* * *
Crack, creak, tick—
The rhythmic sound of nail-biting rang out within the room. The maker of that sound was currently hunched up with narrowed shoulders, displaying his withdrawn and sorry state.
“Man, you’re being too damn noisy over there! Hey, boomer uncle over there, can’t you put a cork in it or something?!”
“Let him be. Wasn’t he supposed to be a big shot or something on the outside? It must’ve been a real shock to the system to end up in this place.”
“Aha! So he used to be a big fish, then?”
“Kekeke. And that’s why I’ve been having so much fun tormenting that geezer lately. Oi, uncle! Come over here and be my footstool for a while. I wanna take a nap.”
Convicts wearing the same type of attire as the nail-biting man stared at him and sneered mockingly.
Apparently, no matter how mentally out of sorts he was, he could still hear what the convicts were saying.
The Authority’s ex-director subjected to their mockery looked down at his own fingers that had started bleeding after he ran out of nails to bite. He never had a habit of biting his nails before in his life, but now that he was incarcerated, he understood why some people started chewing their nails when feeling anxious.
Number 386—that was the director’s new “name.”
It would at least be bearable if he got a solitary cell, but too bad for him, that didn’t happen. He had to share a cell with other low-class criminals.
These people had lived far too different lives compared to the director.
They were hardened career criminals who committed murder, assault, and attempted rape among many others. The director just couldn’t accept the fact that he now had to live among these animals.
“Number 386. You have a visitor.”
The director’s head snapped up. He shot up from his spot and smiled brightly as if his once-escaped soul had returned to him.
“Finally. Someone has come to get me out,” he thought.
Someone who would rescue him from this hellhole.
The director headed to the visiting rooms. He began harboring baseless anticipation that maybe Minister Jeon Gyeong-guk had personally come to pay him a visit today.
If the director had been maintaining his former cold and calculating mentality, he would never ever think of something like that.
“Someone will definitely get me out of here. I mean, just how much money did I spread around already? Without a doubt…”
Before he could finish that thought, he arrived at the visiting room.
And when he did, someone he definitely didn’t expect to see came into view beyond the reinforced glass.
“Ah, so you came?”
“…Chairman Lee Ju-ho.”
Certainly, Lee Ju-ho was a big fish. He could even be the person holding the “key” in this entire situation.
If Lee Ju-ho cooperated, then the director might be able to get out of this place.
“Ugh! Don’t they clean this place or something? Why is it so dirty in here? How about the inside, though? Is it more hygienic at least?”
“Why are you…here…?”
“Oh, that. I had something to say to you face to face, you see. Also, I wanted to check out how you look like these days, so you can say that it’s like hitting two birds with one stone.”
Lee Ju-ho instantly shattered the director’s hope.
He revealed that he wasn’t here to help the director and made sure to ram the point home.
The director growled back, “Just what more do you want to say to me?”
“It’s about your sentence. It’s been decided that you’ll get life without parole. An announcement will be made soon, probably.”
The director felt like a heavy chunk of lead crash-landed inside his head.
“The vice minister, the section chief, the Authority-affiliated A-Rank awakener capable of using mind control skill, Yu Min-hyeok, plus the others connected to you, they were all fired from their positions. Meanwhile, the minister is being disciplined. And all your wealth has been confiscated.”
“But why…are you…me…?”
“I wanted you to despair. All the money you’ve been spreading around and the connections you’ve made through that, well, I just wanted to tell you that they are all useless now, so you shouldn’t hold any hope anymore,” Lee Ju-ho sneered.
The director clearly witnessed that expression, causing his eyes to instantly redden and his fist to clench tightly in anger.
“Why are you doing this to me?! Even if I did something wrong, this…”
He pounded on the glass partition and roared out frantically.
Even if he was in the wrong, why was the other side going this far?
“Isn’t this way over the line?!”
That was the director’s honest thought.
“This incident. The majority of your plan was focused on proving the fault of the association’s system by any means necessary,” Lee Ju-ho replied.
“But the plan to stop the dungeon in Cheonan wasn’t all that detailed and didn’t seem like well thought out. To me, it looked like you went, it’s not that important so this much should suffice.”
“What are you even…?”
“The idea behind that action was, probably, if we fail to stop it, then it can’t be helped. We’ll just dump the responsibility on the association. Isn’t that right?”
The director clamped his mouth shut at Lee Ju-ho’s question because the latter’s assertion was on the money.
It was true that the plan was to blame the association for messing up the dungeon raid order if the Authority’s people failed to stop Cheonan’s dungeon outbreak for some reason.
“A bastard who treats people’s lives like disposable insects is saying what now? This is too much? Don’t make me laugh.”
Lee Ju-ho punched the glass wall.
The bulletproof glass began cracking apart, and the director flinched in shock and hurriedly stumbled back.
“If it was up to me, I’d have killed you already. So, let me ask you a favor, okay?”
Lee Ju-ho shot a glare filled with bloodlust and shoved back his chair to stand up.
“You, stay in there for the rest of your miserable life until everyone forgets about you and then die a pathetic and lonely death all alone. Because if you do somehow weasel your way out of here, I’ll end up killing you with my own hands.”
“You get what I’m saying, right? Dear mister director—no, wait—” Lee Ju-ho turned around to leave and, while exiting the room, called out the director’s name, “Mister Song Gyeong-tae.”
The director, or rather, Song Gyeong-tae, stared at his face’s reflection on the cracked glass pieces.
Song Gyeong-tae. He hadn’t been called that name in a long time, and the moment he heard it, he came to a sudden realization: he was no longer the holder of the position “director” and that even if he got out of here somehow, the government position meant to shield him no longer existed.
For the last time, Lee Ju-ho glanced at ex-director Song Gyeong-tae, who was chuckling hollowly, and moved to leave the visiting room.
Before he could fully step outside, though, he saw it. He saw Song Gyeong-tae’s hand slowly, ever so agonizingly slowly, crept toward the shattered glass pieces.
“Hey, you stinking punk! Stop!”
The roar of the guards that pounced on Song Gyeong-tae could be heard afterward.
* * *
With that, the incident had been mostly taken care of.
This incident could be seen as a complicated matter that involved the awakener management bureau, the Authority, and the association, plus all the associated political implications surrounding it, but Su-hyeun didn’t think of the whole affair as all that complicated.
After all, it wasn’t a complicated or challenging incident in the first place.
He believed that getting rid of the director was an easy thing to do as long as he wanted it done. The issue had always been with the right timing or finding the good-enough justification, but the fight itself had never been a fair one, to begin with.
Indeed, the problem Su-hyeun found far more troubling was something else entirely.
“Which one should I choose?”
Agility or stamina?
They were both important stats.
By raising agility, he would be able to move around much faster than before, while raising stamina would afford him far sturdier defense, better resistance against magic, and also faster recovery speed.
As both stats were important, he had to agonize quite a bit over his decision.
Eventually, though, he made up his mind.
[You are spending the single free stat point.]
[Stamina has risen by one.]
[Your physical body has exceeded the realm of human beings by a step.]
[You have acquired a “qualification of godhood.”]
This would be his second time witnessing that last part of the message.
With this, he now had three qualifications of godhood—strength, fire, and stamina.
And when stamina reached the 100-point mark, his physical body took yet another step beyond the realm of human beings.
“So, only agility and reflex remain.”
He became certain of it.
When all four basic stats the system granted at the beginning—strength, agility, stamina, and reflex—reached the three-digit mark and he acquired the individual qualifications of godhood as a result, then an unknown change would happen to him.
Although it was just a vague feeling right now, he still felt certain of it.
As such, he was looking forward to it.
“As for reflex, I can reach it on my own. Which means…”
The remaining task was to acquire another “God’s Tear.”
Su-hyeun transferred to the 103rd floor.
The first thing he did after arriving back on this small island surrounded by oceans on all sides was to check out the points he currently possessed.
[Stored achievement points: 77,544,500]
He acquired 30 million points during the last trial.
People’s jaws would’ve hit the floor from such an insane amount of points. If it was any other time, Su-hyeun might have been clamoring to spend the points and buy something. His mindset would’ve been to prioritize the safe completion of the next floor’s trial, after all.
What if he tried to save up the points but ended up running into a problem with increasing his combat power and fail to pass the trial, which, in turn, led to his demise? Now that would be one of the stupidest things imaginable.
However, the situation this time was rather different.
“It’s God’s Tear, right?”
A voice came from below.
Su-hyeun looked down. He briefly wondered why someone’s voice would come from so low on the ground and eventually spotted a person’s head poking out from the sandy beach.
No, well. It’s actually…
“…Are you enjoying a sand bath?”
“What else can I do in this place? I might as well do something like this to spend my time.”
The administrator stood up, and all that sand covering him fell from his body. He looked the shabbiest out of all the administrators Su-hyeun had met so far, what with his bald head and his underwear weaved out of plant leaves.
“You were in the middle of a rather rude thought, weren’t you?”
“If you can tell that, why don’t you put some proper clothes on?”
“But I’m happy like this. Besides, we ain’t gonna stare at each other for too long anyway, so why should I go out of my way for a positive impression?”
“Well…You do have a point there.”
“You want to go to the next floor, right? And what you want is probably the God’s Tear, too.”
The administrator correctly guessed what Su-hyeun wanted as if they have known each other for a long time.
Since there was no need to beat around the bush here, Su-hyeun felt at ease and replied without holding back, “What about hints, though?”
“No hints. Didn’t you get the explanation? There aren’t any hints from beyond the 100th floor. Way too many variables to deal with, you see. Although, there was something we could more or less predict back on the 102nd floor.”
That must’ve been Hercules’s mental state.
The hint mentioned by the 102nd floor’s administrator was that “Hercules might be a problem,” after all.
“Is that so? Then, never mind.”
“You accepted it easier than I thought? I figured you’d ask more about it, though.”
“A hint without the minimum level of confirmation can turn into poison instead, you know. I may even miss the essence of the trial after getting obsessed with the hint, too.”
“You’re surprisingly level-headed, aren’t you? Normally, giving up ain’t that easy.”
Even if it couldn’t be of any help, or even prove to be wrong, it was only normal for a person to wish for someone’s help or at least a rotten lifeline to be cast their way.
However, Su-hyeun unhesitatingly discarded the rotten lifeline and chose to make his own instead.
It was a rational but emotionally difficult decision.
The administrator asked, “Okay, then. Are you setting off right away?”
“I am, but I’d like to ask you something first.”
“Just what exactly is the God’s Tear? Is it literally a tear shed by a god?”
The God’s Tear—just that name and the accompanying explanation alone made it seem like it really was a drop of tear shed by a god.
However, Su-hyeun didn’t witness a god crying that day. That drop simply fell from the heavens along with the rain.
“Yup, you’re right. It is a teardrop shed by a god.”
“It’s that simple…?”
“Nope, not simple at all. Gods don’t cry, after all.”
Su-hyeun’s eyes widened at the administrator’s reply.
Indeed, the latter was right.
Unless you teared up during a yawn, tears were evidence of you pouring out your emotions, according to what the Bull Demon King had said, and he was a creature currently working hard to get rid of his emotions to become a god, so he should know all about it.
“In that case, God’s Tear is…”
“It’s proof that a god has rediscovered their emotions. The godhood that leaked out because of that has fallen along with the teardrop to become that item.”
“It wasn’t Hercules’s teardrop?”
“What? The one you got on the 102nd floor? Hercules just barely managed to squeak past the level of low-ranking gods, so no matter how much he sobs, it ain’t gonna come from him. No, what you got came from someone much higher up.” The administrator pointed up with his finger while continuing, “Out of all the gods up there, which one do you think is capable of controlling the clouds and the rain, and feel sorrow at Hercules’s plight?”
It wasn’t Hercules’s teardrop but the god Zeus.
He had been watching all along, and when Hercules cried, he also cried along, and his tears became rainfall.
“That’s right. He might be known as a playboy and cold-hearted, but he at least cares deeply about his children. Anyways, he must’ve been feeling really sad back then, seeing how he failed to control his emotions and ended up shedding tears and all.”
Su-hyeun learned something new today—that a god’s tear literally lowered a god’s qualification of godhood and that the tear he consumed belonged to Zeus.
“Anything else you’re curious about?”
“Nothing at the moment.”
“Is that so? Great.”
The administrator snapped his fingers.
At the same time, the island they were standing on began to tremble faintly.
“In that case, we’ll be looking forward to it this time, too.”
Su-hyeun made a puzzled face at that. “What do you mean by—?”
Before he could finish his sentence…
The scenery spread out before Su-hyeun’s eyes changed. The previous world scattered away like some kind of a mirage, and his blurry opaque view gradually regained some semblance of color.
Soon afterward, the world he stood on had changed completely. More correctly, the system had transferred Su-hyeun to another world altogether.
The new scenery—the blackened skies, the murky clouds that blocked out the sun, and the smoky, acrid air—felt quite familiar, however.
“Been a while since I last saw a scenery like this.”
It was a destroyed world.
Every now and then, he would run into such scenery in trials where he was tasked with hunting down monsters. Not only that, but back when he was Kim Sung-in, Su-hyeun was also left alone on Earth that came to resemble this very world and had to fight all by himself for many years.
He scanned his vicinity. He thought that he should get a better understanding of where he was before the system message popped up.
Su-hyeun turned his head, and at the edge of his vision, he spotted a group of people. They seemed to be hurriedly moving to somewhere.
This world still had some survivors, it seemed.
[Protect the villagers for a month.]
[The rewards will depend on your achievements.]
The trial’s content finally showed up, and it was as simple as it could be.
Even if the system did get unfriendlier the higher the floor count and the level of difficulty, this was verging on being way too unfair.
“You want me to figure it out by myself, is that it?”
That thing about the rewards depending on the achievement probably meant that it would depend on the number of surviving villagers by the end of the trial.
“I’m pretty sure it’s not as simple as merely protecting them. Also, even if it is about protecting them, the monster in question should not be an ordinary creature, either. Most likely, it’s a…”
Su-hyeun let out a long groan at the system message that popped up sooner than he thought and at the contents that happened to be briefer than he would like.
But almost at the same time, his gaze shifted to the ground.
He sensed something beneath the surface.
He had no time to rest.
Su-hyeun immediately made a move.
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