Solo Leveling (I Alone Level-Up) - Chapter 121
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The Ant King began noticing imperfections in the body he was so proud of.
His exoskeleton was harder than any metal known to man, and yet he sensed microscopic cracks were developing all over his chitinous armor. In contrast the enemy appeared to be withstanding the full brunt of his attack without consequence.
An unfamiliar thought crept into the ant king’s mind. It wormed its way insidiously through every crack and crevice, reverberating endlessly until it threatened to drown out everything else.
‘I…I’m losing. In a match of raw power? To a mere human half my size?’
In that moment…
It was a sound the Ant King had never heard before, but he instantly knew it was not a good one. He felt a sharp, stinging sensation on his side where his opponent had landed a heavy blow. The Ant King stole a moment to glance downwards at the affected area of his exoskeleton.
It was bleeding.
The Ant King reeled, not just from the pain, but also from what he was seeing. His exoskeleton had been cracked. The wound, which was still only a small fissure, threatened to grow as web-like lines radiated from it in every direction.
It was a warning that there wasn’t much time left.
The Ant King tried to rein in his panicked thoughts and quickly turned his head to face the immediate threat. But for the briefest moment the ant king had been distracted, and Jinwoo was not so inept as to miss such an opening.
The Ant King’s face was rocked sideways.
He was stunned by the thunderous shock that had penetrated the exoskeleton covering his face like sunlight through a body of water. The force of the strike echoed through his body, traveling from his head down to his feet, ringing him like a bell. He stumbled backwards, barely able to remain on his feet.
He found himself looking at the cave ceiling as an uppercut to the chin almost lifted him off the ground.
“How dare you, wretched human!”
The King, holding his head high, turned his gaze downward. His eyes smouldering with fury sat like glowing embers in his head. The human possessed enormous raw strength, this much he had to acknowledge. But through “Predation”, the Ant King had ama.s.sed an adaptable a.r.s.enal of weapons to use against such enemies who could only wield raw strength.
Case in point.
The Ant King c.o.c.ked his head back in line with his spine and unhinged his jaw to reveal a stinger resting in his mouth like a coiled snake. The poison-laced tip of the appendage launched forth at the human’s face with blinding speed. At point blank range, it was unavoidable.
The human tried to turn his head quickly to avoid the poisonous barb, but a sinister smile crept onto the Ant King’s face as he realized he had succeeded. The human’s cheek was marred by the slightest of scratches. But it was enough.
‘I got you!’
“Paralytic Poison” was an ability he previously absorbed from accidentally ingesting a cone snail – one of the most venomous creatures on earth. The Ant King had taken nature’s deadliest neurotoxin and enriched it with the concentrated mana flowing within his body. The product was something that sat on an entirely new plane of potency. It was by far the most devastating poison he’d acquired from “Predation”.
‘You’ll be experiencing some difficulty now, human.’
The slightest p.r.i.c.k would be enough to grind the entire nervous system to a screeching halt in seconds, rendering whatever hapless prey numb and immobile. All that remains then is to annihilate the opponent who was powerless to resist. The Ant King, filled with glee, took a moment to relish in his imminent victory.
A puzzled look came over the human’s face. By now, the poison would have taken hold of every nerve and muscle fiber in his body. The time had come to end the human’s pitiful existence.
‘Behold the might of the King!’
The king of ants, as if being carried by the vile grin now smeared across his jaws, stepped forward and struck at the human’s face.
The human’s hand met the blow and blocked it.
‘…?! How can he still move?’
Lulled into a false sense of security, the King had left himself wide open for counterattacks. A strike to his left by the human’s other hand, flung him aside with immense force. The battered King rolled to a stop in a crumpled heap several feet away.
For the first time ever, a scream of agony gushed from the King’s mouth.
A chime sounded in Jinwoo’s head. Jinwoo recognized the system message that had appeared with a familiar digital chirp.
‘The stinger was poisoned? So that’s why it was so happy all of a sudden. What a shame, it must’ve been quite the reliable gimmick, eh?’
He felt a tinge of pity for the Ant King. It was a strange sensation. Not the poison being detoxified by his pa.s.sive skill, but the sympathy he was feeling towards the creature. Since when had he started becoming aware of the thoughts and feelings of these monsters?
‘Was it from when I met Tusk?’
Back then, he thought that he understood the emotions of the high orcs just from interpreting their expressions but this seemed different. The Ant King had no expressions except the occasional twitching of his mandibles.
‘So… is this also the power of the ‘Sense’ stat?’
All of his stats had been upgraded far beyond what they were before. His ‘Sense’ stat was now several times what it was when his journey first began. Along the way, ‘Sense’ might have unlocked certain abilities he was previously unaware of.
‘This is not the time to be thinking about that. The priority right now is beating the c.r.a.p out of this ant and getting the h.e.l.l out of here.’
Jinwoo sprinted towards the Ant King, who was slowly getting back on his feet.
A sense of dread overcame the Ant King, whose exoskeleton had been brought to within a hair’s width from total ruin by the previous attacks.
‘Just a little more!’
Jinwoo closed the distance in an instant with a flying leap. Soaring through the air, he stretched his feet and formed his body into a sleek and rigid projectile.
But the Ant King was already gone. A giant crater now sat where Jinwoo’s kick landed. The displaced earth from the crater had been vaporized into a thick haze of dirt particles that hung in the air.
“Where is it?”
While the hunters looked around for the King, Jinwoo calmly raised his head. The Ant King was using his wings to silently hover overhead.
Jinwoo grinned. The ‘Sense’ stat’s ability to pick up on emotions made it much easier for Jinwoo to follow his opponents movements. The Ant King’s emotional state, which had previously been cycling back and forth between humiliation and dread, was now turning back into glee. Jinwoo narrowed his eyes.
‘What is it up to this time?’
As Jinwoo antic.i.p.ated, the Ant King was about to change his tactics once again. As he continued to hover out of the range of any immediate attacks, the King looked down in silence at his troublesome foe.
‘If that person’s skill is strength, there is no reason to attempt to slug it out.’
While the Ant King was indeed strong, it was speed that he prided as the deadliest weapon in his a.r.s.enal.
The human who had been bluffing, claiming he was the king of all humans, was unable to react to the Ant King’s attack and paid the price with his severed head. At the time, it was meant more as a display of overwhelming force to the other humans that were there. In plain terms, he had been showing off. Now, the king of ants decided to abandon his ego and consider nothing else except the killing of the human who dared to stand against him.
His enlarged body shrank back to its original form. At the same time, his chitinous claws began to extend, turning thin and knife-like.
‘The claws …’
Jinwoo observed the transformation taking place and realized that the Ant King’s attack pattern would be different from now on.
Jinwoo readied his daggers.
In contrast to the deafening clashes just moments before, a tense silence now filled the cavern. The moment seemed to stretch into eternity before it was shattered in an instant.
The Ant King dove towards Jinwoo with a speed incomparable to that which he possessed before.
‘So that’s how it’s gonna be, huh?’
Jinwoo focused his perception on the Ant King. The pa.s.sage of time slowed to a crawl and he saw his enemy’s every movement unfold with perfect clarity. After all, speed was the arena in which Jinwoo’s was most confident in. Using the tip of one of his daggers, Jinwoo deflected the claws of the rapidly descending Ant King in a single effortless motion.
Jinwoo focused his senses on the Ant King. Everything else faded away and time slowed to a crawl as he tapped into the full powers of his perception. Seen from his eyes, the King’s every movement unfolded with perfect clarity, his every intention laid bare.
A set of claws streaked downwards in the air, threatening to sever Jinwoo’s head from his neck in the blink of an eye.
With a single effortless motion, Jinwoo had brushed aside the Ant King’s claws with the tip of his dagger. It was a cruel coincidence for the King that Jinwoo also found speed to be his greatest strength.
The claws of the Ant King and the daggers of Jinwoo clashed once more.
*KANG* *KANGANGANG* *TING* *KANGANG* *TINGING* *TING* *KANGANGANG*
As the attacks escalated in tempo it was evident from the resulting sounds that both attackers were filled with fierce determination.
The king of ants was stupefied. In the midst of exchanging slashes, he found himself unable to keep the panic from settling in.
His opponent was catching up with his speed. Not only that, but as the duel continued, his movements were actually getting faster.
‘How…how did this happen?’
The King, who had already tasted disgrace when trying to match force with force, was gradually being pushed back step by step. Every time he retreated backwards, he was punished with a fresh wound on his cherished exoskeleton.
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Jinwoo’s eyes beamed with confidence.
‘I’ve got him.’
Jinwoo sensed the Ant King’s distress very clearly. The Ant King was rattled. He, who had toyed with the foremost hunter in the country as if dealing with a toddler, was now shaken in the face of Jinwoo’s speed. Through this fight, Jinwoo was beginning to realize just how far he’d come.
‘My suffering was not in vain.’
His heart overflowed with the thrill of imminent triumph.
‘Time to finish this.’
Jinwoo lunged forward two steps as soon as the Ant King took another step back, effortlessly closing the gap between them.
Jinwoo’s dagger plunged deep into the Ant King’s torso. It was a skill that dealt additional damage when striking an enemy’s vital area or weak point. By now, each distinct segment of the King’s exoskeleton was cracked or otherwise compromised. The entire body was on the brink of critical failure.
*Schk* *Schk* *Schk* *Schk* *Schk* *Schk* *Schk* *Schk* *Schk* *Schk* *Schk* *Schk*
A barrage of stabs rained down in rapid succession.
[The Ultimate Form of “Vital Stab”, “Mutilate”, can now be used.]
Having just gained the new skill, Jinwoo wasted no time in trying it out. With relentless ferocity, the daggers began reaming every structural weak point of the Ant King’s already devastated body. With pinpoint accuracy and blinding speed, the daggers found every vulnerable joint where the armored segments met and every fissure and crack that had been torn open over the course of this battle.
The Ant King shrieked.
As his fallen foe flailed in pain, Jinwoo swept his dagger downwards and severed one of the Ant King’s arms.
The long black arm fell to the floor with a soft thud.
The king of ants stumbled backwards. In that moment, he abandoned both his pride and his vengeance. He turned and fled into the air once more. Survival was now the only priority. Jinwoo, however, was not about to allow his adversary to escape. He drew strength into his legs and leapt into the air in pursuit.
Sensing something approaching from behind, the king of ants looked back over his shoulder.
‘The human…is flying after me?’
Jinwoo, who was propelling himself through the air with “Ruler’s Hand”, caught up to the King and swifty sliced one of his wings.
The King, now crippled, spiraled back towards the ground. But even as he came hurtling down, his mind raced to find an escape from this crisis.
‘I must…I must be one step ahead of the enemy.’
Power. Speed. Poison. None of them were effective against his opponent.
‘Is there nothing I can best him with?’
In his moment of desperation, the Ant King struggled to for answers. He found only one:
The enemy was but one human while he wielded a loyal army of thousands. Many of whom were still standing by in front of the Queen’s chambers, awaiting further orders.
The Ant King struck the cavern floor violently and tumbled to a stop. With stilted, frantic movements he pulled himself upright and pointed with the claws of his remaining arm at Jinwoo, who had touched down softly a few feet away.
Waves upon waves of jet-black ants began converging on their location from all sides, sprung into motion by the King’s bellowed command. It was as if darkness itself was threatening to engulf the field of battle.
‘What do you think, human?’
The King roared endlessly in an effort to restore his fallen pride and boost the morale of his soldier subjects. When he was finally finished, he continued to glare at the human in breathless defiance.
The enemy had waves of his own.
Jinwoo beckoned his army of shades from the stygian abyss that was already starting to congeal in vast pools on the cavern floor. The “Domain of the Monarch” that had been invoked previously was still in effect.
Once risen, the full brunt of the shadow army charged to meet the advancing enemy front without hesitation.
*KLNK KLNK KLNK KLNK KLNK KLNK KLNK KLNK*
A cacophony of armored footsteps reverberated against the cavern walls. It wasn’t long before the structured lines of the ant army began to fall apart. Jinwoo, who had been observing the battle for some time, finally summoned Tusk.
‘…come on out.’
Tusk emerged next to Jinwoo, a short distance away from the fervent battle taking place around them. The high orc scratched at an itch on the back of his head as he surveyed his surroundings with mild curiosity. Jinwoo grabbed the Marble of Avarice and handed it to Tusk. But before he let it go, he gave the orc mage a stern warning.
“Only the ants. If your flames singe so much as a hair on any of the hunters, don’t expect to be summoned again.”
The silent orc nodded in affirmation. Moments later Tusk, now towering over the battlefield in his “Song of Giants” form, spewed forth a terrible torrent of flames at the ants.
It was something he’d seen dozens of times by now, but Jinwoo couldn’t help but admire the sight as his face was illuminated by the blazing inferno several feet away.
‘That flame grows more intense every time I see it..is it because he’s been leveling up?’
It was a familiar sight for Jinwoo, but for the hunters around him, the spectacle engendered a decidedly different set of reactions. They were already awestruck watching the confrontation unfold between Jinwoo and the Ant King and they collectively groaned at the sudden appearance of the gargantuan high orc.
One of them eventually found his voice and stammered.
“I-is that a summon? You’re telling me that’s—”
A dumbfounded Lim Tae-gyu croaked as he pointed at Tusk. The other hunters could only gawk and stare, but they were all thinking the same thing.
‘That thing is someone’s summon?’
Yes, by all outward appearances, Jinwoo had it on a tight leash, but in terms of its capabilities that was no average summoner’s pet. In fact, wasn’t it closer to some kind of power-drunk demon?
Either way, the ants crisped up nicely in the roaring flames.
The Ant King found himself quivering.
‘This is the human’s soldier?’
Hundreds of his own warriors had been vaporized in less than a minute. That wasn’t just an expression of speech. Each soldier that was engulfed in the flames instantly dematerialized into a cloud of scattering ashes. For the first time, the king of ants faced true terror. It was unrelenting, overwhelming, oppressive power.
It dawned on him that this whole time, he had been feebly struggling against an immovable wall. There was nothing he had that could overcome his enemy. He had been utterly defeated.
‘But why…? I was born to slaughter the strong.’
That had been his only purpose. Endless cycles of growth and evolution had taken place for that purpose. Even humans had been absorbed by “Predation” for that purpose.
‘But I’m no match for him.’
The Ant King shuddered and turned away from his oppressor.
‘Far away, I must get far away from that human!’
Thoughts of concern for his kingdom and subjects faded into the din of the combat raging on behind him. The only goal was to survive. The king of ants hastily tried to mend his wings using a healing skill he had yet to perfect. It had never occurred to him that he would ever need such a skill.
‘Just a little bit more…’
In an instant, he was flattened against the cavern floor, ground into the earth by an overwhelming force. His eyes bulged with exertion as he tried in vain to budge even a little bit.
*KATHWAP* *KATHWAP* *KATHWAP*
Sticky, blue-green fluids spattered in all directions as the king of ants was repeatedly pulverized into the ground. Jinwoo, who was using “Ruler’s hand” like a flyswatter wielded by G.o.d himself, quickly closed the distance.
‘Can’t let you slip away.’
It was a powerful magic beast. He wanted to make him a shadow soldier no matter what. And the first step in doing that was to kill him. The king of ants, head half-buried in the ground, locked eyes with Jinwoo, and Jinwoo saw that the King was terrified.
With great effort, the Ant King lurched himself up on all fours and began to crawl away from Jinwoo. The unflinching bravado of the King had long since withered away. Now he was nothing but a bug.
Daggers in hand, Jin Woo casually walked up to the fleeing king of ants and used “Vital Stab”, no… “Mutilate”.
As dozens of simultaneous strikes showered the hapless insect’s backside, a system notification popped up.
*Ding* *Ding* *Ding*
[You have killed the enemy.]
[You have leveled up!]
[You have leveled up!]
Jinwoo clenched his fist in satisfaction. Two levels at once. That puts his current level at 99. Considering the number of ants remaining, reaching level 100 by the end of the day felt entirely possible.
But his joy and excitement was cut short.
“Sung Jinwoo Hunter-nim…”
He turned to see Baek Yoon-ho with a grim look on his face. Jinwoo ran over. The other hunters, who had been similarly caught up in the excitement, also turned and converged on Baek Yoon-ho’s location.
The words trickled from Baek Yoon-ho’s mouth in a weak whisper.
“Hunter Cha Hae-In…”
He proceeded to explained that there was little hope left for the injured S-rank hunter. That the situation was beyond dire. Jinwoo’s face darkened as he heard what Baek Yoon-ho had to say.
There was no time.
Even if he were to take them both on Kaisel and fly away, how long would it take before he could get to another healer for treatment?
‘There must be another way…’
In that moment, Jinwoo realized what had to be done to save Cha Hae-in. Jinwoo, who had been kneeling besides Hae-in to better a.s.sess her condition, looked up at the cameraman as he got back on his feet.
“Can you turn off the camera for a moment?”
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