blessed by a goddess.
“Lady Nyx’s blessing will make your concealment even more difficult to detect at night. All skills related to chance will get their success rate doubled. Also, you will obtain more money from killing a monster.”
Sila would say getting permanent benefits from a one-time payment was worth the price, especially when he speculated that the goddess’s blessing was unlikely to be affected by other skills. Mamon had complained about it to him many times.
“That should conclude our squad activities today. We got some profits. We can finally pay off Miki’s debt.” Alpha checked the time. “It’s just past midnight. Miss Fowl, how long does it take for us to go back?”
Fowl led the squad back to the Skills Training Ground and pointed around at several tunnels. “These tunnels all connect to locations near Colossia City. You can see the map on the ceiling.”
Looking at the ceiling, they finally noticed that the structure of Colossia City was engraved on it. There were at least a hundred routes connected to this place, though most of them were red. Only a couple of them were green.
“Most tunnels are locked and can only be opened from the inside. Only a few ones are unlocked. The hole you came from is one of them.” Fowl pointed at one of the green routes.
“Ah! There is a short route connecting to the Colosseum.” Issac pointed at one of the red routes.
“Even if we go back, we only have sleeping bags to sleep on. Does this place have any accommodations?”
Fowl pointed at one of the doors. “That way. It leads to a special dimension. There are many rooms. They may not be luxurious, but I guarantee you that they’re comfortable to rest in. You can use this service for free as well.”
“Let’s go and get some sleep, then. I’m dead tired. Go, go! Leader, you can be the first to choose a room,” Miki said as she stretched her arms.
Sila bluntly declined, “I think I want to spend more time in this Skills Training Ground. You can go to sleep without me. I will go later.” He was short on time and his body didn’t need sleep, so he wanted to make the most out of his time.
“Me too,” Midnight added.
Alpha scratched his head. “How about we train a little bit before going to bed? Actually, I feel like I got some ideas from the previous battle that I would like to try. Let’s just say it’s up to each of us. Anyone can sleep if they want to.”
Miki tightened her fist. “That’s no fun. Let’s gamble. The first to sleep loses and has to treat everyone else to a meal.”
“Ehh? We shouldn’t overexert ourselves though. Tomorrow is the day of the tournament. We should rest properly,” Isaac argued.
“So you lose. Shoo, shoo. Go to your nap room. Don’t forget to prepare the money.”
Eventually, they all agreed to polish their skills further, agreeing that the first to come out of the Skills Training Ground loses. Sila entered one of the teleportation circles, followed by one of Fowl’s Psychic Bodies.
“I saw you using magic arrows. Quite decent. With that level of mastery, I’m sure you can cope with common monsters. However, I bet you already know that you can’t hope to win against high-level monsters with your magic.”
There was no need for him to keep his identity a secret in front of Fowl. He knew that she could easily see through his disguise. Sila removed his mask.
“Magic was exciting the first time I used it, but I eventually had to end the fight using qi.”
“Well, a part of it is because qi is favorable against psychic power. Still, it’s regretful that you have attained all three essences of energy types like me. You are supposed to be great at using any of the three.”
Fowl extended her hand and shot a magic arrow to Sila. He neatly dodged it, but the arrow followed him. It stopped right at his forehead.
“Look at your back,” said Fowl. Turning his head, Sila noticed three more magic arrows hovering around his back, ready to be fired.
“How can you do that?”
“Creativity, that’s all. The essence of psychic.” Fowl dissolved the magic arrows. “Flexibility and adaptability are always the psychic type’s prominent traits. If you have the essence of psychic, however, these traits will cover all of your skills, not just psychic abilities. You may freely manipulate the shape, distance, speed, or form of all three energies.”
Fowl later displayed various ways to utilize a magic arrow with the help of the essence of psychic. She could control the arrow’s trajectory, conceal its presence, manifest it somewhere other than right in front of her, increase or decrease its speed, and even adjust its size.
“Do note that the power within the arrow is unchanged. Creativity doesn’t help with regards to destructive power. Still, you can easily fix this problem with Unison, the essence of magic.”
The arrow consumed the ambient mana around it, receiving a boost in attack power.
“By the way, you’re qi-type, so I guess you’re clueless about the art of Magic Delay, right?”
Sila replied, “No, I think I know. It’s a skill to delay the result of a spell that the user has finished casting so they can unleash it whenever they want.”
“You’re half correct. It’s understandable since its principle is the opposite of qi reinforcement.” Fowl summoned another batch of magic arrows. “Magic is about timing. I have taught you some of the basics. Magic Arrow is the lowest-tier of magic, suitable for learning about timing. The arrows will be most effective when you capture the right moment and hit a target in the right spot.”
A wooden doll sprang up from the ground. Fowl shot the magic arrows at its joints, breaking it completely. She clapped once, and this time a metal doll sprang up.
“However, mastering timing is sometimes not enough, like what you have experienced yourself today. Your simple magic arrows didn’t inflict any real damage on Arden, right?” Fowl bombarded magic arrows on the metal doll, but they only left a few scratches on it.
“Yes, their attack power was too low.”
“That’s why Magic Delay is important. It’s not normally this obvious, but I will show it to you.”
Fowl summoned one magic arrow, locking it on her palm without firing. Three seconds passed, and its appearance started to change. Another thirty seconds passed, and it became a beautiful artistic arrow. Released, the arrow collided with the metal doll and tore it apart as if the doll was made of paper.
“Just now... that was Magic Delay?” asked Sila.
“Correct. Magic Shield is the lowest-tier spell that will teach you about Magic Delay. I told you these two spells are the key to developing the user’s foundation as a spellcaster. There are ten hidden tiers within each spell. When you display a spell and delay it for a specific period, its rank will go up. The period varies from spell to spell. Magic Arrow will rank up every three seconds. What you saw just a moment ago was a tier 10 magic arrow.”
Sila had never known until now that there was another layer of complexity behind magic skills. In fact, it was safe to say that not even one player knew about it. Even in the Monster Realm, only gods and their apostles were aware of this piece of knowledge, though some monsters could make use of it instinctually despite not knowing the hidden application of magic delay. Fowl dared to say that, in the New World, except for her and the others who came from the other realm, Sila was the first person to discover this particular knowledge. Even Montra and Kritsana were unaware of it since this was a well-kept secret. Actually, Montra would have learned about it from Altia if he had stepped into the Hall of Omniscience.
“I can’t delay spells though.”
“Sure, Magic Delay is a skill exclusive to magic-type beings. In fact, you shouldn’t do it even if you have the skill since your power is a mix of three energies. Unlike magic power, qi will harm you if you maintain its reinforcement for too long. You do have something else though. I wouldn’t have mentioned it if it isn’t something you can do. Magic Delay is the art of extending the time for either greater power, better timing, or both. The keyword is “Time”. The hint is there is always more than one way to achieve the same result.”
It took Sila a moment of thought before he came up with an answer. “Ah! My Lordship!”
Lordship of Time was the power Sila acquired from Dan. Using it, he managed to eliminate Ginny from participating in the second war event, but that was all it had done so far. He had almost believed that the power was pointless until he was guided by Kiryu’s experience and learned how to activate the Lordship in another manner. When used on himself, the Lordship would allow him to ignore aspects of skills related to time. Nevertheless, its energy resource was valuable, so he planned to keep it as his trump card, only using it in important battles. He explained this approach to Fowl, who immediately argued against it.
“So shallow. It’s precisely because it’s valuable that you should use it frequently. If you save it, you may have a lot of accumulated time, but ask yourself, can you make full use of it all when the time comes? What you’re doing is like burying money underground and hoping to become a millionaire one day. Instead, what you should do is constantly invest it, using money to make more money and to learn how to spend money efficiently. You know what? A fool may have a million, but they can still go bankrupt if they don’t know what to do with it.”
Apparently, Fowl seemed to like using money in her metaphors. Nevertheless, the meaning of her messages got across to Sila. Instead of saving it to use it all in one go, he should keep spending it to train, especially when his Lordship would gain more resources if he made more kills. This way, even if the accumulated time was low in the future, at least he would be better at using the ability. Who knows? Maybe he might discover more to his Lordship.
“Magic Arrow is a low-tier spell, easily affected by other skills. You don’t need to spend thirty seconds to upgrade it, just a second is enough. If you’re as good as me, you can spend even a tenth of a second. Remember that what you’re going to do is not Magic Delay, but manipulating the time of your magic arrow. If you get the timing right, your magic arrow will glitch for a split second. It happens only for an instant, but it will make the spell itself think that it has been delayed for a long time.”
Sila frowned. He didn’t know that he could split his resource into a fraction of a second. “Is that really doable?”
“Don’t believe me, huh? Let me tell you that you may be the only one in this world capable of doing this, but those Gods of Time in the Monster Realm are all familiar with this concept and always use it on a whim. The highest rank in Monster Soul is Emperor Rank, which is commonly found in the Monster Realm. The truly powerful ones make differences with skills, not the gap between ranks.”
Sila started to see the goal of his training. At the same time, he started to get a glimpse of the power levels in the Monster Realm. He finally understood why becoming Emperor Rank was a prerequisite for entering the place.
“What about the essence of qi, Miss Fowl?”
“What do you want me to tell you?”
“Ah... I don’t know. It’s just that you provided me examples of how to use Unison and Creativity, but you haven’t mentioned Fusion yet.”
“Well, it will make no difference even if I tell you. Fusion is unlike the other essences since its ability is quite passive. I guess you have already made use of it a lot of the time, but you just haven’t noticed. Let me ask you this, then. Have you ever lost your skills? Or have you ever used a skill that you shouldn’t be capable of using?”
“You mean... using a skill that doesn’t show up in the system window?”
“Kind of. Do you know that these kinds of things aren’t normal? Only those with the essence of qi can do it. Your body will memorize the skills, making you learn them faster. Also, your tolerance level against skills, especially straight-forward skills with no tricky abilities, is high. You can even sometimes learn other people’s skills upon being hit by them.”
Sila had gotten rid of his qi foundation once, but he was still able to use all the skills he had learned. Even when Lucifer destroyed many of his skills, the skill Dark Psychic Corrosion was still with him.
“How does it help me learn the skills of other people?”
“Your body has to have all the prerequisites required for learning the skill when you are hit by it. That’s it. A qi-type being who has the essence of qi will become stronger the more they experience battles.” Fowl closed one of her eyes and stared at Sila while activating one of her inspection skills. “You’re actually ready to learn some skills as soon as you’re attacked by them. This amount is ordinary. I have seen people with more skills ready to be learned.”
“What should I practice first?”
“Keep in mind that there is no end to training. Anyway, my suggestion is you should start by building a solid foundation. With a good foundation, your overall strength will improve. First things first, I will demote your rank to Squire and help you learn some important skills. I will gradually recover your ranks after that. One of the slime race’s good traits is their ability to learn skills faster, so this shouldn’t take a long time.”
“The slime race has that kind of good trait, really?”
“You didn’t know?”
Sila shook his head. Fowl shrugged while thinking that he was a weird case. Supposedly, when selecting the slime race, one should spend as much time as possible at Squire Rank and farm a lot of skills. However, the length of time Sila spent at Squire Rank was shorter than average.
“I heard that you’re looking for Lady Igsia’s sword, right?”
“Did I ever mention that?”
“Zarnak was asking me about it.”
It was news to Sila that Zarnak could talk to people other than him. It was also thanks to Fowl having a high-level command-type psychic ability that made the feat possible.
Fowl continued, “You have the Blade-Sharpening Dragon. I suppose it isn’t strange for you to desire Lady Igsia’s sword. Barring its downsides, that sword is really powerful.”
Later on, Sila would learn from Fowl that the “reset” caused by acquiring the Dichotomous Crucifix Sword was merely a beginning. To be more accurate, the user’s stats and skills would be reset once they passed the sword’s first trial and got their hands on the sword, unlocking one of the seven sword abilities. Then, after using it for a while, the sword would force the user to face another trial. If the user overcame the trial, their power would be reset again while the second sword ability would be unlocked. The process would repeat until the user overcame all seven trials, obtaining the complete sword.
“You’re lucky that Zarnak decided to consult me. That sword is Lady Igsia’s beloved masterpiece. The current you can’t possibly win against any of the seven Blade Daughters. Each of the trials is for you to challenge and win against one of them. If you truly desire the sword, you should focus on one particular daughter, solely practicing the set of skills that will help you defeat her. Let me warn you that some of the Blade Daughters are unbeatable unless you have a specific sword ability from another daughter. You shouldn’t pick them as your first choice under any circumstances.”
“My master is seeking the source of bottomless magic power.” Zarnak slid away from the armor. It was the first time Sila saw it make an appearance in front of someone else. Maybe it started to admit that its knowledge was limited, so it wanted Fowl’s advice in order to make its master’s wish come true.
“You’re trying to fix the problem of your low Unison Percentage, I take it. I guess you fought someone with a higher Unison Percentage recently.”
Fowl’s guess was right on the mark. In the world of magic, a lower rank indicated weakness. In front of a stronger magic user, Sila’s magic ability would be greatly suppressed.
“Fortunately, she is among the three people you can choose as the first choice. In that case, your opponent will be Isabel—the Spell Breaker. I will teach you how to fight against her. That will be your goal.”
Sila had yet to realize how fortunate he was that Zarnak decided to mention the Dichotomous Crucifix Sword to Fowl. Otherwise, if he hadn’t known beforehand who he must choose and randomly picked one as his first opponent, he would have hit the ground as a corpse right after the trial—the Sword-Crowning Ceremony—started.
wait, is the Isabel that Fowl mention the Isabel that Momon has with him?
As the sun rose in the morning, the tournament started in a silent manner. Most members of the Shadow Army remained at their posts as they had to be on the lookout for goblins. Only squad leaders and jobless members were asked to join the opening ceremony, listening to the rules.
As a result, when Sila arrived at the arena, he found that his 99th squad was the only squad that had all members present.
The opening ceremony was roughly held since it was an unofficial event. The NPC host of the event asked all squad leaders to come up to a stage, where it proceeded to hand each of them an empty pouch.
Sila didn’t recognize anyone, mainly because everyone was fully dressed and wore masks. Some people might be able to tell their friends apart by their outfits, but not him. There were almost two hundred people present and some were good at power concealment, so it was a difficult feat to find anyone specific.
A female NPC appeared on the stage with a microphone in her hand. Sila remembered her. She was the same host who managed the couples event in the Town of Beginnings.
“Greetings, everyone. It seems all squad leaders have arrived. In order to not waste any time, please allow me to begin the Shadow Army’s Re-Ranking Tournament right away!” Her voice resonated throughout the Colosseum with no spectators, and of those present only those who would be participating were listening with interest.
“We were asked to come up with a tournament that is fair to every squad regardless of the number of members, so we have prepared three rounds of tournament; one for testing your members, one for testing teamwork, and the last for testing leaders. Nevertheless, since there are ninety-nine teams participating in the tournament, we decided that a preliminary round is necessary to trim the number of participating teams.”
There was a bit of commotion, but nothing too loud. This made Sila realize that every person in this place was a capable squad leader with a calm and collected mind.
“It is just a preliminary round, but there will be special points awarded to the squads that deliver good results.”
She opened both of her palms. On her right was a tiny glass marble while a one-eyed bat appeared on her left. It was a small monster with one eye and a big mouth.
“The preliminary round will last ten minutes. There are a hundred marbles like this one, each within a bat like this. Your mission is to seize marbles from these bats. Each marble has a number engraved on it, ranging from zero to ninety-nine. Please take a look. Observe closely, and you will spot the number.”
She waved her hand once, and a marble appeared on each squad leader’s palm. Sila looked at it and found that the number ‘99’ was indeed engraved inside of the marble in his hand.
The NPC further demonstrated by extending the marble, prompting the bat to swallow it.
“These numeric marbles will be converted to points after the three rounds have ended. Squad leaders are responsible for holding onto them. You are free to trade them among yourselves or keep them in order to exchange them for special rewards that will help you in each round. Think of them as a type of currency in this tournament.”
Many squad leaders pondered over what she said. Since these marbles could be exchanged, that meant the tournament didn’t simply test their fighting strength but also their decision-making and negotiation skills.
“There are two phases in the preliminary round: the first nine minutes and the last minute.” She clapped twice and summoned another bat with puffy cheeks.
“Let me tell you beforehand that these monsters are not really One-Eyed Bats but specially-made monsters. They are a bit unique, meaning they are immortal against all attacks unless your squad number is the same as the number on the marble in its mouth. Allow me to demonstrate.”
She summoned a dagger in her hand and stabbed the bat, yet not even a scratch appeared. The stab only pushed it away. When she stabbed another bat, however, it immediately died and dropped a marble.
“On the contrary, if your number matches the one in its mouth, it will be especially vulnerable against your attack. Even if you don’t use energy reinforcement, you can still kill it in one hit.”
She stopped briefly to make sure that everyone was following her explanation. In the first nine minutes, no one could kill the bats unless it was the one with their number on it.
“The last minute is when all this changes. The bats will no longer be immortal, though every of them will have their health points fixed at 500,000 instead.”
She removed the remaining bat and showed everyone two of the pouches she had handed to squad leaders previously. One of them was thin, indicating that it was empty, while the other was stuffed.
“These pouches are for keeping marbles. When there are marbles inside, no matter how many, they will look the same. They also can’t be inspected. You won’t be able to know the amount of marbles that someone else has collected. All you will be able to determine is whether they have marbles or not. You can only store the marbles in the pouch, not your system window. The marbles can’t be stolen as long as they are in the pouch.”
This revelation took a load off some of the players’ minds as they were wary of skills relating to stealing.
“To pass the preliminary round, you simply have to possess at least one marble at the end of the round. Having more of them is better though, since they will give you bonus points in future rounds.”
One marble for each squad. It sounded easy. However, everyone naturally wanted their squads to have many marbles. This preliminary round could easily eliminate more than half of the total participants.
“As I mentioned before, the marbles in this round will give you additional bonuses. Apart from them being a currency, these marbles will be converted into points for scoring that decide the victor. In future rounds, there will be a lot of non-numeric marbles, each giving one point. On the other hand, the numeric ones issued in this preliminary round will give you ten points. Additionally, the one with the same number as your squad will give you fifty points. Lastly, the most special one is this.”
She showed everyone the marble in her hand. “The number zero marble. It will give you a hundred points. There are a hundred bats in this round. One of them will drop this marble.”
Isaac raised his hand, asking a question. “When can we attack this bat with the number zero marble?”
The surrounding players began to chuckle, especially when they noticed that the one asking the question belonged to the 99th squad.
The female NPC smiled and replied in a friendly manner. “The bat’s number doesn’t match with any of the squads, so it can only be killed during the last minute, sir.”
Miki poked Isaac in his head. “Dumbass. Don’t show everyone how stupid you are. You should have known this much without asking.”
Groaning, Isaac shut his mouth, no longer in the mood to talk.
The NPC continued, “The tournament will last an entire day. The first round will start at midday, the second round at six p.m, and the final round at midnight. The contents of each round will be explained after the previous round has ended. There will be bulletin boards showing the number of non-numeric marbles that each squad has. As for the numeric marbles, the points will be awarded at the end of the tournament.”
The players realized the board was unreliable. Some squads might be shown at the bottom, but if they have a lot of numeric marbles, they might turn the tables and win. They started to understand the importance of the preliminary round. Acquiring numeric marbles in this round would give them an edge throughout the tournament.
“It’s getting late. Only squad leaders can participate in this round. As for the remaining players, please go and wait in the spectator zone we have prepared. Allow me to recollect the marbles.”
The marbles in the squad leaders’ hands flew back to her. Alpha, Miki, Isaac, Midnight, and the other non-leader members walked to the aforementioned spectator zone.
The female NPC talked to the squad leaders. “The bats will fly around this arena. If the ten minutes are up and some are still alive, they will simply vanish together with the marbles inside them. We hope you have fun with the tournament, ladies and gentlemen!”
She eventually left the arena, entering the waiting zone along with the non-leaders. Sila had participated in the Colossia City’s tournament once. Looking from the outside, the Colosseum might seem as large as a soccer field. However, the inside was a special dimension, which was larger and wider than it appeared to be. It was natural since it could hold many events at the same time. There had even been an event that grouped players against a massive-sized monster. The arena this time was as wide as five soccer fields. With the ninety-nine squad leaders trying to put some distance between each other, they would look like small dots scattering around the place if viewed from above.
“The round will start right after the gunshot,” The host said from the waiting zone, revealing a handgun in her hand. A hundred bats started to fly around in the sky above the arena. Their speed was exceptionally fast, making the players frown, especially those who had encountered the real One-Eyed Bats before.
The starting signal rang out. Half of the squad leaders unleashed big moves, creating something like fireworks in the sky. A couple of bats died from the blasts and dropped marbles. Many rushed to collect them.
‘I see. They are using AoE attacks because the bats with their numbers will die in one hit,’ Sila mused as he observed others’ actions. He already had his own ideas about what to do, but he wanted to take some time observing others first.
‘This kind of psychic power... who is it?’ Sensing a familiar power, Sila turned his head, then found a familiar man. It was Mugen, the 19th squad leader.
Mugen was standing still while most people were on the move, so his presence was quite eye-catching. He tightened the katana on his waist, taking an Iaido stance. Sila could sense subtle psychic power leaking from the man’s eyes and wrist.
The katana was drawn for an instant before returning to its sheath immediately, cutting one of the bats in half. A marble dropped, which Mugen leisurely collected. He then simply waited for the last minute, his stance neat and imposing like an artistic character out of an illustration.
‘These bats are small and agile, yet he could use Psychic Eyes to pinpoint a particular one with his number. He is very skilled.’
Sila also noticed that Mugen had exerted the right amount of psychic power. The neatly executed Iaido just now told him a lot about Mugun’s swordsmanship and mental fortitude.
One of the bats flew near Sila. He slowly extended his hand, yet he managed to catch it as if it deliberately flew into his palm.
‘Well, regardless of how fast it moves, it’s still nothing compared to the Wind Dragon.’ Against a fast-moving opponent with no intelligence to rely on, Sila could easily catch it with nothing but Six Moon-Grabbing Claws.
“Kew! Kew!” The tiny bat struggled in his clutch. Sila tried opening its mouth and found nothing.
The female NPC’s sound rang out from the waiting zone. “Mister 99th Squad Leader, although these bats have the marbles inside them, they are dropped items. You can’t find them in their mouths.”
The surrounding players laughed. It seemed to them that the 99th squad was participating in the tournament as a joke. Even the squad leader was showing idiocy.
Sila didn’t mind his failure. He simply let it go. He merely caught it out of curiosity since it had approached him. He intended to acquire the marbles during the last minute, so he had nothing to do for the first nine minutes.
He calmly observed others amidst waves of laughter coming from other squads, pointing at him who did nothing but helplessly watch other participants.
A man in wuxia clothing soared to the sky and pounced on a bat. Sila noticed that the man was Lone Wolf, who had managed to get his hand on the marble of his number.
‘Hm? How could he find his bat? Unlike psychic power, qi doesn’t help us spot the number, does it?’ Sila didn’t dare to probe Lone Wolf’s action using qi, so he was clueless about the method that the man used to accomplish the feat.
As a matter of fact, Lone Wolf had left a part of his qi on his marble when the host gave the participants the marbles to inspect. Qi types are sensitive to power, especially to their own qi. Thus, Lone Wolf could always sense his qi leaking from the bat holding his marble.
Time passed. Only a few were still trying. Except for some who already got their hands on their marbles, most had given up trying to catch the bats, putting their hopes in getting some marbles during the last minute.
As the last minute approached, people quit trying to catch the bats. Some were chanting, ready to fire AoE skills. They were capable squad leaders, so they were confident in their control that their attacks wouldn’t hurt other people, only the bats in the sky.
Seeing everyone else getting ready, Sila did the same. He hid his palm behind his back. It faintly glowed while showing the symbol of his Lordship. He muttered, “Artifact Manifestation.”
Last night, Fowl had taught Sila about common sense in the world of magic, which overturned Sila’s understanding of the magic type. He had always thought that magic abilities were difficult to use. However, it turned out that it was actually his fault for not understanding how it functioned.
Manifesting a sword out of psychic power was easy. Just imagine a sword, and he would get one according to the amount of psychic power he spent creating it. However, magic power wasn’t about wild imagination. Imagination alone wouldn’t work.
The key component in weapon creation from magic power wasn’t imagination but knowledge.
During weapon creation, the creator must spend the right amount of magic power and properly define the sword’s characteristics— its size, shape, weight, color, and so on. This is especially true in the case of Artifact Manifestation. Artifacts aren’t something you imagine but an object that actually existed at some point in time. The user of the skill must test manifesting ones again and again to learn the predetermined results.
Fowl had informed Sila of existing high-grade magical arrows she had seen strong monsters use in the Monster Realm.
Since Sila was more focused on training to counter Isabel, he only managed to memorize four kinds of magical arrows. It took time for him to do it by repeatedly casting the spell until he got the realistic feel of each arrow.
“It’s the last minute!” shouted the NPC.
Miki also shouted, “Get some, Leader! Whichever one!”
The squad leaders unleashed their skills. A blinding flash of magic spells covered the sky. Almost all of the remaining bats turned to dust and dropped marbles. The moment that all attention was locked onto the sky was the moment Sila made his move.
‘As expected from leader-level players, a lot of the bats were killed.’
Sila never intended to attack the bats as he was confident that the attacks from squad leaders were enough to wipe out the bats with poor defense. He only needed to collect the marbles faster than others.
Dark Element Artifact Manifestation — Crouching Demon Arrow.
An arrow flew toward another corner of the arena at shocking speed. Once it reached the corner, it exploded into black smoke, forming into the face of a wicked, evil creature. The arrow was originally made of the Demon Lord’s bones, which were only granted to his trustworthy lackeys. Its attack power was zero, but it had the power to instill fear in surrounding targets. It could subdue an opponent with extreme horror, displaying the might of the Demon Lord who was equal to God.
Exposed to such a level of power, all the players temporarily forgot the tournament and hurriedly put up energy reinforcement. They all stared at the direction of the face of the demon.
Their immediate fear lasted only a moment, probably shorter than a moment of breath. When everyone was focusing on his decoy, Sila summoned several common magic arrows. Using the essence of psychic, he manifested each arrow accurately next to a marble, knocking each of them toward him.
Considering the number of them, Sila naturally made some errors, especially since he wasn’t good at using magic. Still, he didn’t need to strike every marble into a small pocket like billiards. Just putting them into the effective range of King’s Treasury was enough.
Most of the dropped marbles flew into Sila’s poach at the same time that he deactivated the Crouching Demon Arrow. It was then that the participants recalled they were competing in a tournament and realized the former attack was merely distraction.
“Oi! Where are the marbles?!” Only seven bats were left flying in the sky.
Actually, Sila’s actions weren’t so subtle. Rather, he had made a big move, easily noticeable. However, his distraction was simply too good, as if he were a seasoned magician, misdirecting the audience’s attention to his right hand and making them completely overlook what was in his left.
A tremendous source of power suddenly exploded in the middle of the city during wartime. It was a given that all of the alerted players would shift their focus to the source.
Sila hid his pouch. He fired a magic arrow at one of the remaining bats and levitated to collect the dropped marble, pretending that it was the first one he got. His action made the participants realize that the round had yet to end. They hurriedly bombarded their attacks on the remaining six bats.
A commotion overtook the scene as some players protested that there had been an unexpected turn of events, causing dozens of squads to be ousted from the competition. Meanwhile, most squad leaders didn’t mind the commotion. They quickly sent messages to their members, asking them to patrol the city for potential threats.
The female NPC summoned her system window. She could watch recordings from any angle and any point of time since it was her duty to inspect problems. Watching the replay, she subtly glanced at Sila then closed her system window.
“There are no anomalies, ladies and gentlemen. The tournament shall continue as planned. Allow me to explain the contents of the next round.”
“Wait! What do you mean?! You should explain to us what happened back there! We have the right to know!” One of the eliminated participants shouted.
“You’re absolutely right, sir. Everyone has their own rights, and it is my duty to preserve that,” replied the NPC.
“What do you mean?” The same person persisted.
A brown-haired man in a leather jacket, his appearance clean and handsome, stepped up. He carried a round shield on his back while there was a sword strapped to his waist. Seeing the man’s badge, Sila identified him as the 9th squad leader, making the man the first single-digit squad leader he had met so far.
“Don’t you understand? It means the previous outburst of power was done by a particular participant. Directing people’s attention to somewhere else while hoarding all the marbles. We should have expected you to rely on such a trick, Mister 99th Squad Leader, the Thief Monarch.”
All gazes eventually shifted to Sila. They didn’t recognize him at first but the whispers going around changed that soon after.
Sila silently pondered as he didn’t understand. He was sure his actions went unnoticed, yet why was it that this man managed to determine that it was him?
The NPC smiled mildly. From the replay, she knew Sila really didn’t make any mistakes. However, some psychic-types possess skills that allow them to see past events or even catch a glimpse of the future. If their mastery is high enough, they can even record it, just like how Asura recorded Montra’s encounter with Kimon. The 9th squad leader had a similar skill.
Other people half-believed the 9th squad leader’s claim at first, but they were convinced by Sila’s silence.
“Given your ability, it’s not strange for you to be appointed as a squad leader. Miss Host, you may explain the rules for the next round.”
“Thank you, sir. The next round will start exactly at midday. Each participating squad leader will have to select one member from their squad to escape a maze.”
A crystal ball the size of a bowling ball appeared on each squad leader’s hand, including the ones that had been eliminated from the tournament. The crystal ball was projecting the scene of an empty room.
“You may observe your selected member, but you can’t assist them unless you pay some marbles. I will explain this in more detail later.
“There are a total of two hundred rooms in the maze, all connected to each other. In each room, you will find six doors, one on each wall, one on the floor, and one on the ceiling.
“Please note that some doors are locked. In each room, the number of doors that can be opened varies from one to six, meaning you can exit through any door if you’re lucky. Every time a member passes through to the next room, their squad leader will immediately get a non-numeric marble as a reward. On the other hand, if they try to open a locked door, the squad leader will lose a marble. Do know that you can’t simply return to the previous room through the door you used to enter your current room.”
“What if we run out of marbles?” asked one of the participants.
“There will be no problems, sir. You will immediately get one marble if you open the right door, but if you choose wrongly, the system will only note it. The number of marbles will be deducted at the end of the round. You only have to possess at least one marble at the end of the round in order to proceed to the next round. This round lasts three hours, by the way.”
“You mean... we don’t even have to exit the maze?”
“Yes, sir. Your squad will pass the round even if you’re still inside the maze, so long as you have the marbles. Exiting the maze will give you fifty marbles though.”
These rules called for different lines of thinking. Not exiting the maze at all but farming marbles by continuing to go through the right doors became a viable strategy.
“Even the squads that were eliminated from the preliminary round can participate in this round, though we will ask you for thirty marbles at the end of the round as a fee for re-entering the competition. Be warned that the layout of the maze will change every half an hour. Also, your squad will be deducted one marble if the member stays in one room longer than ten minutes.”
The duration of the round was three whole hours, meaning if they were lucky, they might have an overwhelming number of marbles at the end.
“There is one more rule about additional points. Every time a participant chooses a locked door and loses a point, that particular room will absorb the point they lost. If another participant exits that room by choosing the right door in their first try, they will get the room’s accumulated points as a bonus. Please know that you can’t inflict damage to other participants. If you do, your squad will be disqualified.”
By now, some squad leaders had already been discussing the rules, especially those of psychic-type since they were generally good at finding loopholes and exploits. The host’s previous statement meant they could do anything as long as they dealt zero damage to their target.
“Lastly, those with numeric marbles will have a special privilege. You may spend numeric marbles to bring more people from your squad to the maze. One marble per additional member. You can do this whenever you want, but the new member will always start in your starting room.”
Having more members naturally increased the chances to gain points, though it also increased the possibility of losing them instead. It could be a difficult choice to make.
“That is all, ladies and gentlemen. You may take your time to prepare and choose a starting member. Please ask them to assemble in this location three hours from now.”
All of the squad leaders split up, returning to discuss the next round with their squads. Miki cut through a crowd to Sila and jerked his cloak.
“Hey! Hey! Leader, did you really do what that guy claimed you did? Awesome!”
“It’s not good enough. If it was truly awesome, no one should have noticed it.” Sila waved his hand.
“Wow~ Our rank will soar to the top at this rate,” Isaac said happily.
Alpha shook his head. “I doubt it. Our points may drop down to the bottom in this round. It sounds very luck dependent. And our squad has bad luck.”
“It shouldn’t be totally luck dependent, I guess,” Midnight muttered.
“You’re right. It must be some kind of test, determining our decision-making ability. Who among us is the most suitable for this kind of mission?” asked Sila.
Alpha voiced his opinion, “If it’s about decision-making, that would be Midnight. He is not talkative, that’s for sure, but he’s competent.”
“Mn. Let’s spend one marble, sending Midnight and Alpha into the game.”
“Ehh?! Just the two of them?” Miki argued, “I want to participate too!”
“Two people should be enough. Although the rule forbids participants from harming each other, it’s still possible to hinder competitors by other means. With two of you, you will be able to help each other.”
“What do you want the rest of us to do?” Isaac was secretly delighted that he didn’t have to directly participate.
“Miki and Isaac, you two have to act as my envoys to negotiate with other squads. Tell them that I’m willing to exchange marbles with them as long as their offer is satisfying. My aim is to trade our numeric marbles for their future non-numeric ones. Both of you must know a lot of places and where each squad lives. Tell them I’ll be waiting on the second floor of the restaurant in front of the Colosseum.”
“Why should we exchange them, Leader? Wouldn’t it be better if we keep them? At the end of the final round, we will surprise everyone with bonus points,” Miki expressed her disagreement.
“About that... the host mentioned that the post-round deduction would take marbles away, not points. If we happen to lose this round, we will have to pay using our precious numeric marbles. Instead, we should trade some of them away for non-numeric ones.”
“I see. The numeric ones are worth ten points but still count as one marble. They will lose their value if we have to give them up. It’s better to trade them for ten one-point marbles.” Miki finally understood.
“Yeah. Also, the ones that match the other squad’s number are only worth ten points for us, but fifty for them. Considering their value, I think we should be able to exchange each of them for at least thirty non-numeric marbles.”
“Their net score will increase though,” commented Midnight.
“True. Still, it’s better to have a lot of marbles. We should be concerned about who we are going to trade with though. If they lose the round, we will get nothing from them. Come to think of it... Do you know anything about that guy just now? That 9th squad leader, I mean.”
“Oh! That’s Mister Saharat,” Isaac replied almost instantly, “A psychic-type player. He is Miss Risa’s big brother. I heard that he is quite skilled. He has been playing Monster Soul for a long time. He doesn’t play full-time, however, so he isn’t as well-known as most players of his level.”
Alpha yanked Isaac with his elbow. “Oh, boy. You’re always quick when it comes to that lady. Though you’re so slow in one aspect, not hitting on her already.”
“I am not. I simply answered the Leader’s question,” Isaac argued, embarrassed.
Miki snorted. “He is nothing but a stalker. What a psycho.”
“That’s harsh, Miss Miki! You better call me the Silent Follower instead.”
Sila secretly probed Zero’s reaction, but there was nothing to see. This meant that the previous time was either Sila’s imagination, or Zero had learned how to control his magic power to not fluctuate because of his emotions.
“Let’s spend our time wisely, then! Leader, you may head to the restaurant. The four of us will spread the word. When the round is about to start, Midnight and I will go to the area.”
Everyone scattered. Sila casually walked to the restaurant, entered it, and sat at a table near a balcony. This restaurant was the same one in which he had celebrated his victory in the past. Only a few months had passed since then, but it felt much longer to Sila.
Sila ordered the wonton noodle soup. The more time he spent in the game, the less time he thought he had. He hadn’t eaten food for a very long time.
Sila slightly lifted his mask up, showing only the lower part of his face, and slowly chewed on the noodles.
“Eating simple noodles, huh? I thought the Thief Monarch would be richer than this. Please let me treat you to a proper meal, then.”
A newcomer ordered several dishes and asked the waiter to push the tables together. He leisurely sat opposite to Sila, a confident smile hanging on his face.
Observing the man, Sila noticed that the newcomer was a magic-type player wearing a magician’s robe. His eyes were ocean-blue. A calm and soothing sensation could be sensed from his magic power. His badge implied that he was the 4th squad leader.
“I joined the army only recently, so I don’t really know anyone else. Could you please tell me your name?”
“Hm? The legendary Thief Monarch is more humble than I thought. This is unexpected.”
The man deliberately shot off sarcastic comments, calling him the ‘legendary’ Thief Monarch. The term sounded like a compliment, but the man had investigated Nero’s background and found that the Thief Monarch was actually a loser. Aside from the fact that he established the first bandit gang, everything Nero had done was unsuccessful and humiliating.
Sila hadn’t studied Nero’s background yet. He only knew a little about the man, though he could detect sarcasm in the newcomer’s tone. Fortunately, he wasn’t the real Nero, or he might have fallen into rage otherwise.
“Experience. Time. There are many things that can change a person’s life. You may consider me to be a completely different person from the Nero that played Monster Soul when it first launched.”
“Who knows? Maybe you really aren’t the real Nero.”
“We’re in a virtual reality game. We’re always pretending to be someone we aren’t. Don’t you agree?”
Following Sila’s comments was the sound of clapping. Sila didn’t even need to shift his gaze to know that Lone Wolf was approaching his table. Lone Wolf joined the conversation without asking for anybody’s permission. He simply sat down in the chair next to the 4th squad leader. Hermit, wearing a mask, also accompanied him.
“You’re absolutely right. Exactly as Nero said, we don’t have to be ourselves in a virtual reality game. By the way, Undine, there is a lot of food, I take it that you don’t mind me joining the table. What about you, Nero?”
Sila finally learned the name of his sudden conversation partner. He was still clueless about why these people approached him so fast, however. Considering the time, his members shouldn’t have spread the news too far, meaning these people actually followed him here.
“The food isn’t mine. You’re free to eat whatever you want,” Sila replied as he continued to eat his noodles.
Hermit volunteered to cut the food into portions and share them equally between the people at the table. However, except for Lone Wolf, no one had touched the shared food yet. An awkward silence overtook the table for a whole minute.
“I suppose you aren’t here to simply watch me eat, no?” Sila asked after he put down his empty bowl.
“I don’t know why these two came, but I’m here to negotiate. If things go well, both of our squads may pass the round with the highest scores,” Undine explained.
The conversation was interrupted by a flood of people entering the restaurant. The restaurant owner naturally welcomed such a sight and asked the waiters to set up more tables. Apparently, some squad leaders had heard the news and decided to gather in this place. Some of them even blatantly joined Sila’s table.
The restaurant owner approached Undine. “Excuse me, sir. Do you want us to prepare the same set of dishes for the other guests?”
Undine smirked. His 4th squad was wealthy as they got many high-paying jobs. He didn’t mind spending some cash to show off his broad mind. Who knows? Some of the talents in this restaurant might be interested in joining his squad in the future.
“Never mind the people at this table, I’m willing to treat every customer. A single meal won’t affect my squad’s finances in any way. You can eat like this every day if you’re in the 4th squad.”
Hearing his words, some people admired Undine’s generosity while some found him irritating. The 40th squad leader at the next table, in particular, stood up and shouted.
“Oi! Didn’t you hear him? Sir Undine the squad leader is not poor like us plebeians. He can easily afford to treat us all. What are we waiting for? Call every off-duty person to this place. Their meal is free!!!”
A few dozen other squads followed the man’s example, asking their members to assemble. The restaurant owner eventually had to bring out more tables, even setting them up on the street. All of the food kept vanishing as soon as it was served. Since Undine didn’t set a budget, the owner took the chance to continue serving dish after dish.
Sila couldn’t tell whether Undine was really financially unaffected or the man was simply good at maintaining his poker face. The man remained unfazed despite the amount of money being spent soaring through the roof. Rather, seeing the amount of food on the tables, it was the freeloaders whose expressions changed. The rate at which the food was consumed began to significantly slow down.
There was no need for Sila to break the silence since he was the one with the most marbles. It was the role of others to offer him a good deal.
Half of the squad leaders present in this place already owned the matching marbles. They could technically send two members to enter the maze. However, no one was willing to do that since the numeric marble was worth fifty points. This implication made Sila, who had many numeric marbles, the center of attention.
Most of the people here already knew each other. Many squad leaders took turns introducing themselves to Sila. Since there were many of them, however, Sila could barely memorize their faces and names.
He didn’t see leaders of the first, second, and third squads. Still, there was one particular squad that almost made Sila choke on the water he was drinking. It was the 6th squad.
The 6th squad was a female-only team. The leader was Aqua, a short-haired young woman wearing a pair of glasses that had no prescription, making them solely for fashion. She carried a barrel on her back which seemed to contain a liquid.
The squad was small in size, having only five members. All of them were ex-mercenaries stationed around Grea City who moved to Colossia City and joined the Shadow Army due to various circumstances.
In any case, the player who thoroughly shocked Sila wasn’t Aqua, but one of the members, Varee.
The squad had a nickname, ‘Team Aqua’, which came from the fact that all of the members were close friends in real life, playing the game together and giving their accounts water-themed names. The squad consisted of Aqua, Marina, Rain, Mizuki, and Varee.
It was the first time Sila encountered Varee’s friends. In fact, he was totally clueless regarding what Varee usually did while logged into Monster Soul.
The five young women sat in a corner of the restaurant. Only Aqua noticed his gaze. She winked at him, to which Sila didn’t respond. He was trying his best to appear calm, not wanting to do anything to raise Varee’s attention.
Varee seemed to be in a sour mood. Sila happened to overhear some of their exchanges and learned that she was upset because one of her acquaintances had died in the war event. Sila didn’t know who the person was, but could tell that the person must be very important to her. This made him feel a bit jealous.
“Mister Nero, are you listening?” Undine’s sound woke Sila from his daze.
“Pardon?” Sila didn’t catch that.
“Out of the goodness of my heart, I will warn you that the 6th squad is full of tough girls. Every one of them is... pitiless, barring only Marina, and I’m rather curious as to how she ended up in that group. These girls haven’t only broken many men’s hearts, but they also literally broke their bones, arms, ribs, and other assorted body parts. I don’t recommend you test your luck unless you’re brave enough.”
“I’m not interested in any of them.” Sila waved his hand. However, he was the center of attention right now. Many were listening to his words, including the aforementioned girls.
“Hey! That is clearly an insult!” Aqua slammed the table, got up, and pointed her finger at Sila. “We’re five girls, each with a different style. Are you saying none of us can catch your eyes?!”
Most squad leaders chuckled while some were expressionless. Sila silently observed the mana around Aqua and noticed that it was very calm, which he found unusual.
Having been enlightened to the essence of magic, Sila had unlocked the ability to sense, and even see, ambient mana. Mana was a part of everything, be it living or non-living. As a matter of fact, when a player was about to activate a skill or when their emotional state was unusual, the mana around them would subtly respond. Fowl had already taught Sila how to read ambient mana to understand the target’s emotions or predict the skills they were using. Sila was bad at it, however, so he cannot determine exactly what skill is being activated, only if it is offensive, defensive, or supportive in nature.
The ambient mana around Aqua was still, without any ripples. This meant she wasn’t really angry and was simply putting on an act. The whole situation was meant to test him, probing how he would react to an unexpected conflict. It might seem like a silly setup, but if Sila were to show his incompetence, they wouldn’t wait to strike at his weaknesses.
“I’m here to play the game, not to get a girl. I apologize if that offends you,” replied Sila, his voice stoic.
Aqua blinked twice before calmly sitting down as if she hadn’t just shouted across the room. This meant Sila’s theory was right. She wasn’t really mad at him. The restaurant had turned into a battlefield, a cold war with each squad trying to see through his character.
Sila started to see the differences between guildless players from Belacia City and mercenaries from the Shadow Army. The majority of Belacia’s citizens were individually stronger than the Shadow Army’s. Each person sought strength, so they polished their skills on their own, only cooperating when the situation called for it. On the other hand, the mercenaries sought money. Their individual strength might be inferior, but they armed themselves with strategies and tactics in order to accomplish the assigned jobs.
“What did you expect, girls? He was the leader of the number one bandit band. I wonder if you looked down on him too much,” said Undine.
“I hate bandits. They do nothing but rob others. Can’t they just play the game without bothering other people?” Varee, still in a bad mood, spoke up. Most of her playtime was spent hunting other players, and the majority of them were bandits with bounties on their heads.
Sila honestly didn’t like bandits either. However, he was currently in the role of Nero, the leader of the first bandit gang. Considering history, it could be said that Nero was the first player to ever direct his weapons against other players, which set a bad example to follow. He was the one who started the worst era of Monster Soul. Thus, the current Sila wasn’t in a position to say anything.
“I thought the Shadow Army doesn’t bother with the past,” replied Sila.
“Are you trying to get by with the Shadow Army’s rules? We’re ultimately mercenaries. I can leave the army right now and kill you.” Varee stared at Sila. Her psychic power was powerful, causing the table she was sitting at to vibrate.
‘That’s strange. Why is she in such a bad mood? Her psychic power is the scariest when it can abruptly accelerate from completely motionless to a quick strike. If she is in this emotional state, the path of her sword will be easily predicted. I can win even without using energy reinforcement.’
It wasn’t an overstatement. Psychic power was unique in a way that the user’s emotions directly affected its performance. This unstable nature had allowed many to win against someone stronger while, on the other hand, it could make them lose against weaker opponents. Psychic power was the energy type with a lot of potential, though the user had to properly control it, staying focused and always showing their best side.
“Is that allowed?” Sila turned to ask Undine.
“Sure, that’s fine. As Miss Varee said, if she quits, she will no longer be a member of the Shadow Army and won’t be bound by our rules. However, if she chooses to do that while the war event is still ongoing, we will have to ask her to leave Colossia City.”
“So you’re free to do whatever you want as long as you don’t break the Shadow Army’s rules, is that right?” asked Sila.
“Certainly. You can accept jobs from somewhere else, we won’t mind. We’re just groups of mercenaries who happened to assemble due to the conflict between the Heavenly Dragon and the Wicked Union, which led to a decline in our business. Honestly, if the war ends and the situation becomes better, some or most of us will likely leave the army. There is nothing binding us to the army. You just have to follow a simple set of rules.”
“I see.” After listening to it, Sila swept his gaze across everyone in the room. “I’m free, but I don’t want to waste my time anymore. State your terms, or leave me alone. Stop it with the tests as it’s only going to irritate me. Come at me directly if you really wanna see what I’m capable of.”
His speech was arrogant, as expected from the Thief Monarch. Unlike the past Thief Monarch, however, Sila wasn’t all talk. He was following the instructions provided in the Story of A Hundred Swords, using a tactic that Pumin had written about—make the first move decisive, and people would think twice before they tried to offend him again. It was a method to reduce future problems.
“Aren’t you being too conceited, Thief Monarch?” Undine was genuinely doubtful. Sila’s words were like oil being poured onto a flame. Mercenaries tended to dislike thieves from the start. Although the squad leaders here hadn’t made any moves yet, their suppressed waves of anger were causing the ambient mana to take on the colour of dusk.
Sila said no more as he swept his hand, activating the Hidden Weapon Firing skill and putting a magical box on the table. It was a powerful artifact that emitted a faint aura. Sila had been clueless about how to use Artifact Manifestation before, but now the skill had become his favorite magic ability next to Orbiting Cosmos.
Among the Artifact Manifestation’s four patterns, Sila was best at the magical arrow form since it was the simplest and he had spent more time learning it. His next best would be the magic box form, then the magical weapon form. He was seriously inexperienced at utilising the magical beast form, which Fowl said was the most troublesome and difficult to learn.
Since he provided no explanations, the box’s presence exuded a sense of mystery. The surrounding players stared at the magical box with doubtful eyes, not understanding what a small box could do.
The players had various opinions. Some thought Sila was arrogant while some believed he must have something up his sleeves for him to be so daring. Still, they were generally here to negotiate with Sila, so they didn’t want to do anything to harm their chances of success yet. There was one exception, however, who was in a very sour mood and fed up with Sila’s provocation.
“Since you are the one who started it, you better not regret it.” Varee suddenly got up. With only a couple of steps, she cut the distance, placing Sila within her attack range.
“I won’t,” Sila said, this time gently unlike before. He had predicted that it would be Varee who was the first to come at him. Meanwhile, the surrounding players didn’t choose to stop Varee since they wanted to see how Sila would fare against her.
The lid of the magical box was unlocked. It opened and generated bright light. Unlike the previous time, Sila didn’t randomly create the box but instead predefined the result he desired beforehand.
For the usage of magic boxes, aside from deforming them into their sources of magic power, if opened, the box would generate a domain that affected everyone in its radius regardless of who they were. Even the user would be affected by the domain. For example, the time when Lomyok opened the box, what came out of it was a domain of darkness, so powerful that even Quasar inside Inner Hell could regain a part of her power, allowing her to escape to another realm.
Upon creation, the user could roughly specify the properties of the domain that the magical box would generate. Specifying the element was the first step, which Sila could achieve easily since he was used to Orbiting Cosmos. Nevertheless, the advanced stage was more troublesome since specifying a special property was more complicated and required extensive knowledge. Fowl suggested that, since he had the essence of qi, he should bring himself to be hit by various types of magic AOE attacks. His body would gradually memorize the sensations and he would automatically become better at using magical boxes.
While Varee was a psychic-type, her katana was a magic-type weapon of the water element.
An outburst of electricity exploded within a small area. Utilizing the essence of psychic, Sila had controlled the size of the domain to become smaller, and that greatly strengthened his magic abilities.
Varee’s body was transfixed in mid-air. The magical box didn’t inflict any damage, but the area full of an unusual amount of the lightning element severely affected the water-element user. On the other hand, Sila was using lightning-element Orbiting Cosmos, so he could move freely despite being in the same domain.
The Crouching Demon Arrow appeared on his palm. Sila didn’t shoot it but respectively pointed it at Varee’s head, neck, and heart. He then stabbed it into the table.
“You have died three times. Are you done? Blatantly jumping at me like this is no different from suicide. Is this the Goddess of Purified Water’s fighting style?”
Sila canceled the domain and the arrow, then sat down on the same chair. Actually, many people had intended to interfere when he approached Varee, but Sila had summoned several magic arrows to block their paths. His movements were fast, so just a brief moment of distraction was enough for him to get the job done.
“Varee, are you okay?” One of Varee’s friends, Marina, came to support her. Seeing there were no injuries on Varee’s body, she was relieved.
“I’m fine,” replied Varee, before turning to Sila. “You...”
“...It’s nothing. I just feel like you’re similar to someone I know. Must be only my imagination though,” said Varee as she backed off. “The next time won’t be the same.”
‘There will be another time, huh?’ Sila inwardly groaned.
With the brief conflict finished without any injuries, players began to file out without saying anything. Two thirds of all the players that had come had left, and Sila did nothing to make them stay. Undine was among the people who left.
“Seeing your strength, I don’t think we can cooperate. If your squad passes the next round, I hope we’ll get to see more of the Thief Monarch’s true strength.”
“You make it sound like I will be eliminated in the next round.”
Undine grinned. “You’re skilled, Mister Thief Monarch, I admit. If it’s you alone, I’m sure you can easily pass the round. I can’t say the same about your squad, however.” The man turned his back and left. “Good luck. I know your squad will need a lot of it.”
Only a few squad leaders still remained, including Lone Wolf. Strangely enough, Varee and her group were still there.
“Be careful of Undine. His fighting ability may not be high, but he wouldn’t have become the 4th squad leader if he had nothing up his sleeves,” Lone Wolf warned.
Sila muttered, “He must have expected this to happen. No, I bet he had prepared several options to pick from depending on my behavior. He evaluated me, discerning whether I can be of any use to him. If I showed him I was an easy target, he would make use of me. On the other hand, since I have shown him that I’m quite uncooperative, he used the moment to show everyone that I’m the public enemy that they have to eliminate from the tournament, fast. Just by treating everyone to a single meal, he managed to make my squad a target for a majority of the Shadow Army. He may be right... My squad may even lose in the very first round.”
With only two arms and two legs, it was difficult to cope with a dozen of each, especially when Sila wasn’t the one participating in the maze. If more than half of the participants were to cooperate in suppressing Alpha and Midnight, there would be an extremely high chance that his squad would drop in the next round.
I owe you an apology for taking a long break without informing you in advance.
The thing is, my first child was just born recently. I naturally have to spend most of my time raising him, cultivating his body and tempering his mind.
I will still try to release new chapters once in a while, but please expect a long gap between each of them.
Thank you for staying with me.
While most of the players had left, the rest were still willing to negotiate with Sila. There were fourteen squads that agreed to exchange marbles. They promised to give ten unnumbered marbles to him as soon as they had them. This meant Sila technically had 140 unnumbered marbles on him. Coupled with the remaining six numbered marbles on him, his total score was 200 points.
It was unfortunate that, among the twenty marbles Sila collected in the preliminary round, the 0th and 99th weren’t there.
As a negotiation could happen anytime, even during the round, everyone decided to stay in the restaurant. They rarely talked to each other, however, since they were focusing on the round that was about to start.
An image of each squad’s representative appeared on a crystal ball, or more than one person if the squad leader paid for an extra member to be sent in. Sila saw Midnight and Alpha appear in a rectangular room. The two were looking left and right, wondering which doors they should pick.
Sila sensed someone’s magic power. It turned out that Undine was levitating next to a window. There was no sign of other players.
“Did you forget something, Undine?” Sila greeted the man without looking his way. He was focusing on the image of his squad members.
Undine shook his head while landing on a balcony. “I didn’t. The sight of a loser just happens to be my favorite thing to watch. The joy coming from seeing a man feeling hopeless right in front of me is incomparable. A bit disappointed that you’re wearing a mask though.”
“The round has only just started. Don’t you think you’re jumping to the conclusion too fast? The results of this round have yet to be decided.”
Undine chuckled. “You’re quite innocent, Mister Thief Monarch. The results had already been set in my head when I heard the rules. In my eyes, you have been eliminated even before the game started. You’ll know what I mean soon.”
Everyone in the restaurant noticed Undine and heard his speech, but no one cared. Except for Sila, everyone seemed to know Undine’s personality. It wasn’t the time for them to worry about Sila’s squad, however, so they continued to watch their crystal balls.
Sila decided to ignore Undine, thinking that the man was simply bluffing. His 99th squad had the best score right now, so it was nearly impossible for the squad to drop out in this round.
“Oh! It’s starting. Don’t take your eyes off of it,” Undine spoke up as he observed the image in Sila’s crystal ball.
“What is happening?!” Sila was thoroughly shocked. He had shifted his attention to Undine for only a moment, but the situation unfolding in the crystal ball had changed a lot. Alpha and Midnight were bound to one of the doors by a thick white rope with a talisman on it. There was another person in the room, who was likely to be the one responsible for trapping his teammates like that. The system also informed him that his squad had lost two points.
“It’s a checkmate, Mister Thief Monarch,” Undine explained, “You think the round is luck-dependent, right? It’s actually not. The key to pass this round is cooperation. While you sent two members into the maze, my alliance sent one member per squad with an agreement that we’ll help each other while hindering other squads outside of the alliance. Every time we open a door, regardless of whether it is the right door or not, we will leave behind a symbol. This helps our alliance to reliably keep collecting points.”
Alpha and Midnight’s bodies were touching the locked door, so the system determined that they chose incorrectly and deducted points. Apparently, Undine’s plan involved sealing other squads’ movements right after the round started. There were ninety-nine squads participating but there were only two hundred rooms. Considering that the system wouldn’t let them start in the room near the maze’s exit, Undine speculated that there was a high chance that some of the participants would start in the same room or at least be clustered around the same area. It was highly likely that the participants would stumble upon others after opening a few doors. Thus, if they completely ignored the score during the early stage of the game, it should be quite easy to find members of the 99th squad, which had the highest score.
Undine had enlisted the help of a squad member who possessed a Unique Magic called ‘Mystic Talisman’, which was a magic ability similar to Clute’s Rune Magic and Sila’s Artifact Manifestation. The user could write a mystic symbol on a talisman, then later use it without having to cast the spell.
One of the severe downsides of this magic was that it was expensive to use. A writable talisman was an item that couldn’t be created by players yet, and the system sold them at a high price. Fortunately, the Heavenly Dragon Guild greatly discounted magic items in the Magic Kingdom, so it was affordable. The other downside of the magic was that the written talisman represented the user. If it was destroyed while it was active, the talisman activator would suffer the damage depending on the level of the spell they wrote in the talisman. It carried a lot of risks, so using talismans must be done in moderation.
Undine noticed this particular downside and made use of it. He gave written talismans to everyone in his alliance, fifty of them per person. Each talisman could function for fifteen minutes. The talisman only restrained the target’s torso as they could still move their arms, legs, and even use energy reinforcement. Under normal circumstances, the target would be able to easily tear it apart. However, with the rules that prevented causing damage to another participant, if they destroyed the talisman, their squad would immediately be disqualified.
Every time Alpha or Midnight tried to break free from their restraints, the system would constantly warn them of their impending disqualification, confusing them.
Undine gladly told Sila the effects of the talisman and continued, “There are some psychic abilities that allow the user to remove the talisman without causing damage. However, such skills are rare and all members of the 99th squad are magic-types, so I doubt they have them. It’s already game over for you, Mister Thief Monarch.”
Sila’s expression changed under his mask. His squad’s score continued to fall every passing second. He eventually decided to spend ten points in order to send a short message to his members in the maze.
“Alpha, Midnight, don’t move. The system judges that you are choosing the wrong door every time you move, deducting points as punishment. Also, don’t touch the talisman, or our squad will be immediately disqualified. Just stay still until time runs out.”
Undine slightly bowed to Sila once before he levitated out. “Getting to see this restless look of yours, I’m glad that I came to visit. I wish you well. Hope you can enter the next round.”
Sila pondered his mistakes. He had greatly underestimated Undine’s strategic prowess. He always thought he alone could subdue everyone, but he failed to see the truth, that the world didn’t revolve around him alone. Even the strongest can lose a fight if faced with superior strategies.
Zero was a qi-type player with offensive magic ability. He was hiding his strength, so he didn’t choose to dodge the sudden assault. Still, even if he were to get serious, the best he could do would be dodging around. Under the rules that prevented the use of violence, he was at an extreme disadvantage.
The player belonging to Undine’s alliance tried opening several doors. Once he found the right door, he wrote some strange symbols on the floor next to each door he had tried to open. It had to be some kind of code, informing the alliance which doors were locked and which was the right one.
Sixteen semi-transparent marbles floated in the center of the room. They represented the bonus points coming from players choosing the wrong doors.
A few minutes later, another man entered the room. He looked at Alpha and Midnight, read the strange letters on the floor, took out talismans, and put them on top of the previous ones. He then proceeded to the correct door, opened it, and collected all the accumulated points.
Sila was impatient, but refused to let it show on his face. He tapped his finger on the table, re-evaluating the situation. A battle of wits was still a battle. Once fallen, it was difficult to turn the tables. To change the flow of a losing battle, tactics and experience were a must, though Undine seemed to be superior to Sila in both areas.
Sila continued to think until he was sure that there was nothing left he could do. He took out the Story of A Hundred Swords to read, waiting for the end of the round. He slowly flipped through each page as if he was perfectly calm.
For some matters, slower will be faster. Being too hurried might instead cause it to become more complicated and slow things down. Cooling his head and slowly considering his next moves were the best course of action Sila could possibly do. There would surely be a solution as long as he kept thinking.
Three hours quickly passed. Some people in the restaurant felt sorry for Sila while some were disappointed that he was completely crushed by Undine despite the previous show-off.
Although Alpha tried his best not to move, staying still for three whole hours was still too much. Fortunately, Zero could do it at ease, or the number of points deducted would be twice what the final amount ended up at.
Even after considering the points from numbered marbles he got from the preliminary round, the current score of the 99th squad was minus 665 points.
Which meant... being eliminated from the tournament, exactly like Undine had said.
The system informed each squad leader to pay their marbles at Colosseum. Sila closed the book, got up, and spoke with the people remaining in the restaurant.
“I’ll be blunt. May I borrow your surplus marbles?”
The question was to be expected. The rules didn’t specify the method to acquire marbles, meaning they could be traded or given away. Unlike Undine’s alliance, the squads in the restaurant didn’t cooperate, so each of them only had around 70-80 marbles. The amount was high since some squads managed to exit the maze. Nevertheless, it paled in comparison to Undine’s side, with even the most unsuccessful squad scoring at least 600 points.
Aqua was the first to reply. “It’s not like we’re against you, but the first round already proved your ‘reliability’. I, for one, don’t think you have what it takes to return them to us.”
“I understand. That’s why I won’t borrow them for free. I will double the amount when I return. And if I can’t return them to you, I’m willing to compensate them, each marble for a thousand gold.”
His declaration shocked everyone. They naturally didn’t believe that someone had that level of wealth.
“A thousand gold per marble? Your squad’s score is minus 665 points, which equals to over half a million. It can be converted to six million in real life. Are you for real? Do you even have that kind of money?”
Sila proved it with actions rather than words. He opened his palm and poured a ridiculous amount of gold coins on the table. “Wanna count?”
A pile of gold made the people’s eyes bulge out, speechless. Some continued to rub their eyes, refusing to believe what they were seeing.
Miki and Isaac had seen a mountain of gold that towered over their heads, so they were not as shocked as others. Still, they couldn’t help but be stunned, wondering when and how their leader had snatched the gold during their short stay in the well. The title Thief Monarch was truly fitting.
Sila took all the gold back as it was only to show them he could pay for the marbles. Some people were still dazed even after the gold had returned to his system window. Mercenaries like them technically worked for money. The reason why they desired higher ranks in the Shadow Army was that they wanted solid jobs with high returns.
Unlike the Merchants Association, however, money was simply a convenience, not their sole objective. While money was an important drive for them, excitement, thrills, and a sense of accomplishment were also parts of what made them become mercenaries.
Sila made contracts, borrowing 30-40 marbles from each of the squads, and managed to proceed to the next round. He was deep in the red, of course.
Sila gave the marbles to the host in the Colosseum amidst the gazes, from many players, that looked down on him, ridiculing his foolishness. Undine observed him from a distance, though the man showed no expression. It seemed his interest in Sila had already vanished.
All of this started because of Sila’s desire to obtain a single dagger, yet already he had put in a lot of effort. Sure, a part of it was because of his ego, but it wasn’t the sole reason. Sila wanted to test his qualities as a leader. The final battle wouldn’t simply be about him and Montra, but between the Heavenly Dragon Guild and the Wicked Union.
A lone man couldn’t accomplish everything by himself. Sila understood this fact.
He didn’t intend to solve problems with money. In fact, the money should be invested in other important matters. He only spent it to buy time. He was confident that he could recoup his costs in future rounds. The next two rounds would test the squad’s teamwork and the ability of the leader, meaning he could directly participate in both of them.
He must regain what he had lost. This was Sila’s current mindset.
The female NPC walked to the center of the arena. “Good afternoon, everyone. You all must have seen the changes in the leaderboard. The second round will start soon, testing your squad’s overall capability and also your ability to acquire information. Please look this way.”
She waved her hand backward, and a giant monster suddenly appeared in a cage, making many players flinch and unconsciously take a few steps back. On her palm was a transparent small box, a miniature version of the identical monster inside.
The monster’s appearance wasn’t like anything the players had encountered. If they were asked to describe it, they would say it resembled a giant spider, but with four legs, each looking as sharp as blades. Its skin seemed thick and solid, like some kind of high-grade metal armor. There were ancient letters engraved all over its body.
“We will give this box to every squad. Inside the box is a special dimension that you will enter in order to fight a monster similar to this one here. We have adjusted the stats of the monster in the box to a hundredth of the original. Still, I warn you to be extremely careful since it is very strong. Don’t forget to activate the substitution doll we handed out previously. We refuse to be responsible for any deaths that occur. The rules are simple. Before 9 p.m., you have to return this box to me without the monster inside. Once delivered, you will get 100 marbles as a reward. On the other hand, the squad that can’t kill it will lose 1,000 points. You can only proceed to the final round if your score is a plus.”
The deduction of points in this round was exceptionally cruel since the system gave a lot of time for participants to gather information about the monster. As mercenaries, they were expected to overcome difficulties blocking their ways. The time was plenty for them to gather information and exchange what they discovered with other squads. Although the reward was only 100 points, they could technically obtain more of them from selling the vital piece of information they found.
‘There is finally this kind of trial. It seems I’m not that unlucky.’ Sila let out a sigh of relief.
“This monster comes from a particular world called the Monster Realm. The box allows you to see what is inside, but you can’t sense its power. You will have to enter if you want to know what kind of abilities it possesses.
“We won’t give you any information about it. However, there exists a sure-way method to defeat it, and every squad is capable of using this. Ah...?”
The female NPC stopped talking as she saw Sila walking into the cage. “Mister 99th Squad Leader, please stop. It’s dangerous! The one inside that cage is the original, its strength hasn’t been adjusted!”
The warnings entered Sila’s ears, but he ignored it as he was listening to something else. Passing through the cage, Sila entered a special dimension with the monster inside. He opened his palm, showing the Crouching Demon Arrow. It exploded into a smokescreen that blocked all vision.
“He must be too embarrassed by the result of the first round and decided to suicide. Hahaha!” One of the players said loudly, which led to waves of laughter. Only a few remained silent.
Isaac and Miki panicked. Alpha stepped forward, about to follow Sila into the cage. However, Midnight grabbed the man’s hand and shook his head. “Let’s wait.”
A few seconds later, Sila exited the cage. The black screen in the cage started to subside.
The female NPC checked her system window and discovered a shocking fact. Her expression noticeably changed. The same expression also showed up on the rest of the faces present. The black screen was finally gone, revealing the corpse of the monster lying inside.
Sila declared loudly, “For 50 points, I will tell you how to kill this monster. The price will increase by 50 each hour. Either come early or submit to struggling. As for Mister Undine, you were especially ‘kind’ to me in the first round, so I have a special price for you. It starts at 500 points and will increase by however much I feel like and whenever I feel like increasing it. You can find me at the same restaurant. No need to treat me to a meal.”
Sila walked away without minding their gazes. The female NPC hurriedly handed him the box, a dry smile showing on her face. “That monster doesn’t count, sir. This box is yours.”
Sila took it, then collected it in his cloak. Since he had managed to defeat the original monster, it was unquestionable that he could easily subdue the weaker version of it. In fact, the NPC was hesitant as to whether she should give Sila the box. It wouldn’t make any difference even if she didn’t.
“Oh, right...” Sila stopped his feet and turned to Undine. “Watching a loser’s expression isn’t my thing. Since it’s your favorite, however, you can see it in the mirror six hours from now.”
The sound of bones cracking came from Undine’s clenched fist. His magic power turned cold. Although he still appeared calm on the outside like a quiet ocean, the disturbance in his mind was like a raging storm.
The female NPC distributed a box to each squad leader, her gaze lingering on Sila’s departing back. The participants gradually left the arena, splitting up to gather information. Now that no player was left in the Colosseum, another male host approached the woman, initiating a conversation.
“Interesting, that man. He managed to kill a special monster, a Demon Lord’s Nail, so quickly.”
The woman opened her system window, watched the replay, and sighed. “Is that all you can see?”
Her co-worker showed a confused expression. “Did he do something else?”
“It’s quite clever.” She flipped the screen, showing it to the man. It showed the replay of Sila’s actions, including the skills and items he had used.
“He is the player with the Blade-Sharpening Dragon. It’s a living encyclopedia about the Monster Realm, so it knows the weakness of the Demon Lord’s Nail.”
The Demon Lord is one of the highest-ranking monsters living in the Monster Realm, who none of Zarnak’s masters had ever encountered directly. While Zarnak had some info about the Demon Lord’s underlings, the dragon had no idea that the Demon Lord possessed an Ancient Magic, “Satanification”, which was ritual-based magic. Once the user sacrificed a part of them, they would obtain a reward greater than what they gave up. The reward varied according to the sacrifice used. For example, the Demon Lord would acquire a sword by sacrificing a droplet of his blood, an arrow from a fragment of his bone, a terrifying monster if his nail was used as the sacrifice. In the past, the Demon Lord once sacrificed his left arm and his right eye, and it allowed him to fight off Joshua for three days straight. This feat implied that his magic was indeed very powerful.
Demon Lord’s Nail was a monster born from the Demon Lord removing his nail and casting a spell on it. Turned into a monster, the Demon Lord’s Nail was strong, sturdy, agile, and blood-thirsty. To defeat it, one had to strike each joint of its four legs simultaneously, and a gap on its stomach would open up for a second. The gap was its lethal vital spot. Once struck, it would die in one hit.
The replay showed Sila listening to Zarnak about how to defeat the Demon Lord’s Nail. Entering the cage, the Crouching Demon Arrow suddenly exploded into a smokescreen, giving Sila an opportunity to do things discreetly.
“I will remove the smokescreen to show you.” She waved her hand, sweeping the smokescreen away. Sila’s actions behind the black screen became visible.
The Crouching Demon Arrow was a symbol representing creatures directly serving the Demon Lord. Its presence alone was normally enough to subdue the Demon Lord’s underlings. However, this particular Demon Lord’s Nail was a system-generated monster, not a genuine servant. It was considered an item, not a monster, so the arrow didn’t affect it at all.
The cage contained energy from leaking outside, so Sila was at ease circulating qi. It wasn’t Flaming Cloud Qi though, nor was it Yin Yang Energy or Five-Attributed Cloud Qi. Instead, it was a combination of all of his qi arts, which gradually refined and merged into one. It was the result of Flaming Cloud Qi melting and purifying his inner force in a manner similar to turning grains of sand into exquisite glass.
Sila slid beneath the Demon Lord’s Nail without hesitation. The four of its legs were furious and decisive, striking at him. However, Sila’s body was as durable as a stone mountain. Once the attacks hit him, they were stuck to his skin with his qi. Immediately after, Sila precisely fired four suntetsu at each leg, opening the weak point on its stomach.
Water Element Artifact Manifestation — Watercourse Arrow.
The timing of his attack was smooth, seemingly done at the same moment as his first attack, prompting the male NPC to slow down the replay. The deep-blue arrow was engraved with gold. It seemed priceless, which was unsuited for a consumable item such as an arrow. The Watercourse Arrow was a spell belonging to the Queen of the water elemental race. It wasn’t a weapon designed for attacking but purification, restoration, and healing. As such, it didn’t do damage. Instead, once it hit a target, the target would appear to be dead for the next five minutes.
“Does that mean... this thing is still alive...?” The man took a better look at the monster. It seemed no one had noticed that the giant Demon Lord’s Nail had already come back to life. There were no foes in its sight, so it stood motionlessly like a statue.
“There is something more to it.” The female NPC rewound the replay and played it again. “Take a look at the other skill he used during his attack.”
“Omniscient Evil God Qi? For what reason did he use it?”
“Don’t you get it?” She pointed at the arrow. “He wouldn’t be able to pull this off without the essence of psychic. The system created these monsters altogether in the same batch, so they share a form of connection. He knows that Omniscient Evil God Qi is not only useful as an offensive skill as it can also heal a target, albeit even Lucifer has never healed others in this manner. He sent the Watercourse Arrow into one Demon Lord’s Nail, making it so that every bit of damage dealt to them will be shared as long as he is still maintaining the power within the arrow. Participants will have to attack each Demon Lord’s Nail with enough power that can kill all of them simultaneously. I daresay that, as long as the monsters are connected to the one with the original stats behind us, there are less than five players in the game that can pull this off. This monster even has the Watercourse Arrow in its body, constantly healing it, so the chances of it being killed are even slimmer.”
Considering all the actions Sila had done, the female NPC was aware that Sila must have either learned under the guidance of the “Assassin Lord” or exchanged knowledge with the “Supreme Sage”. In the whole New World, only these two beings could utilize skills in such a way that ordinary players couldn’t fathom.
Sila was sitting in the restaurant, together with everyone from his squad, at the same table next to a window. He had calmed down a lot, yet still didn’t dare to be careless. This small battle of wits was like a board game with many players taking turns to make moves. The state of the board might seem like it was within his control right now, but who knows what trick his opponent might pull next?
“It feels like we’ve won,” said Isaac.
“The victory is not set in stone yet. There is still one more round. Well, at this rate, I’d say there is a pretty good chance that we will get promoted to a proper rank,” Alpha commented positively.
“Come to think of it, what if someone comes to pay up, get the info, and pass it around? Won’t it be bad for us?” Miki raised a question.
Sila had already thought about it. “They can’t. Regardless of when they pay the marbles or how much they pay us, we’ll reveal the info when there is only thirty minutes left.”
“Will they accept such a deal?”
“I’ve shown them that the monster can be easily beaten if they know its weakness. Ten seconds are enough to defeat it. There shouldn’t be a problem.”
Midnight, who had been silent the entire time, spoke up, “I’m not too sure about that... There is also the possibility that our squad may go bankrupt in this round. We can’t tell.”
The statement piqued the team’s interest. “What do you mean?”
Midnight sighed. “Well, telling you this now won’t change a thing. Leader, you’re smart, but aren’t you too optimistic? Things don’t always go according to plan. There are many factors that can make a plan go wrong, especially when people are involved.”
Sila and the rest were listening. Midnight rarely talked, but every time he did, his words would be beneficial to the team.
“It’s not strange that you made such a simple mistake. Leader, you’re not familiar with the workings of the Shadow Army, and more so with us mercenaries. Sometimes we fight, sometimes we laugh, but we don’t hate each other. Deep down, we always respect each other and stand for each other’s pride.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means we’re the kind of people who are willing to be snapped into half rather than be bent to the opponent’s will. Try thinking from their perspectives. If Undine did the same thing you did and threatened you to pay for the monster’s weakness, will you pay?”
Sila’s reply came out of his mouth almost instinctual. He didn’t like it when someone messed with him. “I won’t...”
“If no one comes within an hour, they will never come. From then on out, it will become the fight between the 99th squad and the entire Shadow Army,” Midnight concluded.
Sila’s plan seemed great. However, the one taking the highest risk was none other than him, who was clueless about the Shadow Army’s mercenary system.
Relationships between mercenaries were built upon trust and cooperation. What Undine did was severe, but not cruel. It was simply a battle of wits between squads. Such a situation had happened so many times. People were aware of Undine’s personality, so this kind of thing was normal and within their tolerance level.
On the other hand, Nero was a newcomer. People couldn’t help but think that he wasn’t a part of the army yet. Nero had no accomplishments, yet he had already threatened all of the other squads by his second day as a member. His method would have received tons of respect if he was in a bandit gang. However, within a group of mercenaries, his action was nothing but an insult to the entire army.
The future that Midnight was talking about was that every squad would quit giving the 99th squad their attention, even at the cost of points reduction. It was fine even if they couldn’t pass to the next round. The Re-Ranking Tournament was essentially an ice-breaking activity for the Shadow Army. The black sheep was none other than Sila, who was too serious about it, giving birth to a conflict.
In fact, this was the very reason why Cross didn’t want Sila to join his army.
Sometimes, a person will have to make concessions in order for their organization’s work to go smoothly.
The hard part is that most people don’t want to become such a person. They hope for anyone but them to step up and make a sacrifice.
‘Damn. My main objective is to help the Shadow Army. What have I done?’
Keeping the tension and inner conflicts in check was a difficult feat to accomplish within an organization, but Sila had learned from the Story of A Hundred Swords that Pumin’s actions didn’t lead to direct conflicts despite having defeated a hundred different groups of practitioners, each with different values. This meant it was possible. Sila came to realize that he was far inferior to Pumin in this area.
His father had once told him, “It’s okay to make a mistake, but if you’ve done something wrong, you have to fix it.”
Sila fell silent for a couple of minutes. “I overdid it, I guess.”
“Maybe a little,” Alpha consoled.
“To be fair, if I were threatened that way, I wouldn’t submit either. Instead, I will kick their ass and burn their— Ahem! I mean... In the case that someone else did that to our squad! I didn’t mean to do those things to you, Leader.”
Sila let out a gentle sigh. “It’s okay, Miki. You’re right. I was too fixated on winning. It’s fortunate that there are good people by my side talking some sense into me. Thanks.”
Blushing, Miki struck her palm against Sila’s back. The crashing sound that came out made Isaac shudder. “So cool! Leader~ I’m embarrassed.”
“What a violent kind of ‘embarrassment’. You might as well chop his head off with a sword, Miss Miki. Leader, how can you endure that?”
Miki was indeed heavy-handed, but Sila was used to having Lookhin perch on him. It was Isaac who was frightened by the sound of the slap.
“Ah? It’s just a light tap. You’re a man. Don’t be a crybaby. This is the reason you suck at getting a girlfriend.”
“A light tap...? More like an elephant’s stomp...” Isaac mumbled.
“Say again?!!” Miki glared.
“No. Nothing. I was wrong.”
“Good boy.” Miki was content, turning back to Sila. “What is our next plan?”
“Our?” Sila wondered. Things went wrong because of him. He didn’t know why Miki talked like she was willing to take part.
Alpha nodded. “A member’s mistake is the squad’s shared responsibility. That’s Mercenary 101. Don’t shoulder all of the burden, Leader. When Miki went on a rampage, we all paid for the damage. Or when Isaac peeked on a girl and was beaten to near death, we all went to apologize to the victim. These two make countless mistakes. You’ll get used to it soon.”
Isaac made a wry face. “You make it sound like I’m a perverted person. I didn’t peek! I just wanted to know what her sleeping habits are and whether she was sexy even in her sleep.”
“That’s the very definition of being perverted! Your psycho!” Miki scolded the man. “You’re a big part of the reason why our squad rarely gets jobs! People more or less ban us, knowing we have Isaac in our squad.”
“That’s not true! It’s more because Miss Miki went on rampages many times!”
“Don’t forget about Midnight.” Miki pointed at Midnight. “He sat alone in a restaurant, completely ignoring people greeting him. Some people despise him for it.”
“...” Midnight became speechless for a moment. “...Alpha tricked people so many times, causing them to not trust us anymore.”
Past wrongdoings were gradually dug up in an attempt to shift the blame on someone else. Sila was dizzy from the bombardment of blames, but he liked the atmosphere that caused everyone to open up and honestly share what they were thinking—a casual, friendly atmosphere that he rarely got to experience.
“Hahahaha!” Sila couldn’t hold his laughter in anymore. He didn’t even know when he last laughed so hard.
“What’s so funny, Leader?”
“It’s nothing. I’m just in a good mood. Let’s go. There is somewhere we need to go.”
Members of the 99th squad returned to the Colosseum and requested to meet the NPC host. Sila conveyed his intention to her.
Listening to Sila’s words, the NPC was surprised. “Surrender? Are you sure?”
“I am. I actually didn’t plan to get a good result from the start. I was too caught up in the moment. Can I surrender now?”
“You can. Actually, you could’ve done it any time after the preliminary round. Are you really sure about the decision? You actually have a very high chance of victory.”
Sila turned to see his members, then turned back and nodded. “I’m sure. I didn’t come here to win.”
“In that case, please take it, sir. It’s a D-Grade Short Dagger. A consolation prize.”
Sila received the dagger, confused. “This dagger is... Why? I thought it was supposed to be given to the squad that ranks last in the tournament.”
The NPC was clueless about why Sila was confused. “You’re right, sir. We will give it to the squad that ranks last. It’s also a consolation prize for any squads that drop out. We happen to have many of them.”
She opened her system window to show Sila that she had many daggers prepared.
“There are many of them?” Sila was shocked. Bluebird didn’t tell him about that and the circular notice didn’t explicitly mention it. The picture showed only a dagger, so he thought there was only one. As it turned out, since it was a consolation prize, people didn’t particularly care if the notice left out some of the details.
“There is a huge asterisk next to the last statement: The rewards may change as the host sees fit,” the NPC noted.
Sila let out a burst of laughter again. He made a lot of mistakes today, but his small decision eventually helped him get what he desired. It also helped him maintain his relationship with his teammates and hopefully with other squads in the future.
The NPC soon informed the other squads that the 99th squad had given up on the tournament. The round continued in that manner while Sila invested his time in talking to other members of the Shadow Army. This went on until 7:30 p.m. when an alarm suddenly rang out throughout the city.
The tournament was forced to end prematurely.
There was no need to explain the reason. Just looking beyond the city walls, they would see an army of goblins, stretched out wide along the west side of the city.
By nightfall of the second day after Sila arrived at Colossia City, his war had begun.