Huk, huk, huk…!
I felt like I was about to die. The iron hoop and arrows weren’t the end of it. I had to pass through lava erupting from the ground at fixed intervals, gigantic icicles falling from above at random times, a path of fire that burned unendingly, and a marshland full of flesh-eating bats. My hair was completely burnt away and not a spot on my body remained untouched because of this, and the 150 gnolls that had followed me were now reduced to 30 or so.
‘It wasn’t deemed impossible for nothing.’
There was no end to it. I now understood why it was determined as ‘impossible’.
‘How the hell did the previous guy pass this?’
Dying a hundred deaths to these traps wouldn’t be strange, unless you happened to have fully invested in the luck stat to the limit; even I had almost died at least five times.
But now I was almost at the end of it. As I followed the path, continuing to head underground, a wide lake came into sight. The lake was beautiful and its waters were clear, as far as the eye could see, and on the other side of the lake there was the corpse of a dragon.
‘Is that the Ancient One?’
I turned my gaze upwards as I scratched at my half-burned head. The size of it seemed to reach about 100m; big enough to be considered a ‘behemoth’. When you consider that most dragons can’t even surpass 50m, that corpse was truly tremendous. It appeared to have been left alone as it was for thousands of years. Nothing but bones was left of it, appearing a little desolate even.
But wait, there was still an orgain remaining.
I did a double-take in disbelief, yet my eyes weren’t deceiving me. The heart alone remained and was beating intensely.
I took half a step into the lake but then, at the same time-
The entire cave shook and the waters of the lake splashed everywhere. Finally, the lake water whirled around in a circle and gathered into a spot to form a figure.
[Altar Guardian ‘Al Araxar’ has appeared.]
It was a knight of water. A man who wore an undulating armor of water stood floating above the lake and stared down at me. There was a towering presence to him. A presence of this level was something I had almost never felt before. The only time I experienced something similar was when I first encountered the Demon Lord and Queen of Terror.
I used Mind’s Eye out of a desire to know the specifics of this knight that had appeared.
Name: Al Araxar (Value – 500,000)
Race: Dragon Soldier
Occupation: Altar Guardian
🌑 Ancient One’s Guardian(Lv9)
🌑 One Who Wields Water(Lv8)
Str 90 Agi 90 Con 90
Int 90 Mag 90
Special Note: He is a knight that the Ancient One poured its heart and soul into creating.
That was all I could see of him. I tried examining him further, however, it seemed that I couldn’t find out everything about the knight even with the power of Mind’s Eye, but it was enough to have seen that much. It was clear, at the very least, that in this situation he was ‘an existence that mustn’t be provoked’. The moment I did, it would be the end. I would be sent on my way to the other world before I could even take a breath.
‘Definitely not something that should be in a beginner dungeon.’
The entry to this altar could only be passed by those with stats totalling 150 or below. The trial would only be set within the limits of that stat restriction. It wasn’t as if there wasn’t a chance of success even though the difficulty was declared as impossible. But on the contrary, the knight before my eyes was literally ‘impossible’.
I swallowed with a gulp.
It was like I had been climbing a mountain, only to find out midway that I was really on an express highway straight to heaven.
“It’s been so long since a guest has come.”
“I’ve come to receive the Ancient One’s power.”
It was my declaration of war; it was best to be clear with your objective. But the words that left the knight’s mouth took me by surprise.
“Fine. I shall grant you that power if you return the way you came.”
I frowned instinctively. It was all too easily granted. You would give me the Ancient One’s power as long as I went back like this?
The knight then spoke as if having read my mind.
“You have proven your right just by reaching this point. You are sufficiently worthy to share in the power of the Ancient One.”
I felt myself deflating all of a sudden.
However, the latter part of his speech bothered me strangely.
‘The right to share, is it.’
Not to have, but to share. Simply put, it meant that he wouldn’t hand over the Ancient One’s power.
I hadn’t come all this way just so I could receive someone’s ‘borrowed power’.
I came to take it. I was here to fight for it.
As such, I held nothing back as I spoke,
“What I want is the Ancient One’s power in its entirety. I didn’t come here to receive a share of power.”
“Such excessive greed. You must defeat me if you so desire it.”
Al Araxar held out his right hand.
Water stretched out like a whip to strike my cheek and thrashed me to the ground on the spot, forming a deep crater where I fell. This was all it took to make the difference in our abilities clear. There was real need to take it any further.
“Al Araxar! Knight of water. I shall accept your trial.”
“You mean to duel me?”
“If I must!”
I took a bold stand, looking him straight in the eyes, and at that moment I felt a chill spreading all over me. My body shivered uncontrollably and sweat poured out from everywhere.
I could literally feel his intent to kill. The gap between Al Araxar and me was like heaven and earth. The knight before my eyes could kill me a mere glance.
‘And yet he hasn’t killed me. This is a test.’
A restriction was placed upon entering this place. Even a novice could definitely achieve something here. A monster like this shouldn’t have been here in the first place, but if this was another ‘trial’, then I could understand. Al Araxar’s attitude helped to further add to my belief; his actions were as if on purpose to provoke me. He was humorously observerving me to see how long I could stand the killing intent he exuded.
This was a test. A desire to see how far I could go was in his eyes. The previous challenger must have given up at this point, however, I was different.
I clenched my jaw so hard that my teeth bled, feeling like it would break. I roused every single cell in my body, exerting myself to the point I started seeing red and I felt my head emitting steam. Time continued to trickle, every moment feeling like an eternity. Finally, Al Araxar exclaimed in admiration,
“How unexpected that you could withstand my aura. You are no ordinary man.”
“I desire the Ancient One’s power. I have no intention of going back until I obtain it.”
“Is that so?”
Al Araxar laughed with ridicule and stepped across the surface of the water to stand before me.
“There is a saying that water is a mirror which reflects the beholder. Likewise, I am capable of morphing into any other.”
Al Araxar’s form began to change the moment he finished speaking.
“My present self is identical to you. I cannot exhibit strength that exceeds your own. If you can defeat me in this form, I shall relinquish to you the entirety of the Ancient One’s power. But if you lose, your life will be forfeit.”
Al Araxar transformed into me. Going so far as to replicate my half-burned hair slightly irked me, but his appearance now was like a mirror placed before me. He looked so much like me, even down to the very last hair, that it was almost repulsive.
At any rate, was he truly the same as me?
The extent of how ‘identical’ he was remained to be seen.
I warmed up my body. The likeness between him and I should end at my stats and appearance. Common sense dictates that he shouldn’t be able to take on my experience and memories as well. If that was the case, I had a chance at victory. This may even be easier than the obstacles I had overcome to reach this point.
“Al Araxar! This duel, I gladly accept.”
“Lamentable human. Is there perhaps a weapon you desire?”
I could tell that Al Araxar was certain of his own victory by his nonchalant display of giving a weapon to his opponent. Nodding my head, I said,
“A sword. All I need is a sword with a proper blade.”
I was once a magic swordsman. It was a given that my swordsmanship was close to the peak, befitting my identity. I had actually preferred the sword over magic, because rather than killing with magic, that feeling of cutting down my foes fit right with me. The type of sword didn’t matter in particular. I could somewhat handle any sword using a similar style.
Al Araxar barely finished uttering his words when a long sword flew out from the lake. I directly snatched the oncoming sword midair and leveled it at Al Araxar. Al Araxar, however, appeared as relaxed as ever.
“You shall regret having chosen the sword to face me. For I am an existence the Ancient One had created with the knowledge of every sword technique there is.”
“Will you be able to keep that attitude while you die I wonder. Foolish-”
I made the first move, unable to stand listening any further. The distaste I felt at the sight of someone who looked exactly as I did was much more intense than I could have imagined.
Al Araxar’s expression further hardened as he blocked my sword, and finished speaking with slight anger in his voice,
(Al Araxar perspective)
What an insolent human. I had felt some curiosity regarding the first guest in thousands of years, but that was all. I no longer wished to speak with such a disrespectful human. Since he had chosen a sword, the human would not be able to best me no matter how much he struggled.
The Ancient One had had interest in all things in the world, especially in something as systematically organized as swordsmanship. The Ancient One had gathered and compiled all the sword techniques in the world into his creation: I, Al Araxar.
However, I felt a strangeness the more I exchanged blows with the human.
‘He has quite the attainments in the sword I see.’
The human’s talent in the sword was something even I had to acknowledge. But even so, a human could only live for a mere hundred years. No matter how much he trained, he would meet a limit. I had existed for thousands of years. He had no way of defeating me.
Cheng! Cheng! Chaaang!
The sounds of clashing swords resounded throughout the cave.
I was surprised to find that I was being pushed back step by step. The human’s swordsmanship was extremely aggressive. He abandoned everything else and focused only on attacking.
‘Was a human’s swordsmanship supposed to be this exquisite?’
Even his style slightly surprised me. My swordsmanship was something taken from all kinds of races; but this sort of purely attack oriented swordsmanship did not exist in my knowledge. He moved as if attacking was the best defence, denying me the time to even display my prided swordsmanship.
He, a human, was literally trampling over me, the incarnation of swordsmanship!
‘This cannot be happening.’
I changed my stance from defense to offense. It was clear I could not win by defending alone. I abandoned my defense to match the human, paying no mind to the small wounds I received.
As for exquisite, systematic sword techniques?
The very notion of it was nowhere to be found, as I swung my sword for nothing but the sake of victory.
And after a series of nearly two hundred exchanges, one sword left the hand of its owner, flying into the air.
(Hansung Oh perspective)
I deeply smiled.
The sword that was blown away belonged to Al Araxar.
Right away I placed my sword at his neck.
Al Araxar seemed to be in confusion. His expressionless face remained the same, but I could tell that he was practically bursting with questions.
“Just what happened then. How could a mere human’s swordsmanship-”
“Swordsmanship happens to be something I’m rather confident at.”
Al Araxar then spoke as if having grasped onto a bit of hope,
“Is that right. So I take it that you are the most skilled at using the sword even among all humans.”
Assuming that two clashing sides possess the same abilities, pure skill would be the determining factor in victory. It appeared that he would be able to accept his loss if I happened to possess attainments in the sword that surpassed the extreme.
But regretfully, there were quite a few who could handle the sword much better than me.
“I’m quite good at it yes. I’m about the seventh best I’d say?”
Technically, if only looking at swordsmanship, I was about seventh best at using the sword.
Al Araxar’s expression wavered for the first time.
“What is the meaning of that?”
“It means that there are geniuses, far more talented in the sword than me, Al Araxar.”
I considered myself to be a dull-witted, which was why I put my life on the line to learn swordsmanship, but I couldn’t best those who put in the effort as well as having the talent. I couldn’t join the ranks of those individuals who possessed titles such as sword god, sword sage, and sword demon. But excluding them, it was fact that there was no one who could best me with the sword.
“The seventh best…”
Al Araxar closed his eyes. He appeared to be deep in thought. The blow to his pride must not have been light.
Soon after, Al Araxar reverted to his original form. He then held out his hand, and the heart that was in between the Ancient One’s bones slowly came flying towards me.
“This is the Ancient One’s heart. It has lost much of its power after so long, yet it still remains supreme.”
“How do I gain its power?”
Al Araxar’s reply was succinct.
I couldn’t help going blank at the brevity of his reply.
The heart was beating violently. I felt dizzy just looking at it. The violent beating of the heart felt as if it was roaring at the world.
“Do so, and the Ancient One’s power shall belong to you.”
A belated way of explaining indeed.
I received the Ancient One’s heart.
It did happen to be the most certain method, albeit primitive. This didn’t sicken me at all, because I had eaten far worse things before. Only, the heart’s heaviness wasn’t something to laugh at.
I deeply took a breath, and opened my mouth.
Then and there, I began munching away at the Ancient One’s heart.