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Although Prihi's step-brother, Puharen, was the youngest member of the royal family, because he was the Queen's only son, Puharen was named the Crown Prince of Plerion. But he was meek and feeble in nature, and he wasn't interested in the throne. He was far too young to be a king anyway.
And so, after the death of the former king, Prihi imprisoned Puharen with the help of her brothers and sisters, who secretly hoped to become the king in place of Puharen.
Whether it was a coincidence or the result of a scheme remains a mystery. But after that day, Prihi's brothers and sisters began to die one after the other under mysterious circ.u.mstances. The third and the fourth heirs got caught up in fatal accidents, and the second heir died from food poisoning, leaving Prihi behind to become the only person in line for the throne.
Jin Sahyuk approached me, disturbing my train of thought.
I nodded and answered, "Puharen is right over there."
Jin Sahyuk's expression immediately froze. She turned to face me in utter astonishment.
"Pu, what, Puharen?!"
"But you said he wasn't here!"
"That's what I thought at the time."
Stunned, Jin Sahyuk looked at the other side of the wall. Refugees were approaching the castle as Puharen's fog, which was made out of demonic energy, spread evenly across the surrounding landscape.
Jin Sahyuk muttered. To her, Puharen was virtually the symbol of fear.
Her response was reasonable, considering Puharen's devil, 'Morax', was even stronger than Plucas.
Prihi came soon. She briskly climbed up the castle wall and looked down below. The continuous procession of refugees was now stretched out across the horizon.
"Refugees." A knight spoke.
I stood still and looked down at the refugees.
There were at least 10,000 people.
"Yes. It appears there has been some kind of disturbance in Schupert's territory. They're trying to take shelter here…."
Prihi stayed silent.
For a while she only watched them as they marched closer to the gate of the royal palace.
"Your Highness, please give us your order."
After a long wait, a knight finally hastened her.
Prihi studied the faces of the refugees.
Jin Sahyuk and I looked at Prihi.
Prihi pondered in silence. She wasn't sure if Plerion could afford such a sharp increase in its population. Although crops were being grown in the city, if the population doubled, there would most definitely be a shortage of food.
Also, she was facing a moral dilemma. Those refugees were citizens of Schupert. In other words, they were traitors who betrayed the King by choosing to serve Schupert.
"…Those people are traitors who joined hands with Schupert."
Prihi finally opened her mouth.
Everyone gloomily braced themselves for what she was about to say.
She clenched her fists. Her small hands embraced st.u.r.dy determination.
"…People strive to survive."
Jin Sahyuk watched Prihi speak in a daze.
I hoped that Jin Sahyuk would learn a thing or two from Prihi, who was completely different from her current self.
"Therefore, I am also at fault for their betrayals."
The refugees finally arrived at the castle. They were begging us to open the gate.
Prihi looked down at them and announced, "Open… the gate."
"The King has commanded us to open the gate—!"
The knights roared in unison.
"Open the gate! Open the gate!" With loud cries, the gate slowly opened. The refugees rushed inside the castle with cheers and joy. At the same time, the remaining knights jumped off the walls to protect the refugees.
"This barrier will protect them."
Aileen also activated her Spirit Speech.
Guoooo— A magic power barrier instantly stretched out and covered the entire sky. This giant barrier would protect the procession of the refugees. The size of the barrier was simply overwhelming, as expected of the 'living dwarf'… I mean, 'dragon'.
Hundreds of arrows blasted past the barrier. They were Jin Seyeon's magic arrows. Each of the arrows was precisely aimed at monsters that were trying to terrorize the refugees.
Numerous knights, s.h.i.+n Jonghak, Yi Yongha, and Seo Youngji all stepped forward to help protect the refugees.
"…Why aren't you doing anything?"
I nudged Jin Sahyuk who was standing still, her gaze still stuck on Prihi.
She flinched and turned to me.
Jin Sahyuk let out a sigh.
"I've said this before but…" Jin Sahyuk said, with her fists clenched, "…I'm the real one. Don't you forget that. I'm the only real one."
Jin Sahyuk jumped off the rampart to the battlefield below.
[Korea, Tower of Heroes]
After Kim Suho cleared the Tower of Wish, the outer sh.e.l.l of the Tower crumbled to nothing. At first, people a.s.sumed that the Tower had been destroyed. Panic swept across the globe and the price of stocks plummeted. But it was soon announced that the Tower was intact and that it had changed only slightly. People could still enter the Tower, and Players inside the Tower could carry on with their adventures.
"…When is he coming out? It's taking him really long."
In a cafe on the 3rd floor of the [Tower of Heroes], Chae Nayun asked.
Yoo Yeonha answered her question.
"The a.s.sociation probably has a lot to ask him. Mainly about the reward he received by clearing the Tower. And they're also probably curious if he would kindly share the reward with them, and if he doesn't, he'll have to pay an unbelievable amount in taxes for it…."
Kim Suho's meeting with the executives of the a.s.sociation was ongoing for three straight hours now. Those who came to celebrate his success were all waiting for him to return.
This was the reason Yoo Yeonha wasn't fond of the a.s.sociation. Whose stupid idea was it to hold a meeting with someone who just came back from the Tower without even giving him a second to rest? She clicked her tongue in discontent.
"I'm so fed up with these a.s.sociation guys."
Chae Nayun muttered a similar response.
"Oh, is that you, Nayun and Yeonha?"
At the sudden resonance of a soft yet familiar voice, both turned their heads.
Yun Seung-Ah, the leader of 'Creator's Sacred Grace', was there.
"Oh wow, it's been a while, Unnie."
Chae Nayun was clearly happy to see her, but Yoo Yeonha struggled to hide her discomfort.
"It's nice to see both of you~"
With a smile, Yun Seung-Ah sat at their table.
"I see you put your hair up, Nayun. It's cute."
Chae Nayun was wearing her hair in a ponytail. She brushed her hair with her hands, happy but also mildly embarra.s.sed by Yun Seung-Ah's compliment.
"Haha…. It's just, long hair gets in my way a lot, so I decided to tie it up. I'm gonna cut it short soon, though."
"But you shouldn't. It's really pretty right now."
Yun Seung-Ah patted Chae Nayun on the head and turned her gaze to Yoo Yeonha.
"Mm, and, Yeonhssi?"
Yoo Yeonha felt uncomfortable around Yun Seung-Ah, and Yun Seung-Ah probably felt the same, too. It was all because of the relations.h.i.+p between 'Creator's Sacred Grace' and 'Essence of the Strait'. Although Essence of the Strait was the current number one guild and virtually invincible, the two guilds had been extremely compet.i.tive with each other from the start.
Yun Seung-Ah attacked first.
"I was almost beginning to feel sorry for you, but I'm glad that everything worked out in the end. I heard Essence of the Strait invested a lot of money in the Tower of Wish…. Good thing it didn't collapse."
She was pointing out the fact that, despite the astronomical amount of money Essence of the Strait had invested in the Tower, Creator's Sacred Grace ended up winning the race.
"…Right. It seems that people can still enter the Tower freely, as long as they have an entrance ticket. Nothing seems to have changed inside, so it's really not a big deal. Rather, I believe the Tower itself is a new possibility for an even bigger market."
Yoo Yeonha answered plaintively, with her soppy eyes on Yun Seung-Ah.
"But it's such a shame that even though Suho won, most of the profitable enterprises inside the Tower are managed by other guilds. I'm sorry."
Pity and sympathy were Yoo Yeonha's weapons.
Yun Seung-Ah's eyebrow twitched slightly.
"…Ah~ Please, don't be. After all, we have the clear reward in our possession, though I'm not sure what it is just yet."
"Pardon? But I thought the reward belonged to Suho."
Yoo Yeonha feigned a sympathetic smile. Yun Seung-Ah found her rival's tone of voice extremely irritable, and the veins near her temple began to protrude.
"…Kim Suho is Creator's Sacred Grace. He'll be promoted to Vice Leader soon~"
"Really? I heard that the salary for Creator's Sacred Grace's Vice Leader is basically the same as that of other guilds' Team Leader…."
Yoo Yeonha was trying to money shame Yun Seung-Ah, who immediately countered, "Isn't that still better than having a mere Chief Officer manage everything in the guild?"
And all the while, the two were smiling at each other. The blades lurking in their smiles were sharp, and Chae Nayun chose to stay out of this conversation entirely.
"Lately a lot of people have been talking about how you're the hidden leader-"
Yoo Yeonha interrupted Yun Seung-Ah.
She grinned and clapped her hands.
"I heard it was your birthday a while ago. Congratulations. How old are you now? 32? 33?"
That was fatal.
Yun Seung-Ah couldn't say anything. Her expression froze. She wanted to point out that this question was completely unfair, but she couldn't, because doing so would only unveil her insecurity about age.
Instead, she smiled leisurely.
"Oh, you don't have to congratulate me. After all, you'll be my age sooner or later, too~"
"Even then I'll be a lot younger than you~"
Yun Seung-Ah felt as if she had been punched by Yoo Yeonha's words. It was a fatal blow to her chin. Tears sprang up in her eyes. She had wasted away all those years in devotion to her guild. She used to be young, too….
"d.a.m.n it. Why are you even here?"
Finally Yun Seung-Ah decided to put away all the pretense.
Yoo Yeonha answered with a victorious smile.
"I'm here to congratulate Suho. Also, he asked me about Orden."
"…As I thought. Seriously, he's too diligent."
Yun Seung-Ah sighed.
It seemed he was planning on dealing with Orden immediately after the Tower of Wish, even though she had urged him to take a rest.
"Then… Nayun, are you also here for Orden?"
Chae Nayun gave a bitter smile. She wasn't exactly stable right now. A lot of things were still lingering in her head, including the Kw.a.n.g-Oh Incident, her father, her grandfather, Kim Hajin, and Chae Jinyoon….
It was time to clarify her doubts.
"Because Kim Hajin is there."
[Pandemonium, Dark bas.e.m.e.nt underneath the plaza]
Boss finished getting ready for the [Orden a.s.sa.s.sination Team]. Tomorrow, the Djinns would arrive, and they were scheduled to commence the mission the following day.
Boss tipped her head to one side, intrigued by the rumor she had just heard right before the commencement of the mission.
"Yup~ Apparently Wicked got herself into a really bad position~ Something about all of her henchmen being arrested~"
"Really? What happened?"
"Well, the truth is…."
Jain explained the rumor in detail.
After the last meeting between the Chameleon Troupe and Wicked, every key personnel of Wicked, including its leaders, were arrested and imprisoned on the 16th floor. Jain wasn't sure why.
Losing all executives was damaging, even for someone as influential as Wicked.
"For now we're safe because our goals align~ But after we get rid of Orden, Wicked and other Djinns might try to murder us~"
…Although Boss, Jain, and even Kim Hajin himself weren't aware, the arrests were attributed to Kim Hajin. One might call it the result of excessive loyalty. Kim Hajin had every single leader of Wicked locked up in prison, all the while being unaware of the incident.
"Then what's Wicked up to right now?"
Jain grinned mischievously at Boss's question.
"She's probably binge drinking~ Also there's a rumor that says she cries to sleep every night, hehehe."
"…Hm. Cry? That woman?"
Wicked was notorious for being cold blooded. Sure, she was spirited and cheery, and she rewarded obedience, but she showed no compa.s.sion towards disobedience. The number of Djinns she had killed was well beyond four digits.
"You heard me right~ Many people have seen her with puffy eyes~"
For a moment Boss tried to imagine Wicked with puffy eyes.
But she found it difficult to picture any Djinn crying, not just Wicked.
"Anyways, Wicked must be super desperate to ask for our help. She heard we've been to the 29th floor, and she was asking if we could ask Black Lotus to help release her people."
"…And in return?"
Boss put on a menacing expression. She despised people who asked for favors without offering her anything in return.
"She's offering us the fighting arena in Pandemonium in exchange for our help. Remember how Wicked took over the arena last time?"
"Hmm, arena…. Tell her we'll think about it."
Meanwhile, around the same time, Wicked was lying in her bed. She sighed as she stared at the ceiling vacantly. She wasn't sure how she got herself dragged into this mess.
Every single one of her executives was in prison. She'd raised them herself and they served her directly. All of them were at least as skilled as a high-rank grade-4 Hero.
Wicked was extremely proud of the 'Executive Team' as it was the biggest driving force behind Wicked's rise to the top.
Of course, losing her executives didn't mean she got any weaker. After all, Wicked herself was as strong as a Master-rank Hero. But without the executives, Wicked as a group could start to fall apart. She could no longer guarantee they would win against 'Terror'.
"…Those sons of b.i.t.c.hes."
Wicked clenched her teeth at the thought of the prison on the 16th floor.
She tried to use her connections to pull the executives out but failed miserably. Her attempt to physically destroy the prison also proved to be futile. Not only were the NPCs on the 16th floor strong and skilled, but something called the [System] also drastically reduced all her stats.
Wicked shuddered at the voice over the intercom. Recently she'd been overcome with the horror of death. Without her executives, she didn't even want to think about what would happen if 'Terror' allied with 'Destruction' and raided Wicked….
"…k.u.mm. Yeah, so, what?"
Still, Wicked jumped to her feet valiantly. She thought she needed to feign her usual cheerfulness at least in front of her underlings.
—We've received a message from the Chameleon Troupe.
"What? The Chameleon Troupe?"
—Yes. They left a message that I think is related to the issue down on the 16th floor. They said they'll "think about it".
Wicked's heart immediately sank, but she feigned nonchalance and nodded.
"Pfft. There's no way that the Chameleon Troupe would manage to pull off anything we couldn't do. How funny. …But for now tell them we'll be waiting, and you should get back to your training!"
As soon as the call was disconnected, Wicked let out a sigh.
She couldn't believe her last hope was a pack of thieves.
'How did it come to this? How can I, Wicked, be dragged down by a mere prison? Does this mean that the executives I personally raised lost to a bunch of NPCs?'
No matter how hard she thought, she couldn't process the whole situation.
Her downfall was too disgraceful.
Wicked trembled in anger with her eyes closed.
Refugees continued to pour in until daybreak, and we closed the gate after letting the last one in. One of the refugees was the Sword Master, Raylen.
We planned to interrogate Raylen, but frankly, he seemed to have lost his mind as he kept muttering to himself. Because he was clearly not in the condition to hold a conversation, we had no choice but to resort to Aileen's 'hypnosis'.
The interrogation was currently ongoing in the dungeon.
I climbed back up to the reception room on the first floor and rested myself on a chair.
My thought drifted to Puharen. Now that he was fully devilized, this whole quest had gotten a lot harder.
"…So this is where you were."
I was deep in thought, trying to figure out a way to get through this mess when Jin Seyeon approached me.
I asked Jin Seyeon, "Did you finish interrogating?"
"No. He can't form sentences very swell. But I'm sure everything will work out because Miss Aileen is trying her best." Jin Seyeon answered with a small smile. "More importantly, what do you plan to do from here, Hajin-ssi?"
"…I don't know."
Now that the situation had spiraled down to this, I only had two options left.
"We could kill the devil, or we could just run away."
"Yes. We should be able to escape from this world now since Raylen brought the two remaining crystals."
Of course, I didn't feel too excited about the idea of running away. Although this world was only a manifestation of the past, I had grown quite fond of it. Synchronization was a problem as well.
Jin Seyeon also seemed to be suffering from the same dilemma.
Nevertheless, it wasn't like we could just attack him.
Not only was Morax a fully awakened devil, but he was also ranked 21st among all devils.
"The devil that we're up against… is stronger than the devil Chae Joochul fought."
Neither Kim Suho nor Chae Joochul was in this world.
Jin Seyeon fell silent at my remark.
The silence continued until the morning sun shone through the window.
Jin Seyeon finally opened her mouth. I looked at Jin Seyeon. She had a big smile on her face that was characteristically bright.
"This has nothing to do with our current situation, but,"
Jin Seyeon's tone of voice was always so genuine, without a bit of pretense or insincerity.
It was very soothing, just as indicated by my setting.
"Are you aware of the Kw.a.n.g-Oh Incident?"
Still, even I couldn't help but be startled by her question. Jin Seyeon had already asked me about the 'Kw.a.n.g-Oh Incident' before, back when I was Black Lotus.
"I've heard of it… but why are you asking me that all of a sudden?"
Jin Seyeon smiled in a mysterious yet all-knowing way.
"Truth is, I've been wanting to tell you this for a while."
Jin Seyeon said with her gaze fixated on me, as if what she was about to say was something that I absolutely had to know.
"I lost my parents during that incident, just as you did."