It was early dawn, yet the Neutral Zone’s first-floor plaza was still packed with people. Ever since everyone's classes had 'awakened', missions became that much more doable. Likewise, the survival rate had improved greatly as well.
Before the Awakening, not many dared to attempt ‘Normal’ difficulty missions. But now, as long as the party’s composition was well thought out, such missions could be cleared without taking too much risk. One could even hear rumors floating around that a party had managed to successfully clear a ‘Hard’ mission.
There were three motivating factors that forced the survivors to become more proactive.
And those were ‘succeed in more missions', 'earn more Survival points', and then 'purchase better abilities or equipment’. Everyone could see that they were visibly getting stronger through spending their SP, which led the survivors to be completely immersed in doing the missions.
One could say that this was like the famed Möbius strip; Cinzia had hit the bulls-eye on this one.
A man sitting inside the first floor’s lounge area opened his mouth wide and yawned loudly. He licked his lips and surveyed his surroundings as if he was waiting for someone.
He lifted his head slightly when he heard the steady footsteps walking closer. His eyes grew a bit larger in anticipation as he looked up the staircase. But his curiosity lasted only for a brief second. He rested his chin on his elbow and disinterestedly studied the person who climbed down the staircase.
It was a young man holding a spear. Everyone knew who this guy was. The survivor sitting on the first spot, who also hogged all the spotlight after solo clearing a ‘Hard’ mission.
Of course, that was in the past. Two months had passed by since then, and now, people no longer thought of him as someone special.
The spear-wielding youth’s actions barely made any sense. He didn’t perform any real missions whatsoever. He only repeated the same basic training missions that yielded no rewards at all. It was only natural for everyone else to find his behavior rather odd.
Lots of rumor swirled around the youth and his unexplainable ways, but even that lasted only for a little while before dying down completely. As he wasn’t getting in anyone’s way, people lost interest. Add in the fact that he had plenty of Survival points to begin with, people understood that there was seemingly no reason for him to do anything.
The thoughts of the man in the lounge arrived here, and he withdrew his attention completely.
‘What’s so fun about running all the time, anyways? ….Huh?’
The man in the lounge suddenly realized there was a small change in the way the youth behaved today.
Normally, he’d rip the mission parchment for the track running as soon as he got to the plaza and disappear from sight. However, for some reason, he was standing around in front of the noticeboard for a while now. Even where he stood was slightly different from the norm, too.
He finally selected a parchment and cautiously ripped it in half. He was gone the next second.
‘The running mission isn’t found on that part of the board, though?’
Could it be?
The man in the lounge got up. His eyes didn’t leave the exact spot the youth was standing just now and ran there as if he’d grown a pair of wings.
‘He took this one, here.’
The second row from the bottom, at the far right - the man took the mission parchment and took a look.
[Survive the Assault of the Ape Dogs! (remaining number of attempts: 2/30)]
Fight three Ape Dogs in the jungle and survive!
Difficulty: Slightly Easy
When successful: +40 SP
When unsuccessful: Death
*Cooperation possible (up to 2 people)
The man’s brows creased up as he read the mission details.
The place Seol ended up in was a jungle full of twisting vines and large, sprawling trees that blocked the heavens above.
He pulled out a small pouch from his bag. He lifted it above his head and shook it, causing a pinkish powder to spill forth and disperse in the air.
The name of the pouch was ‘smell of meat’. Sold in the stores of Neutral Zone, it had an effect of attracting monsters. It was one of the things Agnes said he should buy.
The thing was, in missions where one was asked to ‘Survive in the wild’, it was actually faster to kill every beast and monster found in the mission area, instead of trying to avoid them for the next two hours or whatever the time limit may be.
Excluding missions that didn’t feature any combat, such as ‘Find the correct path’ or ‘Escape the maze’, Seol was planning to at least try every single one available on the board. So, this ‘smell of meat’ was an indispensable item if he wanted to speed up the clearing process.
While waiting, Seol emptied a vial of Competence down his throat. The ones he bought from the VIP store were already finished, so he bought a new batch from the regular store. He thought that four times the training efficiency was certainly better than not having any.
The Ape Dogs had highly developed olfactory senses, so they should arrive at Seol’s location pretty soon. Sure enough, sounds of rustling bushes began tickling his ears not too long afterwards.
The direction was to his side; Seol discarded the vial and held his spear tightly. The thicket rustled softly a few times before two Ape Dogs slowly emerged from the vegetation.
Covered entirely in black fur, the monsters possessed quite a large, hulking frame. Not only its four limbs, but the monster’s entire frame was bulging with rippling muscles. They reminded Seol of a gorilla, but slightly smaller; its canine-like snout being the major difference.
One of the two Ape Dogs positioned itself in front of Seol’s view. The other one slowly circled around to his side in an anti-clockwise direction, as if he was tempting Seol to look at it.
Seol swallowed his saliva while continuously glancing at the monsters. His throat was getting clammy, and thick sweat drops formed on his forehead. He hadn’t felt fear when facing dozens of skeletons, yet he was now getting unbearably tense while facing only two dog-like monsters. It was a noticeable change in mindset compared to how he was like two months ago.
Even though he was feeling the heart-tightening anxiety, his brain never stopped working. The mana circulating through his body at the same time transmitted into the spear as well, and the weapon began to hum ever so softly in his hands.
‘Do I need to wait for them to make a move?’
No, I shouldn't. If left alone, these two creatures would soon face each other, and that meant he’d have to contend with enemies in front and back at the same time. In that case, he might as well….
‘The first to strike, wins the battle.’
When he took aim with the spear, the leisurely-walking Ape Dog stopped in its tracks.
Just before he moved, Seol regulated his breathing.
Was it this difficult to take the very first step? He was inwardly astonished.
Seol wasn’t even thinking of having a spectacular battle, like the ones he witnessed countless times in his dream. No, he only wished to fight accordingly to the training he received up until now.
‘Let’s do this.’
He already got into the correct posture. His eyes gained renewed focus.
The moment he made up his mind, his left leg pushed off the ground hard while he thrust his arms out. The Ape Dog quickly dodged to the side and then, savagely pounced forward. The monster was keeping a close eye on the spear as well.
The spear would miss at this trajectory, without a doubt. But Seol wasn’t waiting around doing nothing. As soon as he saw the monster dodge to the side, he shifted the grip he had on the spear.
His attack changed from the ‘Thrust’ into the ‘Cut’.
The thrusting spear tip suddenly drew a sharp arc and sliced past the Ape Dog’s throat. It felt like he was cutting through a hardened block of tofu. Seeing the blood spurt out from the wound, he swiftly jumped to his back; claws that tried to ambush him barely missed his waist and brushed past.
The Ape Dog’s sneak attack failed by a hair’s breadth; the monster slid across the ground before spinning its body around as if it was a drifting master, leaving behind claw trails on the dirt. Too bad, by the time it tried to look at the human, a sharp object was already digging into its head. The spear embedded itself deep into the monster’s brain. The Ape Dog’s body shook as it collapsed.
Seol had taken care of two Ape Dogs in the blink of an eye, but it was not over yet. He retracted the spear, now dripping with blood, and spun around like a cartwheel and slashed out.
The open maw of the remaining Ape Dog aimed at his back spew blood like a fountain in the air. The creature spun in the air a couple of times before landing head first on the ground with a heavy thud. It wiggled around like a dying worm, before eventually going completely limp. Seol looked at the dead monster with a dumbfounded expression on his face.
He did guess that the third Ape Dog must be in hiding. Since it was written on the mission parchment that there were three of them, he suspected as much.
What really took him by surprise, though, was his unexpectedly high attacking power.
For a battle that psyched him up so much, it ended in such a whimper. At the moment, he couldn’t help but find it quite funny, thinking back to how he had to continuously encourage himself to take the first step.
‘And they didn’t even look that weak either.’
Before he knew it, the surroundings changed.
It was a victory worthy to be called ‘perfect’, yet Seol wasn’t happy about it at all.
‘Was there a need for me to step back and then thrust forward?’
He replayed the battle in his head, step by step.
‘When I was switching from the Thrust to the Cut…. I could have taken care of both of them at the same time.’
Agnes said that these missions were also a form of training. Basic technique training alone could not fill a certain gap, she said. It was now time to go through various types of combat situations and earn valuable experience, she also said. The Survival points earned would only be an icing on the cake, she added.
‘One more time.’
Seol picked up the last remaining mission parchment with an excited face and ripped it in half.
Finally, the ignition was turned on.
Currently, the survivor wielding the most influence within the Neutral Zone was, without a doubt, Odelette Delphine. Not only was she a much fancied holder of the ‘Magician’ class, but her initial starting SP of 7500 had also given her a figurative pair of wings to soar highly.
She proceeded to purchase several abilities and equipment as soon as her Awakening was completed. Soon, she found herself being elevated to the status of the most talked-about in the Neutral Zone. Perhaps befitting her personality, though, she then chose to form her own party rather than enter someone else’s.
The survivor from the same area as her, Leorda Salvatore, and the area 7’s Hao Win entered her party. Which meant that calling her group the top of the pile within the Neutral Zone wasn’t an exaggeration. It was simply a fact.
"That man. The top-ranked."
Odelette Delphine was looking at the unusually-excited Leorda with an intrigued face. Just what could agitate the normally-taciturn holder of the Archer class like this?
"Ah~. Was it since yesterday? I did hear that he began doing the missions again."
"But, that is…"
"Isn’t it a good thing, though?"
"I was expecting him to start making his move soon, anyways…. In any case, I will personally go and talk to him. That man…. Honestly, he was the number one person I wanted to recruit, you see."
Leorda could only feel a sense of frustration as he listened to the blueprint of a bright future coming from this still-naive teenage girl who hadn’t figured out what was going on.
"That’s not the issue here."
"? Then, what is?"
"Two days ago, every single ‘Easy’ and ‘Slightly easy’ mission on the board disappeared. Gone. That man cleared them all. Alone."
"Hmm… Those two difficulties weren’t much to begin with, though?"
Hao Win muttered in between his cigarette smokes while leaning back on his chair, both feet on the table. He seemed to imply that there was no need to fuss about things.
There was a total of 9 different difficulty levels found on the board.
‘Very easy’, ‘Easy’, and ‘Slightly Easy.’
‘Slightly hard’, ‘Hard’, and ‘Very Hard’.
And finally, ‘Impossible.’
The remaining attempts available for missions rated ‘Very Easy’, ‘Easy’ and ‘Slightly Easy’ were almost all finished by now, due to the survivors flocking to clear them during the first month of their stay in the Neutral Zone. Not to forget, the number of attempts was low to begin with, so them disappearing completely was bound to happen sooner or later.
After their Jobs were awakened, survivors were now flocking to ‘Normal’ and ‘Slightly Hard’ missions. However, it was still fine because their number of attempts had increased rather dramatically to coincide the Awakening.
The number of attempts available for the next tier of difficulty was far lower in comparison. Of course, parties attempting ‘Hard’ difficulty were pretty low in number as well.
No, the real problem was….
"See, one-third of the remaining ‘Normal’ missions have disappeared since last night, too."
Both eyes of Odelette Delphine shot up. If it was last night, she was in the middle of attempting to clear a ‘Hard’ mission with her party.
"It’s not only that. I personally went there and confirmed it…. Even the ‘Slightly Hard’ missions are decreasing at a frightening pace."
"What did you say?!"
Hao Win had to lower his feet and sit upright.
"Didn’t I tell you this already? The whole plaza is in an uproar."
"Let’s go and take a look!"
The man and the girl stood up from their respective seats simultaneously.
Odelette Delphine hurried to the first floor, only to run into a spectacle she failed to understand right away.
Dozens of survivors were surrounding one man while whispering to each other. In the middle of that crowd, Seol was busy ripping a piece of paper in half.
"What is going on….?"
Odelette Delphine became flustered as she saw Seol disappear. She was about to push the blocking bodies away and rush towards the noticeboard, only to stop dead in her tracks.
The teenage girl couldn’t help but exclaim out in shock as Seol reappeared in the plaza.
Was that around one minute? It was definitely no more than two minutes…. She even felt scared after seeing the expressionless face he had as he walked up to the board and ripped up another parchment.
‘What did he choose?’
When Seol disappeared again, she hurriedly checked the board.
[Survive against a Wendigo! (remaining number of attempts: 14/60)]
Fight a Wendigo inside a forest and survive!
Difficulty: Slightly hard
When successful: +450 SP
When unsuccessful: Death.
*Cooperation possible (up to 4 people)
"I just heard that this is his sixth time doing that mission."
Leorda was standing by her side before she had the chance to notice it. He shook his head as a bitter chuckle escaped his mouth.
Delphine counted in her head - one, two, three, four…. When she counted to 57, Seol returned to the plaza. The youth then proceeded to choose another mission.
Rarely did he attempt a mission only once; most of the time, he repeated it twice or three times before moving on. Some missions, he tried them well over five times.
Before she knew it, even she became one of the stunned spectators. Within the span of 20 minutes, she got to hear the sounds of the parchments being ripped in half twelve more times. Each mission was combat-related. No matter how one put it, Seol was clearing each mission at a frightening rate.
Two men watching on from the lounge could only click their tongues in amazement.
"Wow…. Is that even humanly possible?"
"Dunno. But look, there he is. He did it again."
"How envious, being the Gold Mark and all."
"Hah. And here I was, wondering why he hadn’t done anything until now. It’s like everything’s a pushover to him, right?"
Gold Mark? A pushover?
Agnes snorted in derision as she listened from the corner of the lounge.
‘What a bunch of fools.’
These two could never see the light of truth, even if they were sent to hell and back. While they fell for Cinzia’s tricks and concentrated on clearing the missions, Seol alone had to endure an unforgiving training regime.
Did Seol not want to clear missions and earn SP? Of course not. He really wanted to clear them as well. But he simply endured. The skills and abilities he piled on for the past two months without complaining were finally bearing delicious fruits now.
As if he had something to prove, Seol continued to appear and then disappear for a long, long time.
A soft, subtle smile floated on Agnes’s lips.
[Break through the siege and survive! (Remaining number of attempts: 11/15)]
Survive the encirclement of the group of skeletons!
When successful: +1000 Survival points.
When unsuccessful: Death
*Cooperation possible (up to 6 participants)
Seol mopped up the available ‘Slightly hard’ missions in the next four days. And now, he was about to attempt the first ‘Hard’ mission. He already made up his mind which one he’d go for, so there was no hesitation.
The place he was teleported to was the underground cavern. Staring at that low ceiling, a strange sense of deja vu flooded in.
"It’s been a while."
Dozens of skeletons were glaring at him, just like before. Seol grinned slightly before the look of resolute focus returned to his face while his body shifted into the correct stance.
The battle arena was small and confined; there was no room for retreat. The correct answer here was to not back off but push forward.
The moment the skeleton wearing the helmet at the back opened its bony jaw, Seol pounced forward like a leopard.
When he powerfully thrust forward at the area with a large concentration of skeletons, dull cracking noises filled the cavern and shattered bits of bones flew about. He slapped away a blade trying to cut him from the side and thrust his spear at the exposed gap. The skeleton, with its head split open, shook around comically before crumbling into a heap.
He secured some space for himself in this fashion. Then, he proceeded to speedily kill the skeletons one by one as they attempted to rush to his position.
Seol’s style of battle was simple yet effective.
He first swatted away the incoming attack and relied on the 'Thrust' to shatter the enemy’s head. If another attack came at him at the same time, he rapidly fell back, preyed on the timing when the attacks missed, and stabbed forward. He only aimed at the skulls specifically.
The shift between the 'Strike' and the 'Thrust' was as seamless as a flowing stream of water. His hand speed was genuinely quick as he continued to wield the spear non-stop.
The experience gained through hundreds of missions was helping Seol to grow even further than before.
In a blink, the frontline of the skeletons was decimated. And as the second line was getting pummeled into submission as well….
Just as he expected….
The skeleton with the helmet let loose a loud roar from the back. It grabbed a huge axe and began madly running towards Seol’s direction.
It was at this moment when Seol’s heart shook and cried out.
Just how long… did he wait for this moment?
The number of simulations he ran inside his head amounted to several dozens. He was not going to make a single mistake here.
He swatted away the incoming attack of a small fry and took four quick steps back. At the same time, the helmet-wearing skeleton jumped in the air. The axe was pulled back and then, came down towards Seol’s head. Right then, his eyes shone with a dangerous glint.
The falling axe and the rising, spinning spear violently collided in the air.
The ear-ripping metallic screech bounced around the cavern.
The axe could not descend any further nor could the spear deflect it away. However, something had changed compared to before.
Sparks flew off as the axe blade and the spear shaft grinded against each other. A short competition of strength soon developed as Seol bore the brunt of the skeleton’s attack.
The monster’s great power, enhanced by its fall, dissipated quickly. However, Seol’s mana constantly bubbled up like a bottomless spring and supplemented his physical strength.
Seol successfully shoved the axe away and quickly seized the opening that was created; when a grandiose attack failed to connect, the resulting exposed gap would be equally grand.
The skeleton fell from the air after losing its balance, and Seol swiftly stabbed his spear forward into one of the skull’s empty eye sockets.
The helmet made up of bones flung away after the spear slammed into it. The skeleton began a drunken dance as it crumpled to the ground after more than half of its head was blown away.
"I did it!"
Seol seldom shouted, but he did now out of excitement.
Swatting and stabbing the skeleton - the event he could only dream about pulling off, he’d finally done in reality as well.
His complexion was filled with happiness as he eyed the heap of unmoving bones on the ground. The sense of accomplishment, a victory well earned, ballooned inside his heart. He thought that he’d never ever grow sick and tired of this joy for the rest of his life.
‘Hang on a sec.’
Suddenly, he pondered on what might have happened if he chose a different method to counter. Since he was aware of the opponent using a jumping attack, couldn’t he have tried something else other than ‘swatting and stabbing’ and still win in a simple, efficient manner?
Several possibilities continued to enter and leave his brain. He needed to try them out first to see what was what.
‘One more time!’
The desire to quickly fight the helmet-wearing skeleton filled him up, so he quickly brandished his spear towards the remaining monsters. A joyful smile never left his face, however.
Seol continued to attack the encirclement ‘Hard’ mission over and over again.
He considered other survivors’ positions and left behind enough attempts for other missions, but for this skeleton mission, the thought of being polite did not once enter his mind. Every time he defeated the helmet-wearing skeleton, he felt as if an unseen weight weighing down on his shoulders was lifting up. He finally felt like he could breathe again.
Unfortunately, the unavoidable problem eventually reared its head; since he was so enthusiastic about clearing the mission, the remaining number of attempts depleted quickly as well.
There was nothing Seol could do as there were only 12 attempts left to being with. But he still wasn't satisfied. On the contrary, he thought that he needed to do at least 50 more times before he’d be satisfied.
Naturally, Seol deliberated on what he should do. Then, on the last remaining attempt, he did something completely unheard of.
He defeated every single small fry found in the mission super fast while leaving behind only the helmet-wearing boss skeleton. There were plenty of opportunities to kill it, but Seol made sure not to fatally wound it.
"Get up, you bastard."
Seol was glaring at the skeleton lying on the floor. On his hands, his spear and the skeleton’s axe. He found this sight of the monster not to his liking, so he used the end of the spear to tap its skull a few times, trying to make it stand.
"Stand up straight, Skellie."
When he kicked a bit hard, the skeleton noisily rolled away. Its helmet was missing and couldn’t be found anymore. It was not hard to imagine the level of torture the monster had to go through simply by looking at the misaligned collarbones or several cracked ribs.
The skeleton flinched and began to shuffle about. It tried to push off against the ground with its trembling bones, and once up, swayed about unsteadily on its feet.
Seol then tossed the axe over to it and strode away, widening the distance between them. His sour expression showed how unsatisfied he was, as he continued to glare at the skeleton that kinda looked like it might keel over at any second.
The idea of one-on-one face-off he came up with was a brilliant one, if he could say so himself. Now, he was able to continuously fight to his heart’s content without the pesky remaining number of attempts handicapping him.
For the first thirty times they fought, the skeleton seemed to be humoring Seol’s whims. However, past the 50th time, it felt like the skeleton began to desperately resist him. Past the 60th, it visibly lost all motivation to even put up a fight.
Seol too had made several mistakes adjusting his strength during the fight and ended up damaging the skeleton here and there. Even considering that, the disappointment he felt was hard to describe in mere words.
"Please, please! Just do one more jumping attack! You know, that jumping attack you do? Can you even understand me?"
It was unknown whether the skeleton was listening to him or not. It simply raised the axe but then, one of its shoulder bones snapped and fell. The bone finally gave in and broke after the repeated abuse it had to endure.
The skeleton froze on the spot; its empty eye sockets sneaked a quick glance at Seol’s direction.
"….Well, you still have your right arm."
Clack, clack, clack, clack….
The skeleton powerlessly clattered its teeth. No one knew what it was trying to say, but it still sounded like a plea.
"Come on, let’s fight. Hurry."
In the end, the skeleton succeeded in grasping the axe as it squeaked and creaked noisily. It was as if it was forcing itself to overcome its limits. Although it was just a measly skeleton….
"Good. Come at me. I heard that an undead monster like you carry around unconditional hatred for all living things. So, show me."
Seol used his spear to beckon the monster.
"I’ll end this after twenty more times, okay?"
It was then, Seol momentarily thought that he could see the exposed spine of the skeleton flinch.
The skeleton standing around doing nothing finally moved its legs. It heaved the axe up high and began its rush.
However, its attack had none of its former viciousness nor conviction. No, it only looked wretched and miserable. Seol licked his lips and readied the stance for the ‘Strike’.
And so, the skeleton unsteadily ‘ran’ towards Seol, and lifted its remaining arm over its head. Just as he was about to get ready to swat away the falling axe….
The skeleton simply let go of the axe as its arm fell down.
Seol’s attention was stolen away by the axe that flew past him. In that moment he wasn’t looking, the skeleton grasped the spear shaft as tightly as it could. Then, summoning whatever strength it could still bring forth, it slammed its own head on the spear tip.
The skull disintegrated, and the rest of the bones clattered to the ground. The way its remains piled up like that, one couldn’t help but feel that salvation had finally come to the poor monster.
Everything happened in the blink of an eye.
[You have successfully completed a ‘Hard’ difficulty mission.]
[1000 Survival points have been added to your tally.]
[Current SP: 85,280 SP]
Seol just stood there dumbfounded, his eyes blinking nonstop.