Chapter 128

“You are all free now.”

The Spider Peacock had said that one sentence and disappeared into the void, but none of the tunnel diggers could easily walk away. For them, this narrow, messy Underworld and their chicken coop-like beds were all they had in the world.

When they got a taste of freedom for the first time, they were in fact left feeling uncomfortable. For the first time in their lives, they were left with no one to tell them what to do. They wiggled their hands and twisted their bodies, wondering what they were to do next. Having lost their sense of purpose, their two hands felt naked and bare.

But not long after, they gained enlightenment. With no Spider Overseers to give them orders, they also realized that they would no longer be forced to eat the horrible food given to them for slaving away all day.

One by one, the tunnel diggers stood as they were enlightened. They observed their surroundings with blank looks on their faces one last time before starting to walk toward the outskirts of the labyrinth.

Kim Jin-Woo stood blankly for a moment before begrudgingly following behind the rest of the tunnel diggers. “Ah…”

Back when he had a purpose in life and something to do on a daily basis, he had been tired, but he felt at ease. Although the peace he had known was built on lies and deceit, he felt it was better than the situation he was in right now. Thus, his steps were heavier than before.

“Jin-Woo, let’s go.”

Suddenly, someone grabbed his hand. When he saw his crude hand being held in another small, pale hand, Kim Jin-Woo made an expression for the very first time.

“Never let go of this hand.” The girl held his hand without any hesitation as she looked at him and smiled. So-Hee’s pure white smile felt out of place for a tunnel digger. Kim Jin-Woo forgot about his anxiety as he brightened up and smiled back.

“Let’s go,” So-Hee repeated herself as she looked at him. Kim Jin-Woo followed her, holding her small, tender hand as if she were some form of divine being.

The tunnel continued on. It eventually connected with an Underworld passageway and grew a bit wider. That was all that was different, and yet the air about the place had completely changed.

The darkness of the Underworld was still the same, and there were just as many pieces of unknown skeletons scattered across the cold ground.

And yet, Kim Jin-Woo instinctively knew that there was something different about the air. It was gloomy, but not ominous. It was dark, but there was no stuffiness that made his chest tighten. When they walked just a bit further, Kim Jin-Woo realized that it was because they had left the realm of the labyrinth.

“From here on out, we have to be careful. There are monsters here that are purely driven by their animalistic instincts.” Despite being born and raised as a tunnel digger, So-Hee seemed more knowledgeable about the Underworld than the rest.

“There were many monsters inside there too,” Kim Jin-Woo said.

“It’s different. The Spider Overseer only existed to be a slave driver, but these monsters exist only to eat us,” So-Hee said, and she was right. The Underworld wasn’t on their side. They were the smallest and weakest lifeforms in the Underworld, and easy prey for any monster.

When the monsters found them, they drooled as they cracked their jaws in anticipation for their next meal.

“Never look back.” Even as they ran with all their might, So-Hee continued to repeat those words.

Kim Jin-Woo obediently listened as he continued running forward. Even when the monsters’ deep, damp breath could be felt on his neck, Kim Jin-Woo never looked back. All he did was look ahead toward So-Hee as he ran.

Once in a while, they would bump into other tunnel diggers. And everytime they did, Kim Jin-Woo would greet them cheerfully from the bottom of his heart.

But for some reason, So-Hee wasn’t receptive to the other tunnel diggers. She was highly wary of them, and even when they did meet, she never spoke a word. She only moved more quickly, as though she couldn’t even see them.

Only after a while did Kim Jin-Woo realize the reason behind her behavior.

The tunnel diggers were the bottom of the Underworld food chain. Naturally, they had a hard time even finding something to eat and drink every day. And among them, there were those who had learned how to hunt at a relatively early stage.

“Kurgh.”

When had he snuck up like this? A tunnel digger had crept up to Kim Jin-Woo while he was asleep, but he was screaming while grabbing at a sharp piece of bone stuck into his neck.

“Sis?” Kim Jin-Woo began, rubbing his eyes.

So-Hee hugged Kim Jin-Woo without a word. Then she said, “From now on, don’t trust anyone. Don’t trust anyone but me. No, don’t even believe me. You must only believe in yourself, understand?”

Kim Jin-Woo couldn’t understand what she was trying to say, but he nodded as if he did. A cold wind blew behind his back as he belatedly found something sharp in the tunnel digger’s hand.

The Underworld was expansive. The neverending darkness and the endless raids were frightening, but nothing was more frightening than hunger.

“Just hold on a little longer.” So-Hee had grown thinner over time as her stomach shrank inward from hunger, but she continued to comfort Kim Jin-Woo through his own miserable, painful hunger.

Kim Jin-Woo even started to wonder if he should return to the labyrinth. His body started to feel heavy, and his vision started to blur.

But despite that, So-Hee’s steps didn’t stop. Kim Jin-Woo couldn’t understand her, but instead of kicking up a fuss, he continued to hold onto her warm hand as they marched forward.

While holding on through his hunger, Kim Jin-Woo met yet another tunnel digger who was breathing heavily, in a pit that had been dug on the outskirts of a remote tunnel.

The tunnel digger was suffering from hunger just like them, and his body was thin and weary. He reached out to them, his eyes full of unknown desire. But as he did, his hands dropped and his head fell limp. He had completely stopped breathing.

Seeing the tunnel digger die, a strange sensation came over Kim Jin-Woo. Although the body was nothing but bones, it looked desirable to him.

“No. We’re human,” So-Hee said.

That one sentence brought Kim Jin-Woo to his senses. The faces of the men who had died for him long ago flashed across his eyes, and he started to feel a deep sense of shame.

“It’s okay. It’s okay.” So-Hee hugged him tightly as he lowered his head in despair. Somehow, it felt reassuring, and Kim Jin-Woo cried.

At that moment, Kim Jin-Woo knew why he had been told to be careful of other tunnel diggers, and why she had been wary of them all along.

At the same time, another question came to his mind. How had she known all these things beforehand? They had lived the same lives as tunnel diggers in the Underworld, and yet, it was almost as if she had experienced all these things before.

Finally, Kim Jin-Woo asked the girl his question, but she looked back at him without speaking a single word.

Ever since that day, Kim Jin-Woo’s desire to survive only burned stronger. He plucked unknown moss that grew between the tunnels to eat, and dumped unidentifiable, stinking raw meat into his mouth without hesitation.

They were always on the move to secure food and water. That was probably why it happened.

He had gotten greedy and gone for the coveted eggs of the giant bird, known to be a predator of the Underworld. It was truly a foolish act. By the time he realized his mistake, it was already too late.

Sis. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m truly sorry.”

Giant birds flapped their wings and howled menacingly as they surrounded Kim Jin-Woo and So-Hee.

But So-Hee showed no signs of resentment. Rather, she embraced him tightly. And said, “It’s okay. We can still escape.”

Even as predators surrounded them from all sides, she was smiling. Kim Jin-Woo simply couldn’t understand what exactly was running through her mind.

“No. We can’t escape.” His own voice inadvertently escaped him, and it carried nothing but terrible cynicism. When he realized what he had just said, he felt confused and terrified.

The giant birds seemed ready to strike with their beaks at any moment, and yet So-Hee seemed unwilling to give up as she continued to search for a way out. But the whole moment felt so distant to Kim Jin-Woo.

He knew why he felt that way now. All of these were simply memories of his past, the ghost of someone he couldn’t forget but had still tried to erase from his own memory. It was a dream.

The youthful and innocent voice disappeared, and what was left in its place was a cold voice full of cynicism as Kim Jin-Woo realized he was in the middle of a nightmare.

“I wanted to observe just a little longer, but you woke up earlier than I expected. How unfortunate.” An eerily quiet voice suddenly spoke from behind him, and at that moment, the whole world shattered like broken glass.

Kim Jin-Woo responded coldly as his eyes chased the pieces of So-Hee reflecting off the shattered fragments, “Keep this up and things won’t be fun for you.”

“I’ve told you before, this is simply one of the conditions for meeting you. There’s no other meaning behind it.”

Kim Jin-Woo growled, his heart tightening while he watched the last fragments scatter across the ground. “Maybe you should just send your coordinates and stop these foolish jokes.”

“You should know by now, shouldn’t you? The situation on the 11th Floor isn’t so good right now.”

Kim Jin-Woo stared intensely at Denarion, who was chattering away like the sleazy being he was. He finally got his bearings as he regained his spirit. “What happened? Why is the 11th Floor losing?” he asked.

As far as he knew, the 11th Floor Counts had been steadily accumulating their power even during times of peace, unlike the 10th Floor Barons. And yet, something must have happened for them to be so easily overrun by the forces of another Underworld.

“The enemy is stronger than us. That’s all, nothing more.” Denarion’s face remained unchanged, as if he were talking about someone else’s business.

“There’s no solution then,” Kim Jin-Woo said.

“There is. I’ve come to look for you to come up with a countermeasure, haven’t I?” Denarion replied.

“Stop the useless talk. If there’s a reason why you came to look for me, make it quick and get to the point.” Kim Jin-Woo’s attitude toward Denarion was unbefitting of the respect an 11th Floor Count deserved.

But Denarion didn’t seem to care as he said, “Your help is needed.”

“I refuse to send my troops to the 11th Floor. Judging from the situation, the war isn’t too far from the 9th Floor. Unlike you guys, I’m just a lowly Viscount. I have barely enough to protect myself,” Kim Jin-Woo answered.

“I’m not talking about your army.”

“Then?” Naturally, Kim Jin-Woo had thought that Denarion was requesting assistance from his troops, so the unexpected answer only made him more suspicious.

“What is needed isn’t your army, but rather your individual power.”

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