༺ Cultist Nymph and Pluto’s Underground Labyrinth (3) ༻
“Hassan of Samaria. Young warrior, you will be in charge of this labyrinth expedition!”
Hippolyte’s piercing gaze suddenly bore on my face as though she could see right through me. Caught off guard due to being called out by her, I couldn’t help but be taken aback by this situation.
As I tried to stand up from my chair, the surroundings began to buzz around loudly.
“Even just by looking once, I can tell that he is a barbarian.”
“I heard he received a weapon and a name from the Young Lady herself.”
“This is my first time seeing him in person. Wow, he looks exactly as I imagined him to be.”
I felt my face getting hotter and hotter with their words as I didn’t have much tolerance for being the center of attention like this. They had told me to just relax and enjoy being a spectator for the conversion ceremony. I never imagined that there would be another event like this afterwards.
I don’t particularly enjoy these kinds of surprise party scenarios.
However, I knew for a fact that I couldn’t show any hint of nervousness or any awkward behavior in front of the guys I might end up competing against for the gold-tier necklace in the future.
So I stood tall with over-exaggerated confidence and composure in my gait and then faced Hippolyte, which caused cheers to erupt from the crowd surrounding us.
“His head is even bigger than the Amazonian queen. The Samaritans truly are born warriors. Even their skeletons feel different from the people from other continents.”
“Hey, what’s good about being tall? He will just be a target for arrows.”
“Yeah, especially so when standing next to a fucking dwarf. Dwarves are tiny as hell, ain’t they?”
“What the fuck did you say?”
“Quiet, quiet down.”
Hippolyte silenced the growing chaos that was stirring in the crowd.
She looked up at me who was about a head taller than herself.
Unlike when she showed a more human side to Luna and me, her current serious expression, without a trace of humor, made me feel very tense.
Was this what it looked like to strictly separate work and personal life?
“Young warrior Hassan, if this task goes well, you will be able to safely advance to the silver tier.”
Advancing to the silver tier? I heard that to become a silver-tier adventurer, you at least needed an overall average of 30 stat points.
My level had been rapidly increasing lately, but I still had a ways to go before reaching level 30.
“Miss Hippolyte, is that—” Is that true? That was what I wanted to ask her but…
“Hippolyte! That’s outrageous!”
Someone stood up from their seat and shouted angrily and everyone’s attention was thus focused on the origin of the voice filled with anger and wrath.
At the end of the countless pairs of eyes, a man wielding a long sword came into view.
He had ash-colored hair and a scruffy beard, but his face looked quite young and didn’t suit the color of his hair. He was probably in his mid-thirties.
He looked like a seasoned veteran as his body was adorned with lightweight leather gear, belt, breastplate, and gauntlets. Even the bronze necklace around his neck looked worn out from long use.
Anyway, the thing to note was… he looked like an extremely experienced adventurer.
Hippolyte, who was looking at him, opened her narrowed eyes and spoke.
“You’re Barnes, the Fixer, right? Just like the rumors say, you’re quite the rude man, aren’t you?”
“Should I be honored that the great priestess of Mars knows of my name? But I have something to say to you. That’s the only way I, can live up to my name as the Rude Man Barnes.”
The bronze-tier adventurer, and spectator of the conversion ceremony, known as Barnes glanced around the room.
“Everyone gathered here has shed blood, sweat, and tears for months or even years just to be able to reach the qualification to wear the silver necklace of the adventurer guild. There are also those who have given up along the way and permanently quit the life of adventuring. But now, you plan to promote a rookie who has barely been in the guild for a month at most to the silver tier?”
People briefly looked at each other’s faces in response to the man’s words. As he had spoken, the adventurers gathered in this place were no less veterans than the person named Barnes. However, most of them were still in the bronze tier.
In fact, most adventurers retired due to feeling skeptical of their chances of advancing to a higher tier or just flat-out died after suffering major injuries in the process of completing bronze-tier missions. So, unless someone was really blessed with an environment that allowed them to rise higher, bronze rank was the limit for most adventurers.
“Therefore, I, Barnes, protest this appointment of the barbaric Samaritan. I also don’t approve of the fact that I wasn’t included in this expedition in the first place.”
With that, Barnes ended his words. Somehow, I felt extremely embarrassed, as if I had become a guest at a wedding without receiving an invitation. Fucking shit! This was absolutely embarrassing as all hell.
As I was lost in those cumbersome thoughts, Hippolyte suddenly spoke up again.
“Barnes Rodelheim. The length of one’s service does not determine the prowess of a warrior. Because you haven’t realized this simple truth yet, your level hasn’t gone up any further. That’s also why you’ve been stuck in the bronze rank for more than five years.”
“That’s really harsh. Even you, Your Holiness, have been stuck in the silver tier for several years, haven’t you? I have heard that you are under some kind of curse which has ultimately stagnated your growth.”
As Barnes finished speaking, the people around him began to murmur out loud in voices of surprise and astonishment.
“Lady Hippolyte is cursed?”
“There must be a reason she hasn’t been promoted to the gold tier yet, right?”
When the rumor about her curse was being tossed around among the gathered crowd, Hippolyte surprisingly didn’t say a word. She simply had an expression on her face that seemed to say, “Here we go again.” and calmly watched over the commotion like she was completely unrelated to whatever was being discussed among the crowd.
Perhaps thinking of Hippolyte’s stance of remaining silent as a positive sign, Barnes proceeded to add a few more words to his earlier speech.
“You might be wondering how I know about this piece of information but when you have been around this profession for as long as I have, even if you don’t know about the actual achievements of the warriors, myriads of rumors surrounding them will eventually reach your ears.”
“As expected, your information-gathering skills are quite impressive. That’s why you are called the Fixer, right?”
“Isn’t it shameful to advise others when you can’t even protect your own body? Don’t you feel ashamed to be called Mars’ daughter? No, how can a girl who used to wander the alleyways even become Mars’ daughter in the first place?”
Hippolyte, who had been acting nonchalant until just now, suddenly furrowed her brows. Her expression even made me feel nervous for some reason.
If we were to let this punk called Barnes keep rambling on like this, wouldn’t his head explode in the end? I didn’t want to see a corpse with a blown-up head right now. Just what kind of balls did he grow to even think about challenging this crazy woman’s temper? It was making me feel extremely uneasy.
But then, I realized that most people in this world were morons and dumbasses. They didn’t even realize when they were actively sticking their hands into a tiger’s mouth and went headfirst into danger.
However, Hippolyte didn’t get angry or upset and instead regained her composure after a few breaths of time.
“All right, Barnes. You’ve been beating around the bush for some time already, but ultimately, you are trying to say that you oppose my decision as the new high priestess, right?”
“Then, we can only communicate through the language of warriors in this scenario, it seems.”
“Fine, that seems fair to me.”
Barnes’ face lit up at Hippolyte’s words.
“Now we’re on the same page. Hippolyte, the priestess of Mars! I, Barnes, hereby challenge that sonuvabitch barbarian to a duel!!”
At that moment, loud cheers erupted on cue, as if they had been waiting for this exact moment for a long time. It seemed like they were in a festive mood at that news, but all of this only made me feel more and more uneasy.
“Wow, is this fucking for real!? That Barnes guy! That motherfucking punk sure knows when to pull something daring!”
“What a crazy guy, challenging a Samaritan! Isn’t he just courting death? Does that guy actually have two lives or something?”
“Barnes’ overall karma points are around 20. I heard that the Samaritan’s total points are only around 7.”
“You fucking moron! Do you think that Samaritans even care about those kinds of numbers? It’s said that as young babies the Samaritans can grab a venomous snake with their bare hands and crush them to death.”
“Anyway, someone will end up as a corpse. That’s for sure.”
Amidst the noisy laughter and shouts of everyone present, Barnes’s ash-colored pupils stared straight at me which was completely different from his previous clownish behavior. It was a sharp gaze that was akin to that of a wild animal’s eyeing its prey.
“I’ll let you choose the duel method, you barbarian sonuvabitch. Whether it’s bare-handed or armed combat, I won’t back down!!”
Barnes loudly shouted with pure confidence in his tone. Hearing his words, Hippolyte, who was standing in front of me, just snickered under her breath.
“It’s a trick to draw attention to oneself and increase their fame. He doesn’t realize that he won’t be able to improve his status by resorting to such tactics. However…”
Hippolyte paused and closed her eyes. After taking a few deep breaths, she opened her eyes wide and flashed a feral grin of malice.
“But it’s really interesting. I like it!”
I didn’t even say anything and just stood still on the spot, but somehow the duel had been confirmed on its own and I had no choice but to participate. What kind of indiscriminate PK behavior is this?
Fuck those uncivilized and barbaric lunatics. Who’s the real barbarian here? It felt so fucking unfair!
All of a sudden someone grabbed the collar of my clothes from the back and spoke with a worried tone. When I turned my head, I found out that it was none other than Luna, looking up at me with an anxious expression on her face.
Luna seemed to be feeling restless about my upcoming duel with the veteran adventurer.
“D-Don’t kill him, Hassan…”
Huh?! It turned out that she was actually worried about my opponent instead of me. Did she not even think for once that I would lose?
The situation seemed so unreal and ridiculous that I couldn’t help but laugh out loud like I had lost my mind.
An inexplicable maniacal laughter rose from within my chest.
“L-Look at him, laughing even though he is about to duel with a veteran adventurer!”
“Damn, I’m too scared to even watch this shit. Just tell me the end result!”
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
“I’ve specially made an octagonal arena for this duel. Let’s see what party leader bro is capable of.”
The one speaking those words was a dwarf with a giant double-edged axe in his hand. Was his name Didier or something like that? He had brought some wood and ropes from somewhere and made an octagonal arena for the duel.
After pounding in some stakes and stringing the ropes, a makeshift octagon-shaped stage was completed in a short time.
The people surrounding us scanned our faces with a mixture of interest and tension as the man named Barnes and I entered the arena.
“Barnes! Show the prowess of us continentals! Don’t lose to that barbarian from the wilderness!”
The cheering and encouragement coming from all sides, along with the excited faces of the crowd, made the heart beneath my chest throb in an odd rhythm.
The fear of battle, the tension and anxiety, and the sense of the impending bout of life and death created a tingling sensation to course all throughout my hands and feet.
I used to feel these sensations every day until the arena, where I lived as a gladiator slave, burned down due to an incident about two years ago.
I could even feel the raging fighting spirit of my opponent, who wanted to defeat me in this duel.
“A bare-handed fight? That’s great! This will give me a chance to show off my skills as the Chaldea’s wildcat.”
Barnes stood in the distance, in front of me, and launched both of his hands toward the air. The sound of his fists slicing through the wind was loud and deafening. Was he trying to warm his body up like that?
However, I just crouched down and sat on the arena floor and rubbed some dirt and sand over my hands. It would be foolish to waste any energy before the start of the fight.
While we were preparing for the fight in our own ways—
Hippolyte, who had now worn something like a red robe over her armor, appeared in the middle of Barnes and me.
“I, Hippolyte, stand here as the representative of Lord Mars, the god of battles and war. Both of you… swear to show a battle befitting the name of Lord Mars.”
“I, Barnes, son of Philemon, swear to fight without shame.”
Barnes, son of Philemon? Is this a ritual where you have to swear by your father’s name? I had been through quite a few fights to this date, but this was my first time encountering something like this.
Is this like a “Duel to the Death” bet where you stake your parents’ names? It felt uncomfortable to have to do that here. Even though I was a reckless child, something like this was a bit too much.
“I, Hassan of Samaria, also swear to do the same.”
“Okay, the duel starts now!”
After saying those words, Hippolyte swiftly left the arena. Now, only Barnes, this motherfucking punk, and I were the only ones left inside this narrow octagonal ring.
How was I supposed to beat this tough-looking guy? Should I try to trip and make him fall by walking on his feet? Or should I try to use my measly grappling skills to aim for a fight to the ground?
While I was pondering these things for a while—
Barnes, standing tall like a boxer with both of his fists raised, spoke softly from behind those rock-like fists of his.
“Hmph, it seems that the rumors are true that you are indeed a descendant of Jupiter since you can’t even stake your parents’ names.”
“What did you just say?”
“I said you’re a parentless bastard. Your biological parents must have died or have already been enslaved somewhere. After all, the specialty of the Black Lands is the high-quality slaves that we can acquire from those lands.”
“What the fuck did you just say?”
Who was he to even dare insult my parents? I got really, really angry at his words. While I could tolerate insults toward myself, I couldn’t stand disrespect directed toward my family.
As a result, I erased all the tactics I had been thinking of in my head and charged toward him like a raging bull who had seen red.
“Hmph, easily falling for such a cheap provocation! As the rumors say, you are no different from a wild beast!”
Barnes quickly swung his fist at me. His sharp and strong punches hit my chest and abdomen, causing me to lose my breath for a few moments.
“What the fuck? What did you say about my parents, you fucker!?”
That pain did nothing to quell my anger, however.
I grabbed him around his waist and promptly slammed him onto the arena floor.
“A dirty fight? I’m in! Come at me, you bastard! I’ve been doing street fights since I was a toddler!”
As he struggled to resist with his arms and legs, I pinned him down with my weight and swung my fist down and hit him square in his face.
My fists connected perfectly with Barnes’ chin, causing him to deflate like a balloon and lose all strength in his body. With that hit that landed square on his jaws, I believed that it was enough to make his brain go on a roller coaster ride inside of his skull.
But, I still couldn’t calm down my seething anger, so I mercilessly continued to pummel his face with my fists.
Crack— Thump— Smack— Smack—!
“Urgh, crunch, aaah, thwack, aaargh….”
Even my fist felt like it was about to crack and was going numb while hitting the guy’s tough face, but I couldn’t stop myself from throwing punches at him due to the wrath that was bubbling inside me.
Eventually, just when the guy, spitting blood from his nose and mouth, collapsed without even having the strength left to twitch, I stopped the wanton violence that I had been pouring over his face till now. At that moment, a text containing a string of letters appeared before my eyes—
In what kind of nonsensical world did hitting someone in the face resulted in curing their attention-seeking disorder?
Anyway, I couldn’t remember how many times I had hit him already.
Barnes, lying beneath me, wasn’t moving at all.
Did he die, by any chance?
I never intended to kill him, no matter how angry I was.
So I was about to check his pulse and breathing when I suddenly heard a commotion coming from the crowd—
“H-He’s trying to peel off the skin on his face!”
“Damn, it looks like the rumors are really true!”
“No matter what, this is just too cruel! S-Someone, please stop him!”
As the audience began to murmur some strange form of nonsense, I became so startled that I immediately withdrew my hand from his face.
Just then, Barnes, who was lying underneath me, vomited out some blood and groaned, confirming that he was still alive.
“P-Please, spare me…”
“No can do, motherfucker!”
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