An unusual scene was playing out; the roads had become a confused mess as the citizens tried to evacuate from Seoul, while the Hunters were trying to enter the city in order to protect it.
People living in the districts directly below the super-massive Gate, the ones predicted to bear the brunt of the damage, heeded the warnings issued by the Hunter’s Association and the government, or even their own logical reasoning, and escaped from the city in droves.
Jin-Woo watched the TV news, busy covering the evacuation efforts and spoke to his mom.
“Mom, don’t you think it’ll be for the best if you and Jin-Ah go somewhere else?”
“Our area isn’t even one of the evacuation zones, you know.”
Mom had no thoughts of leaving Seoul at all, it seemed.
Jin-Woo’s home, the old apartment, was located far, far away from the centre of Seoul. If monsters invaded this place, then that meant the defensive line of the Hunters had crumbled, and that would also signify Jin-Woo’s failure to defend the frontline, too.
Mom believed that the flames of danger would never reach here.
Jin-Woo also grinned but didn’t say anything else.
Unlike him and his mom sitting around a low coffee table located in front of the couch, Jin-Ah was sitting on the couch itself with her knees drawn up. She glanced at her older brother and asked him.
“Don’t you have to go, too?”
She was talking about the nationwide Hunter summons. However, Jin-Woo was a Seoul resident, to begin with. He wasn’t really included in that summons.
“The Hunters on TV are from other regions and they are trying to report to the Association that they have arrived in Seoul.”
Jin-Ah nodded her head while receiving a plate of sliced apples from her mom.
In reality, Jin-Woo had been feeling frustrated by the fact that he had no choice but to dazedly spend his time at home under the current circumstances.
He wanted to raise his level, but there were no monsters to fight. He wanted to enter the instant dungeon, but he hadn’t seen a single special key as his reward ever since the architect of the System died.
His family certainly enjoyed him spending more time at home, but Jin-Woo really wanted to strengthen himself even further in order to prepare for any and all eventualities.
‘Should I not do the daily quests and enter the penalty zone or something?’
It sounded like a good idea, but at the same time, not really.
First of all, he had no clue what might come out from that Gate in front of his eyes, yet he was thinking of entering the penalty zone where unknown monsters were lying in wait?
‘Even if the odds are low….’
If there was one in ten thousand, no, one in ten million chance that something could happen to him during the penalty quest, then he wouldn’t be able to deal with what might happen on this side.
He had no reason to take on two different types of risks right now. And so, that idea was dismissed.
In the end, he’d have to look for another way to test out the ‘Kamish’s Wrath’ shortswords somehow.
What should he do?
As Jin-Woo pondered his options, a certain scene fleeted in and out of the TV screen. It was of the Hunter’s Association HQ building, as shot from a flying helicopter.
‘Should I use ‘that’?’
The corners of Jin-Woo’s lips arched up, his eyes gleaming rather suspiciously. He pulled his smartphone out and tapped one of the saved numbers.
As usual, the call was promptly answered only after a couple of ringtones.
– “Hello, Seong Hunter-nim. It’s Woo Jin-Cheol speaking.”
“Looks like I should start referring to you as the Association President from now on, don’t I?”
Woo Jin-Cheol chuckled sheepishly on the other side of the line before brushing past the issue.
– “You can call me with whatever is convenient for you. Even I’m still feeling weirded out by stumbling into a job that I wasn’t ready for.”
After sharing simple greetings, Woo Jin-Cheol figured that now would be a good time and his voice instantly became serious.
– “Did something happen on your end? I can’t help but get worried with you giving me a call quite unexpectedly like this.”
With the current situation being what it was, all of Woo Jin-Cheol’s nerves had been sharpened to a noticeable degree. How could he be not tense when the country’s most influential Hunter suddenly gave him a call?
“Well, it’s nothing serious, actually….”
Woo Jin-Cheol, still very tense, audibly swallowed his saliva.
‘Even if it’s not a serious matter to Hunter Seong, it might be a grave one for us. No, because he doesn’t sound that concerned, it could very well be incredibly bad news for us.’
As this short bout of silence drifted in between the two men, Woo Jin-Cheol did his best to calm his frayed nerves and paid closer attention.
Jin-Woo nonchalantly asked for a favour, since it really was nothing serious.
“Can I borrow the Association’s gymnasium for a little while?”
Even though he was really busy, Woo Jin-Cheol personally came out to greet Jin-Woo.
“As you can see…. This is the situation of our gymnasium.”
Jin-Woo scratched the side of his head.
In his quest to find a quiet place that was also out of people’s prying eyes, he thought that using the Association’s gymnasium would be a good idea, but it was currently housing the Hunters that had gathered in the city.
He saw the stuff being carried by their hands and belatedly remembered what was hidden within the storage of the gymnasium.
“Are you giving weapons to the Hunters that lack proper equipment?”
“Yes. The late Association President Goh Gun-Hui had prepared them for a rainy day like this.”
Jin-Woo’s head nodded by itself.
This was a sight he wanted to show to those detractors who pointed fingers and criticised the Association for storing all this expensive equipment in a dark corner and letting them rot away.
These Hunters came across as grimly determined as they equipped their handed-out weapons and armours.
It was then.
A physically-imposing Hunter struggling to push his arms and legs into a set of armour coated in magic energy raised his head and by chance, met Jin-Woo’s gaze.
He was taken by surprise after witnessing the presence of the greatest Hunter, a man he only got to see on TV screens until then.
“Hunter Seong Jin-Woo??”
“What was that?”
“Hunter Seong is here?”
Hunters filling up the gymnasium all simultaneously looked behind them. And sure enough – just like what that big Hunter had said, there he was, Hunter Seong Jin-Woo in his full glory, standing alongside the Association President and studying them without saying anything.
The noisy interior was suddenly enveloped in silence. The atmosphere became deeply heavy in no time at all. The overwhelming presence that couldn’t be transmitted through TV screens flooded out from this Hunter at the top of his game.
It was only natural that one’s heart would start palpitating when doing nothing but staring at a person who was standing at a realm that one couldn’t even hope to reach.
Ba-dump, ba-dump, ba-dump!
The expressions of the Hunters facing Jin-Woo all began to glow. Gazes filled with envy and respect flew in from everywhere. Only now did he realise the reason why Woo Jin-Cheol wanted to show him this sight when explaining it over the phone would’ve been sufficient.
Everyone gathered here were lower-ranked Hunters who found it hard to prepare their own expensive magic energy-infused equipment.
The new Association President was hoping to rally the lower-ranked Hunters, who should have been mentally strained by the sudden summons, by showing them the single greatest ally they had on their side right now.
His calculation was proven true since renewed vigour seemed to have seeped into the eyes of these Hunters.
Jin-Woo couldn’t help but chuckle softly at Woo Jin-Cheol’s smart thinking. Well, the latter had been leading the Monitoring Division for quite a while, after all.
Meanwhile, Woo Jin-Cheol had been scratching the back of his neck as if he was embarrassed about his intentions being seen through. He suddenly asked a probing little question.
“By the way, Hunter-nim. Why did you want to borrow the gymnasium?”
Jin-Woo pretended to pull something out from his pocket, when he was actually taking it out from his Inventory.
“I want to use this.”
Woo Jin-Cheol tilted his head in confusion as he looked at the plum-sized seed resting on Jin-Woo’s palm.
“This… What is it, exactly?”
“When you plant this on the ground, a monster resembling a tree will pop up. I wanted to test something with it.”
“A monster will pop up?!”
Jin-Woo looked at Woo Jin-Cheol’s wide-open eyes and nodded his head.
The tree-type monster would spit out a seed in its death throes. Failing to destroy this little seed meant that a new monster would sprout in the same spot again.
He figured that it was inefficient to repeatedly hunt these monsters since their defences and vitality was so tenaciously high, so he proceeded to destroy all the seeds. However, he stored this particular seed from the boss tree monster in his Inventory, thinking that maybe, he’d find a use for it later.
Jin-Woo took to calling these monsters ‘Armoured Tree’, trying to imply that they were as sturdy as if they were wearing metal armour.
‘If it’s that guy, wouldn’t it be the best target to test out these new blades of mine?’
The problem was…
“Under the current atmosphere of unease, many people will freak out from the sight of a moving monster out in the open.”
Woo Jin-Cheol spoke up in a worried voice. Jin-Woo agreed with him.
“That’s why I was looking for a quiet, reinforced location out of people’s eyes, but this….”
Civilians had no access to the Association’s gymnasium, and its hardiness was second to none, but it was impossible to use it now in this situation.
Jin-Woo shifted his gaze back over to the Hunters.
Even now, many Hunters holding tightly the weapons given to them by the Association and were glancing in his direction while trying to psych themselves up.
“Well, what with the situation like this….”
He could go to one of the uninhabited areas in Japan and use the seed there, but then again, the distance he had to fly was quite far, and as for using the skill, ‘Shadow Exchange’, he thought it’d be a waste.
Who could say what might happen in Korea during the two hours of cooldown time? That was why Jin-Woo was about to turn around to leave, but Woo Jin-Cheol had come to a decision by then, so he spoke up with a resolute voice.
“The afternoon schedule for the gymnasium today will be cleared out for you, Hunter-nim. Compared to everything you’ve done, something like this doesn’t even qualify as a special privilege.”
The late Association President Goh Gun-Hui even went as far as to change the related laws for Hunter Seong Jin-Woo. He argued that no one would be able to ask an excellent Hunter to put his life on the line to fight for them when they were unwilling to even do such small favours.
And now, as he was the new Association President, how could it make any sort of sense if he couldn’t even lend out a measly gymnasium for a few hours?
“Will that really be fine?”
Jin-Woo worriedly asked, but Woo Jin-Cheol simply grinned.
“I may not look it, but I am still the man in charge of this place. I get to decide when to open or close this building, you see.”
Woo Jin-Cheol clapped his hands and gathered the attention of the Hunters, before speaking out loudly.
“Who’s in charge here?”
“I-it’s me, sir!”
Jin-Woo watched an Association employee hurriedly run over here from the far end of the gymnasium and thought to himself that, didn’t matter whether a job title sounded awkward or if it suited a person, the job itself needed to be a high enough position at the end of the day first.
In a certain top luxury hotel in Seol.
There was a man wordlessly looking down at the cars trying to escape the city clogging the streets below from his suite’s window. He was Thomas Andre. Laura quietly approached him from behind.
Her hands were grabbing onto the travel case filled with her luggage.
“Master, will you still not leave with us?”
Thomas Andre lightly tapped the window with his finger. He was pointing at the Gate.
“How can I leave behind something that big and beautiful and run away?”
“It is big, but…. beautiful, sir?”
Thomas Andre’s eccentricity was well-documented by now, but for him to say that horrifyingly huge and ominous Gate was beautiful….
Just as Laura, his manager, was feeling puzzled by his declaration, he turned around to look at her.
“Anything that makes your heart palpitate is beautiful.”
He placed his hand on his own chest to confirm his heart pulsating there. Ever since he saw the Gate, his heart had been racing non-stop with nary a sign of fatigue.
“From the Dragon spitting out flames, that massive Gate, and even the power of Hunter Seong Jin-Woo, all of them are beautiful things to me.”
He couldn’t be understood by normal logic. Laura shook her head helplessly, but still, couldn’t hide her smile, either. Thomas Andre lowered his hand away from his chest and grinned brightly.
“Besides, all Gates have disappeared, so what’s the point of going back now?”
“However…. the Hunter Bureau is getting worried, sir.”
Worried, she said.
Thomas Andre began chuckling at the notion of someone being worried about his well-being.
“What a funny notion that is, worrying about me. Is there any place safer than right next to Hunter Seong Jin-Woo?”
Even Laura forgot what she wanted to say after hearing Thomas Andre’s words. It was no secret that the Hunter Bureau had asked Seong Jin-Woo to protect the world’s top-ranked Hunters.
Thomas Andre smiled back at the clearly-speechless Laura and turned away from her. He stared at the Gate that had exceeded the classification of ‘huge’ and entered the realm of ‘super-massive’. It floated high up in the skies above Seoul, its surface quietly rippling.
“If that thing’s not stopped here, then there will be no future for us, anyway.”
A calamity that even Seong Jin-Woo may not be able to stop would occur eight more times around the world.
Who would be able to stop them? Thomas Andre himself? Or, China’s Liu Zhigeng? Maybe other Special Authority-rank Hunters?
What an absurd notion that was.
“That’s why I wish to witness everything.”
Thomas Andre’s gaze drifted off towards Laura’s reflection on the glass and a smile floated onto his lips again as he spoke.
“I wish to witness whether this will be the curtain call of human history, or the beginning of a new chapter.”
Inside the empty gymnasium.
Jin-Woo walked to the middle of this large structure.
‘Okay, this should be good enough.’
Jin-Woo put the seed down on the floor and poured some water on it.
A seed and water – these two were the only things needed for a monster to sprout even without soil or sunlight. He had confirmed this many times already.
Accompanied by the sounds akin to bones twisting around, the seed rapidly expanded and became a tree.
No matter how many times he saw it, this process remained a spectacle, that’s for sure.
What an outrageous vitality this was, one so strong that the number of these tree monsters would never decrease even if the surrounding environments were barren and infertile.
Jin-Woo leisurely stepped back to the distance he thought was safe.
The ‘baby’ tree continued to grow larger until it regained its original appearance. Eventually, the seed had transformed into a monster so big that its head nearly touched the gymnasium’s ceiling in less than five minutes.
Jin-Woo didn’t pay any mind to the screech of the monster tree reverberating around within the interior and calmly summoned the newly-upgraded Beru.
Beru’s figure smoothly emerged from the ground.
[Oh, my king!]
Beru’s new and improved appearance was indeed eye-catching; rather than the usual insect-like exoskeleton, his entire body was now outfitted with the snug-fitting black armour, which made him look even more ‘substantial’ than before.
Was that all?
The black smoke rising up from his body became even more noticeable as well, and now, rather than looking like a haze, it looked like black flames burning up, instead.
That overflowing power!
Jin-Woo confirmed Beru’s information window one more time.
[Beru Lv. MAX]
This grade is equivalent to the head of the army and only one such being can exist. If another Shadow Soldier also reaches this grade, the hierarchy must be decided.
‘So, the only ones that can potentially challenge the Marshal Grade right now is Greed, who is currently a Commander Grade, and Igrit, who’s only a step away from entering the Commander Grade himself….’
Jin-Woo inwardly thought that the competition between the three of them for the grade of ‘Marshal’ should be quite entertaining, before gesturing at Beru with his chin.
“Beru, attack that creature with everything you have.”
Everything he had – Beru increased his physical size as per the command given to him by his liege.
Screech of the genuine beast!
The armours also naturally transformed to match the enlarged body. Beru soon became twice his original size and began striding forward with loud, thudding footsteps.
His steps gradually picked up speed until he broke into a full-on sprint and he pounced on the Armoured Tree.
Beru’s eyes widened in surprise.
The attack he poured in his entire being couldn’t sever the tree monster in half, only managing to dig in as deep as his wrist, instead. For Beru, capable of ripping rank S monsters into pieces as if they were jokes, this was one hell of a fluster-inducing event.
But then again, such a sight was befitting of the ‘Armoured Tree’ specialising in defence against pretty much all physical damage, barring the magic attacks.
That was enough of a warm-up. Jin-Woo recalled Beru after achieving a satisfactory result.
Beru quickly moved aside.
Meanwhile, Jin-Woo summoned the pair of ‘Kamish’s Wrath’ from the Inventory.
Two shortswords as long as regular swords appeared in the grips of his hands.
The Armoured Tree was searching for the culprit responsible for the hole in its tummy, before inadvertently discovering Jin-Woo’s presence and began to slowly run towards him.
So, so slow….
Seriously speaking, this thing had no other redeeming qualities other than its high defence.
Indeed, there was no doubt about its defensive capability. But, how well would these two shortswords work against that stupefying defence?
The blackish aura starting to spread out from the ends of his hands instantly enveloped the blades.
‘What I need is the destructive power, right?’
When his thoughts arrived there, the two weapons suddenly became rather heavy as if there were thousands of weights attached to them. They were so heavy, in fact, veins began bulging on Jin-Woo’s shoulder muscles as he tried to endure against this increase in weight.
‘The attack damage of 1,500…. Let’s see what it feels like.’
Jin-Woo made up his mind to fight, and the blades of the two Wraths began to shiver in unison.