This series has been dropped.

    After running almost all day, they arrived at a wide open area.

    Behind them were the stairs they had climbed up until now, and ahead were the stairs they would have to climb from here on.

    And on both sides of the open area stood two enormous stone statues that appeared to be about 5 meters tall.

    ‘They look like statues you’d find at a temple.’

    They had huge bodies with grotesquely distorted faces and long ears. In their hands, they held crescent moon blades that were taller than Do-joon himself.

    There was nothing else in the open area. It was literally just a place to rest adequately before continuing on.

    Still, thinking there might be something, Do-joon looked around carefully. He even cautiously approached and touched the statues.

    However…

    “There’s nothing here.”

    ―There’s nothing, I see.

    There were still no signs of anything being present. Should he be satisfied with just being in a place other than stairs for the time being?

    ―How about it? Want to rest a bit before moving on?

    “That seems good too, but…”

    Do-joon and Kalish began chatting in the middle of the open area.

    That’s when things started happening out of their line of sight.

    The two stone statues began moving silently.

    Their target was none other than Do-joon’s back.

    As the two statues swung their crescent moon blades down towards his defenseless back…

    Kwang!

    The ground shook violently and dirt flew up in a cloud.

    The two statues raised their heads to confirm their crushed prey.

    However…

    “It looks like it will be difficult to rest without dealing with these guys first.”

    The voice came from the side.

    As the statues slowly turned their heads to look, there stood Do-joon, not crushed at all, just with some dust on him, spinning his spear.

    ―So these were the monsters of this labyrinth.

    “Yes.”

    [Stone Statues of the Impure God]

    Compatibility Rate

    – 61%

    A whole 20% higher compatibility than the orcs.

    It seemed the compatibility was high because rather than being in a group like those guys, each individual was a powerful type.

    ―By the way, you figured it out well. There was no presence at all when they approached.

    “Actually, I knew from the beginning.”

    When he first arrived here, Do-joon had used Insight on the statues as soon as he saw them. And sure enough, didn’t the compatibility rating pop up?

    Thanks to that, he had already guessed that these guys were monsters.

    ―What will you do? Fight them now?

    At Kalish’s words, Do-joon glared at the statues. While glaring, he checked his physical condition.

    ‘I ran at full speed for over 20 hours to get here. Both my stamina and mana are depleted.’

    A coolheaded self-assessment.

    He hadn’t just run, but had been learning a new movement technique while running, so his concentration was very low right now as well.

    As a result, naturally his choice was…

    “Let’s retreat for now.”

    Return.

    There was no reason to take unnecessary risks.

    [Skill: Return is used.]

    There was a flash of light. The next moment, Do-joon found himself not on the cloud stairs, but in the underground workshop of his store.

    “Phew.”

    ―You made the right call. It would be trouble if we fought and some strange guys multiplied.

    Listening to Kalish’s words, he checked his skill window.

    [‘Labyrinth Entry: Tier 5 Stairway to Heaven’ Remaining cooldown 167h]

    A 7-day cooldown until he could enter again. If he prepared and went in again next week, taking out a couple statues would be no big deal.

    It was his first time seeing 60% range compatibility monsters, but he had no fear. No matter what, he didn’t think those two would be stronger than the elf from back then.

    “Great work. Let’s go in and rest.”

    ―Yeah. Call me later during training time. You have to review what you learned right away so you don’t forget.

    “Yes.”

    Do-joon chuckled at the words that sounded similar to what he used to hear all the time during his school days. Indeed, whether it was academics or martial arts, there seemed to be commonalities when it came to learning.

    Putting Kalish in his inventory, Do-joon climbed the stairs.

    It was still early evening, and it seemed So-eun had already gone to bed.

    “……”

    And Sivellin was at the counter, chin in hand, watching TV. Not in their room, but the small TV placed in one corner of the store.

    “I’m back.”

    「Oh? You’re back early this time?」

    As Do-joon greeted her, Sivellin replied. Usually when he entered a labyrinth, he would stay for at least two days, almost three days before coming out.

    But this time he came out after just one full day, so she couldn’t help but find it strange.

    “This labyrinth was a bit unique. There were no monsters and just endless stairs…”

    Do-joon briefly explained about Stairway to Heaven. There wasn’t much to explain in the first place since there really wasn’t anything there.

    Sivellin blinked as she listened intently to Do-joon’s words.

    She too was very curious about Do-joon’s ability to enter labyrinths.

    It was thanks to that ability that she was able to escape that curse and live this peaceful daily life.

    “…Anyway, so I’ll probably just be hiking for the time being. Even after defeating the statues, the stairs just kept going on and on.”

    「The air must be nice and fresh!」

    Seeing Sivellin find a positive in a strange place, Do-joon chuckled.

    “I’ll wash up first and take over for you. So-eun seems to be asleep too, so you go in and rest early today as well.”

    「Okay.」

    Sivellin didn’t refuse. Judging by how her eyes kept glancing at the TV, she seemed to have a drama she wanted to watch.

    In the past, people called TVs idiot boxes, but Do-joon welcomed Sivellin watching TV. It helped her quickly learn common sense about this place.

    After showering off the sweat and dust, Sivellin had already finished preparing for the shift change.

    She neatly folded and set aside her apron, changed into comfortable sweats, put potato chips and cola on a tray, and had it all set up in front of the sofa in their room.

    「Then I’ll leave it to you~ I’ll just watch one episode and come help out. Right now they’re about to reveal whose daughter Yena is, it’s a very important scene.」

    “It’s fine, it’ll be closing time soon anyway.”

    Do-joon chuckled and took a seat at the counter. It wasn’t a busy time so extra hands weren’t needed.

    He took out some dried herbs and ground them up finely as he watched the store.

    After grinding about five roots’ worth…

    Ding-

    The bell rang as a customer entered.

    Do-joon stood up to greet them. But the customer had a very familiar face.

    “Chairman Son?”

    It was Son Chang-il, the president of the association.

    “There’s something I need to discuss that’s difficult to do over the phone, so I came.”

    “Something difficult to discuss over the phone? Ah, have a seat first.”

    Do-joon showed him to a seat. Then he brewed tea like it was second nature. It was just tea made by steeping a tea bag, but still.

    After taking a sip of tea, Son Chang-il brought up the topic.

    “I’m talking about your special promotion. Actually, there was talk about this…”

    His following words were surprising.

    “What? You mean the first expedition team to go into the Stem?”

    “That’s right. If you perform well enough there, no one will oppose you becoming an A-rank.”

    After throwing out the main topic, Son Chang-il explained how this conversation came about.

    The need to form an expedition team to keep up with the swift movements of foreign countries, the fact that many guilds were very enthusiastic about this matter.

    The four major guilds were currently observing for now, but there was a 90% chance they would participate, and the most eager one was the Karma Guild.

    “It was Oh Tae-jin, the vice guild master of Karma, who brought you up. He’s considered the strongest among the domestic A-rank hunters.”

    “Karma…”

    It wasn’t a place he had a particularly good relationship with… Why did they recommend him?

    “His words made sense too. You’re currently the only person in our country who has directly killed an elf. Even Oh Tae-jin and Shin Yoo-sung couldn’t do that.”

    In fact, Shin Yoo-sung had focused on treating the injured by moving to the rear midway through the battle, and by the time Oh Tae-jin arrived in Hwaseong, the elf had already fled.

    So they couldn’t do it, but regardless of the circumstances, the fact remained that among domestic hunters, Do-joon was the only one who had killed an elf.

    “So that’s how this topic came up.”

    “That’s right.”

    Do-joon understood. Putting aside his ties with Karma, it was a situation where his name could be sufficiently mentioned.

    Perhaps even if it wasn’t Oh Tae-jin, someone would have brought up his name at that meeting.

    “So what will you do?”

    “…”

    Do-joon fell into silent thought for a moment.

    The association president watching him felt his throat go a little dry. Naturally, the teacup in his hand headed towards his mouth.

    Although someone else had brought it up, the president knew this could be quite a good opportunity.

    Especially since Do-joon was a man who worked alone without belonging to a guild. For someone like him, the chance to join such a large-scale expedition team was really rare.

    ‘If he successfully completes this task… He may truly grow into a hunter representing the nation.’

    He saw great potential in Do-joon, and as such, placed great value on this opportunity.

    Son Chang-il took another sip of tea. Eventually, as he brought the cup to his mouth for a third sip…

    “I’m sorry, but I will have to decline.”

    Son Chang-il’s eyes widened.

    “You’re… refusing?”

    “Yes. No matter how much I think about it, I don’t think I can accept this task.”

    Do-joon spoke nonchalantly.

    Clink.

    As the president put down his teacup, a faint disappointment flickered in his eyes.

    He had thought Do-joon was a more passionate man. The video of him killing the elf, the abilities and actions he showed there. And putting all that aside, his extremely desperate expression.

    Son Chang-il, who had even been moved by that expression in a way he couldn’t understand, still sometimes replayed that video.

    “I see…”

    Well, he couldn’t blame him.

    Everyone holds their life precious, and the president was no stranger to that. Rather, considering his usual beliefs, it was a choice he should support.

    It’s just that a slight regret remained.

    “Daddy~”

    Just then, the door from the room opened and So-eun came out. As if she had just woken up, she rubbed her eyes and walked unsteadily to Do-joon.

    “Oh, So-eun. You’re awake?”

    “Mm…”

    Do-joon picked So-eun up. His sturdy arms wrapped around the child and patted her back.

    As if feeling very secure in his embrace, the child began to doze off again.

    And Son Chang-il, who had been watching Do-joon…

    “…Is she your daughter?”

    “Yes.”

    He was extremely surprised.

    Do-joon was a man of few expressions. It’s not that he lacked emotions or was cold-hearted, nothing that grandiose. He smiled when it was time to smile and frowned when it was time to frown.

    But his default impression was stoic.

    However, what was that smile just now?

    ‘Come to think of it, that child is…’

    Looking closely, it was a familiar face. Wasn’t that the child the woman working here was hugging in the video?

    There was no way he had seen wrong. A child that cute was rare.

    ‘Ah.’

    Watching Do-joon soothe the fussy child, Son Chang-il realized.

    The identity of the inexplicable inspiration he had felt from Do-joon’s expression in the video.

    So that’s why he refused this job too.

    “I appreciate the offer, but the first expedition would be very dangerous, right?”

    “It would be. Honestly, how many of the expedition team will be able to return safely is… unknown.”

    Do-joon brushed the hair away from the face of the child dozing in his arms. Gently, so that the tangled strands would come loose.

    A faint smile hung on his lips.

    “My life is meant to be spent somewhere. I’m not sure yet if the Stem that has appeared now is that place.”

    “…”

    “So I don’t think I can accept that offer.”

    Son Chang-il nodded. There could be no clearer refusal than this. He didn’t even think of trying to persuade Do-joon.

    “I understand. We’ll set your promotion test to be a normal A-rank dungeon as originally planned.”

    Do-joon gave a wry smile at the scale where an A-rank dungeon was called normal.

    Indeed, compared to the unknown dangers of the Stem, it could certainly be considered normal.

    “Will that be alright?”

    “Of course. Who am I? The big shot of the association. Hahaha.”

    Big shot, what an outdated term…

    Do-joon chuckled.

    After that, only casual conversation was exchanged. According to what he heard, Son Chang-il had separated from his wife early on and now lived alone without children.

    In the end, he left after two more cups of tea had been emptied.

    *

    The next day.

    “I’ll be back!”

    For a change, Do-joon took So-eun all the way to kindergarten. Usually he would put her on the bus, but having a day like this once in a while wouldn’t hurt.

    Waving her hand, So-eun ran to Kwon Soo-young.

    After receiving the child, Kwon Soo-young bowed her head towards Do-joon.

    Do-joon returned the greeting and left.

    Then he spent some time aimlessly touring the academy grounds. There was no particular purpose, it was just to take a breather.

    ‘Hey, you’re here?’

    ‘Hehe. How will you do the practical exam today looking like that?’

    ‘Ah, I don’t know. I’ll have to skip it.’

    In the midst of that, he saw students going to school far away. Judging by their uniforms, they seemed to be high school students.

    ‘They said high school and above receive combat training too.’

    Up to middle school, regular education is conducted, but from high school, specialized education is provided for children who aim to become hunters in the future.

    Academy teachers were also a common workplace for retired hunters. Take Kwon Soo-young for example, didn’t she retire early and come here?

    ‘It’s been almost 20 years.’

    Do-joon chuckled at the nostalgia he suddenly felt. When he was a middle and high school student was already a story from over 20 years ago.

    Still, the memories that came to mind remained unchanged.

    Enjoying a pleasant walk like that…

    ‘I’m telling you, that girl was an elf!’

    ‘Yeah, yeah. You said it was a girl in cosplay?’

    ‘Not cosplay, for real! Even if I’m a student, I’m also Awakened, you think I’d get beaten up this badly by a regular person in cosplay?’

    ‘Must have been a hunter in cosplay then.’

    Do-joon’s expression stiffened at the conversation he suddenly overheard.

    Although the distance was quite far, it couldn’t escape the ears of Do-joon, whose sensory stats were nearly level 50.

    The next moment, Do-joon’s figure vanished and appeared behind the students who were talking.

    “You guys.”

    “Whoa, geez! You startled me!”

    As Do-joon tapped their shoulders, the two students jumped and turned around.

    “W-Who are you?”

    A hint of tension flowed in the eyes of the two looking at Do-joon.

    They were lacking, but trained every day. Yet they hadn’t sensed any presence at all until Do-joon touched their shoulders.

    ‘If it had been an enemy or monster…’

    It would have been over that very moment.

    Of course, Do-joon had no hostility towards the students he was meeting for the first time.

    “That thing you were talking about just now, can you tell me more about it?”

    “Talking? About what?”

    “The elf.”

    If some random passing middle-aged man suddenly asked this, they’d wonder what nonsense it was, but the two were in a state of heightened tension from what just happened.

    Thanks to that, they answered Do-joon’s question quite sincerely.

    “Well… As you can see, this guy is injured and in a cast right now. According to him, that’s from being hit by an elf.”

    “It really was an elf! Her ears were this long, and her skin was brown, and uh, her face was damn pretty. But with that face, she beat me and my friends up like dogs.”

    One could dismiss it as nonsense, but Do-joon listened to their story quite seriously.

    In summary, they got beaten up by some woman on the street, and when they took a closer look, she seemed to be the terrorist in elf costume that’s been causing a stir lately, something like that.

    ‘Long ears and brown skin… The skin, sure, but if the ears are long, it matches.’

    However, Do-joon was a little doubtful after hearing the story.

    Do-joon knew a bit more information than what was released to the mass media.

    Especially their purpose. The hostility towards humanity that had harmed the World Tree was something he knew from experiencing it firsthand.

    ‘But she just knocked them out and left?’

    The injured student’s wounds seemed like they would take some time to heal, but there was no harm to his life at all. The wounds weren’t even enough to cause permanent disability, let alone threaten his life.

    That was quite different from the image of the elves Do-joon had experienced and heard about from Son Chang-il.

    “Uh… Then can we go now? We’ll be late if we take any longer.”

    “Ah, sure. Sorry for stopping you.”

    The students glanced around and then left.

    Soon, Do-joon sat down on a nearby bench.

    ‘Was it really a hunter in cosplay? Or a difference in individual personality?’

    Do-joon furrowed his brows in thought. If it was the former, it would just be an irrelevant happening, but if it was the latter, it was a big deal.

    Because…

    ‘It would mean there’s still one more elf hiding somewhere.’

    With a stiff expression, Do-joon took out his cell phone.

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