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    On a mountainside southwest of Delcross.

    Amidst the drizzling rain, a young girl sat quietly, gazing down at the imperial capital enveloped in a faint glow.

    Utterly motionless, she appeared as if she had been born as a rock, sculpted by the wind and rain over countless years in that very spot.

    Her long, golden hair braided into two plaits was antiquated, and the jet-black robe enveloping her small frame was the attire once worn by wandering ascetics in the pre-imperial era.

    Swoosh.

    The rain intensified with each passing moment, but not a single droplet touched the girl’s body. The black mana emanating from her being was repelling the rainfall entirely.

    “…”

    The girl was none other than the high sovereign bearing the name [Greed].

    She was a demon who had been awaiting the destruction that would befall this world for an eternity.

    Rustle.

    Moments later, a young man emerged from the undergrowth before the girl. He had a genial appearance, with a battered mandolin slung across his back. He raised his hand in a friendly gesture towards the girl.

    “Hey, [Greed].”

    It was ironic how the young girl appeared like sedimentary layers accumulated over an eternity, while the young man seemed verdantly fresh, as if he had just blossomed like an annual flower.

    “…Sowing.”

    Greed furrowed her brow.

    The young man’s overflowing vitality was not a mere trick of the mind. He had already replaced his contractor.

    The only commonalities with his previous self were the black mana surging from his body and the occasional flicker of an eerie green glow in his eyes.

    “Another new contractor? What a trivial fixation.”

    “Contractors are meant to be frequently harvested and cultivated anew. It’s you who’s strange for not changing them for over a thousand years.”

    Sowing retorted as he plopped down on the ground.

    “Seriously. Greed, I have a warning for you. You’re acquainted with that dimension’s storyteller, right? Tell that irksome fellow. Why is he luring our innocent sect’s children into doing pointless things?”

    He was referring to Romaine manipulating Sowing’s brethren to spread monster eggs throughout the capital.

    At this, Greed let out a cold sneer.

    “How pitiful. He is no longer the storyteller now.”

    “…What do you mean, no longer?”

    “It means he was once Sigurd Sigurdson.”

    Sowing clicked his tongue.

    “What? Our kids were played by a mere puppet? Why do you associate closely with someone like that?”

    “Because I know what such a person ultimately yearns for.”

    Without taking her eyes off the imperial capital, Greed smiled crookedly.

    “What do you think it could be? Surely, he desires to eliminate Sigurd Sigurdson and be reborn as the true dimensional storyteller. Among them, Romain is the only puppet who has nearly achieved success. Having obtained the key to the labyrinth, he is worth observing further.”

    “Ha! So that’s why you keep him by your side.”

    The young man openly scoffed.

    “The moment he becomes the sole Sigurd Sigurdson, you intend to strip him of everything.”

    “…”

    Greed felt no need to respond. It was a truth that required neither affirmation nor denial.

    He had always been that kind of being.

    Either devouring immediately or savoring it for a while. Ultimately, he was one who stripped everything away.

    “Anyway, so that’s why [Repentance]’s sect has been quiet lately while you’ve been playing with him. Have you grown tired of toying with others’ possessions?”

    “What the master has abandoned is no different from being mine.”

    “In that case, you should have established your own sect long ago. Stop thinking about wielding Repentance’s forces here and there. It’s a hassle to move them, isn’t it?”

    “Nonsense.”

    Greed never created or cultivated anything in the first place. He merely thoroughly stripped away what existed. It wasn’t a matter of laziness, but simply his nature.

    In his wake, only extreme hunger and severe deprivation remained. That’s why Greed’s other name was [Famine].

    It was only natural for him to gradually devour the sect that [Repentance], who had been holed up somewhere regretting for the past thousand years, had built.

    “By the way, honestly, this time was a bit unexpected. I never thought you’d request cooperation.”

    “When I recently sent a subpar subordinate as a test, he barely returned alive. The king of Delcross is too dangerous to face alone.”

    “Well. Are you sure you’re not just afraid I’ll stab you in the back?”

    Sowing narrowed his eyes and glanced at the girl. This, too, was a truth that needed no denial, so Greed did not answer.

    Originally, Delcross was destined to be destroyed by the descent of the five demon kings.

    However, [Repentance], who had descended a thousand years ago, had crawled underground and refused to emerge. [Fervent Heat], who should have brought war, was distracted by something else entirely. And [Repose], who should have bestowed death upon all, was ironically in an eternal slumber himself.

    In the end, currently, the only comrade who could properly confront the emperor of Delcross was [Sowing].

    At the same time, if Greed were to suffer a blow, Sowing would be the only one who might stab him in the back. Of course, the reverse was also true.

    “Well, anyway, fine. It’s safer for both of us to share the risk.”

    The young man nodded and rose to his feet.

    [Now then…]

    The moment his eyes flashed with a vivid green glow, black mana surged forth, enveloping the mountainside and soaring towards the sky.

    [Shall we begin?]

    Rumble.

    Accompanied by a earth-shaking roar.

    Flash!

    Blue lightning bolts struck the ground in succession.

    ***

    ‘This gentleman is definitely too late!’

    Some of the attendees in the banquet hall seemed to have sensed something amiss as well.

    Murmur murmur.

    Pushing through the gradually agitated crowd, Seongjin exited the banquet hall.

    Perhaps it was his imagination, but the corridor felt strangely dim despite the bright illumination. Although servants should have been bustling about, the corridor was eerily silent without a soul in sight.

    As he slowly walked towards the stairs leading to the second floor while surveying his surroundings, the sound of click-clacking footsteps soon followed behind him.

    “Morres!”

    It was Amelia, who had also sensed something unusual. Sisle, looking somewhat anxious, was with her.

    “Everyone’s here. Something is definitely wrong!”

    Following closely, Logan approached with Seo Yi-seo or Cardmos in her body. As a result, all four siblings of the Holy Imperial family gathered at the foot of the stairs.

    “I sense a strange aura coming from the direction of the second-floor office. It’s certainly not mana, but…”

    As Logan had mentioned, the stairs growing darker as they ascended gave an increasingly peculiar sense of unease.

    Despite the stairwell being brightly lit, the second-floor corridor, devoid of any light, appeared as if obscured by a thick, black curtain.

    “How strange. I don’t recall this ever happening before…”

    Amelia spoke with a worried expression, quickly recalling the events prior to the regression.

    “Anyway, we should go up and check, shouldn’t we? Father must be there.”

    The dense darkness was suffocating even by simply looking at it.

    However, there was not a hint of hesitation in her brother’s eyes as he stared at it. Steeling her resolve, Amelia swiftly assessed the situation.

    “I will inform Her Majesty the Empress of this situation. For now, Sisle and Lord Cardmos, perhaps you could hold a small event to bless the distinguished guests. Also, check if the orchestra has any impromptu performances they can showcase. That should help quell the guests’ unease.”

    Then she entrusted Seongjin and Logan with a request.

    “For now, I have no choice but to entrust Father to the two most reliable people. I will summon the Imperial Guard knights right away, so while we handle the banquet hall’s atmosphere, could you two please visit the office?”

    Seongjin nodded and immediately dashed up the stairs as if leaping.

    “Be careful, Lee Seongjin! Something is definitely amiss.”

    Logan closely followed, cautioning him, but Seongjin paid no heed.

    Upon arriving at the pitch-black second-floor corridor, servants could be seen collapsed here and there on the floor.

    “What in the world…”

    Judging by the aura detection, they all seemed to be alive, but their vitality was extremely faint. The two exchanged a glance before rushing towards the office.

    The office at the end of the second-floor corridor. Collapsed in front of it was the head servant, Lewis.

    Fortunately, he was breathing, but his contorted face appeared strained as if he were having a nightmare.

    And…

    Standing in front of the wide-open office door, as if guarding it, was the commander of the Order of Saint Aurelion.

    “Commander Katrina…”

    She was the only person here who had not lost consciousness. However, she also seemed to be in a poor state.

    Using her long sword like a cane, propping it against the floor, Katrina spoke with difficulty, perspiring profusely.

    “…Why have you come here, Your Highness?”

    “Commander! What in the world is going on?”

    “Father? Is Father inside?”

    At this, she looked at Seongjin with a faint smile.

    “Rest assured, Your Highness. [Gaps] opening in the palace is a common occurrence. It’s just that this time, it was so sudden that His Majesty didn’t have a moment to enter the prayer room.”

    Gaps?

    “Those who have collapsed will be tended to by His Majesty as soon as the gap closes, so please don’t worry too much.”

    As she answered, her complexion was extremely pale, as if she might collapse at any moment.

    In any case, it meant that the Holy Emperor was also caught up in this situation. Seongjin asked her with a stern face.

    “…Katrina, where is Father?”

    “Although his return may be slightly delayed, there will likely be no issues. Your Highness, if you remain here for too long, you may lose consciousness like the others. Please return to the banquet hall and await His Majesty’s arrival.”

    Indeed, since earlier, Seongjin had been experiencing an unpleasant tinnitus and a headache that felt like it was pressing down on his head.

    Even so, to simply turn back after witnessing this chaos? Wasn’t it implied that the gentleman was at the center of this bizarre space?

    Seongjin took a step closer to her, who was blocking the entrance.

    “He’s inside, isn’t he? Move aside at once.”

    “It’s dangerous, Your Highness. Please return to the banquet hall…!”

    “I must go in now, Commander.”

    As Seongjin interrupted her with a growl, Katrina stared at him intently. Her eyes trembled slightly, reflecting her extreme emotional turmoil.

    “…Is that Your Highness’s wish? Do you truly feel that way?”

    “Yes.”

    With a small sigh, she began to move her steps unsteadily.

    “Phew. I don’t know what admonishment I will receive from His Majesty later, but…”

    Then, clank! Thud! She dropped to one knee on the floor, propping herself up with her sword. Geez, why are you being stubborn when you can barely stand?

    Seongjin glanced at Katrina once before striding into the office.

    Seongjin immediately spotted the Holy Emperor.

    He was leaning against the office sofa with his eyes closed, not moving an inch even as Seongjin approached. It was a markedly different sight from how he would always sense Seongjin’s presence and greet him first.

    Indeed, as if he were at the center of this entire situation, the closer Seongjin got, the more intense the piercing headache became.

    “His heart rate is abnormally slow. But he’s definitely alive.”

    Logan, who also seemed to have a headache, spoke with a furrowed brow.

    “But it’s strange. Even though he’s right in front of us, his presence feels distant, as if he’s somewhere else. Why is that?”

    Seongjin was just feeling the same way.

    It was like shards of a shattered window reflecting a disjointed image, a mixture of mismatched forms.

    Even though his recumbent figure was visible right before their eyes, it simultaneously felt like a distant scene viewed through a telescope or camera lens.

    Just as Seongjin was about to reach out to the Holy Emperor, Logan suddenly flinched and looked out the window.

    “Lee Seongjin. There’s a suspicious fellow in the garden. He’s sending killing intent this way.”

    “A suspicious fellow?”

    “Yes. He’s completely concealing his aura. Likely an assassin. Of all times…”

    If he was using aura concealment, he was indeed an assassin.

    However, with the headache and the strangely distorted senses, it wasn’t easy for Seongjin to detect the fellow’s presence. It also meant that the assassin had considerable skill.

    In this situation, the only one who could sense him was probably Logan, a former Decaron Knight and Sword Master.

    As if having the same thought, Logan alternated his worried gaze between Seongjin and the Holy Emperor for a moment before speaking.

    “We can’t leave him be, so I’ll go out and capture the culprit first. I’ll subdue him quickly and return, so don’t push yourself. If you feel unwell, head back to the banquet hall immediately.”

    “Alright.”

    Drawing Arjuna, Logan leaped out of the office terrace. Then, dashing across the garden, he soon disappeared somewhere.

    After watching him for a moment, Seongjin headed towards the sofa where the Holy Emperor lay. In any case, he intended to at least try shaking him awake.

    Of course, he had doubts about whether it would even be possible to grab and shake him.

    At the same time…

    ‘I can reach him in the end…!’

    With that inexplicable conviction, Seongjin slowly reached out towards him.

    And the moment his hand touched the Holy Emperor’s ceremonial robe…

    Whoosh.

    Suddenly, the figure before his eyes warped violently, and his vision soared upward as if his body was being sucked somewhere forcefully.

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