Kim Jin-Woo had never thought about his real parents his entire life. He had never understood the concept of family, and his surrogate parents had filled that role when he first came to the surface. Thanks to them, he’d never had to think of his real parents.
In fact, he hadn’t thought it would matter at all. But it did. When he first heard about his real parents, his mind went blank.
“What happened to those pioneer explorers?” He subconsciously spat out that question without even realizing it, and quickly found himself waiting in shock.
Thankfully, Mr. Baek didn’t seem to notice the change in his expression and continued, “I’m not too sure myself. But what I know is that when the war ended, none of them were left on the surface. Presumably, they were all dragged down below by the Underworld creatures. Besides, from the Underworld’s perspective, I’m sure they wanted nothing more than to punish those people in any way possible.”
Did he think Kim Jin-Woo would have no affection at all toward his real parents after having been brought up in the Underworld like some wild animal? Mr. Baek continued to speak casually, as if none of these revelations would have any impact on Kim Jin-Woo. “Anyway, that’s how the war started and ended. As for what’s going on in the Deep Floors now, something similar happened in the past as well. I’ll have to dig deeper for more information before I can tell you.”
Kim Jin-Woo couldn’t remember a single thing Mr. Baek had rambled about after that. When he regained consciousness, he was on the road, and not long after, he somehow ended up at his home.
It had only been a day since he had returned to the surface, but Kim Jin-Woo was tired to the bone. His eyes shut as soon as his body hit the bed.
Kim Jin-Woo dreamed a dream.
In his dream, he was still a small young boy. And he was crouching, making his already tiny body even smaller.
A spider the size of a house appeared in front of him and looked down at him with a cold gaze. He feared that his body would be torn apart by its abominable fangs at any moment.
But the giant spider spoke gently instead. “You’re all free.” With that single phrase, the Peacock Spider disappeared into the darkness.
And Kim Jin-Woo, along with the rest of the surviving tunnel diggers, sat stunned in silence for a very long time. The life they had lived was too harsh for them to know what freedom was.
But as time passed, they finally learned the meaning of freedom. It meant having the ability to decide what to eat and what to do.
Filled with hunger, one by one, they left the labyrinth. Kim Jin-Woo was one of them.
“Jin-Woo, let’s go.”
A small white hand grabbed his own. He turned his head to see a young girl with a bright white smile that seemed out of place in the Underworld. At that innocent smile, he burst out laughing.
“Never let go.”
At the girl's request, he nodded. Then, he took a brave step toward the darkness.
Kim Jin-Woo woke up from his dream, only to stare dazedly at the ceiling. He knew he had dreamt of something, but wasn’t able to remember it at all. A faint image of a face was all he could recall, before that too vanished.
But somehow, he felt a strange sense of sadness and pity. Before he knew it, he was curled up as he hugged his aching heart.
He felt he was missing something. But try as he may, he couldn’t remember what it was. Eventually, he decided that it was better to be doing something productive than to latch onto a dream he couldn’t even remember. He dialed a number on his phone.
[Hello, who is this?]
As the rough voice came from the other end of the line, Kim Jin-Woo responded in a deep tone, “I’m Kim Jin-Woo; we met a couple of times before. Do you remember?”
[Ah, it’s you. My friend, your voice is so thick over the phone.]
Song Jong-Chul’s voice quickly changed to a friendlier tone upon recognizing Kim Jin-Woo’s voice, and Kim Jin-Woo got straight to the point. “There’s a couple of things I want to ask you.”
[I thought you’d never call, my friend. Luckily you still have some social awareness. Alright, ask away. I’ll hear you out first.]
“I need information on the current happenings on the Deep Floors.”
Despite having said he would hear Kim Jin-Woo out, Song Jong-Chul quickly fell silent at the request. Kim Jin-Woo added, “I’m not asking to get it for free. I’ll compensate you accordingly based on the information you provide me.”
[Hold on. The cost isn’t the question. What I want to know is why you need this information.]
“I have matters to settle there. I can’t tell you beyond that.”
Kim Jin-Woo had to figure out what was happening on the 11th Floor so that he could plan accordingly. Jumping in blindly into the events of the 11th Floor was a bad idea, no matter how hard he thought about it.
But for him to sit back and do nothing at all seemed like a huge potential waste of opportunity as well.
[Deep Floors… Deep Floors, huh? Which floors exactly do you need information on?]
Song Jong-Chul seemed to hesitate a while, but as expected, it appeared he did indeed have information on the Deep Floors.
Besides, despite the explorers’ plans to secure the Labyrinth having gone awry, the fact was that as the executive of the Explorer’s Association, he had great influence among the explorers.
He was undoubtedly more knowledgeable than Mr. Baek, who simply leeched off any passing stories he heard while remaining on the surface.
“11th Floor,” Kim Jin-Woo answered curtly. Song Jong-Chul made a suggestion in response.
[I’d rather not talk about this over the phone, so let’s meet up and talk about this.]
“But you have the information?”
[Why, you think I’d call down someone as busy as you for a simple cup of coffee? Let’s just meet up first. We should meet face to face to talk about such matters.]
“Alright, where shall we meet?”
[I’ll text you the address, so just head over to it.]
“I’ll repeat myself…”
[Dude! Have you lived your entire life having been lied to, or what?]
Kim Jin-Woo agreed after hearing the rather frivolous comment, and prepared to head out. He checked his phone as he got changed, and headed to the agreed location via cab.
The address Song Jong-Chul had given him was an old-fashioned underground pub located in a quiet suburban area.
“Welcome.” A man in a suit stood in front of the stairs and stopped him.
“I have an appointment with Song Jong-Chul,” Kim Jin-Woo said.
It seemed the man had been made aware of Kim Jin-Woo’s arrival beforehand, and soon he led the way, saying, “It’s the last room, down the stairs.”
Kim Jin-Woo nodded at the man and squeezed through the narrow hallway toward the room.
In contrast to the shabby exterior, the interior that spread out inside the building was quite lavishly decorated. It was still early in the evening, so there were no customers or staff in the hallway.
“You’re here!” Song Jong-Chul waved cheerfully at Kim Jin-Woo, as if meeting a long lost friend. “Come and have a seat; what are you doing standing around?”
As was usually the case with such establishments, the tables and sofas were more spacious than necessary. Kim Jin-Woo awkwardly chose one of the sofas nearest to him and sat down.
“How can we talk if you’re sitting so far away? Come over, man. I’m not gonna eat you.” Song Jong-Chul smiled as he pointed to a couple of glasses across from him. “But first, let’s have a drink…”
“The Deep Floors. I need information on the Deep Floors.” Sensing the situation might quickly escalate into a binge drinking session, Kim Jin-Woo quickly cut Song Jong-Chul off.
“You’re an impatient one.” Song Jong-Chul’s cavalier attitude quickly changed. “Giving you the information isn’t that difficult. But I need to know why.”
“I told you. I have a reason to head to the Deep Floors.”
“But why the Deep Floors? Down gems? Well, what other reason could it possibly be? Perhaps you need some top grade down gems?”
At Song Jong-Chul’s persistent questioning, Kim Jin-Woo silently took out a pouch of down gems and emptied it onto the table before saying, “I’ll ask the questions; you give me answers.”
But Song Jung-Chul looked down at the pile of down gems on the table, very much unimpressed. “Phew, if we go by the current market rate, those are worth a couple million. But what’s up? You trying to show off or something? Alright, I’ve seen them. Now what?”
“Payment for the information.” Kim Jin-Woo’s eyes twitched at the unexpected response.
“Huh. What a sociopath. Look here, I already told you that giving you the information isn’t that difficult. So why the hell are you treating me like some kind of part-timer at the tourist information center? You think I’m doing all this just to earn a bit of spare change?” Song Jong-Chul let out his disappointment and frustration at the fact that Kim Jin-Woo had totally disregarded his gesture of friendship.
But Kim Jin-Woo stared back at him, unable to comprehend why the latter was acting up. He was taken aback at Song Jong-Chul’s show of friendship despite the fact that they weren’t close at all.
“Perhaps…… Are you that kind of person? Someone who can’t live when they’re indebted to others? If that’s the case, then I’ll try to understand,” Song Jong-Chul said as he pushed away the down gems. “Mm. Yeah, you said you needed information on the Deep Floors, huh? Unfortunately, now isn’t the time to be entering the Deep Floors. Even if you have a reason to be there, you should save it for another day.”
“I have a rough idea of the situation.”
“And you still want to head in? You’re a crazy bastard. That’s beyond suicidal, man.”
Kim Jin-Woo wasn’t particularly upset at Song Jong-Chul’s reaction. No, in fact, it perfectly aligned with his own thoughts. The more upset Song Jong-Chul was, the more accurate the information would be as well.
“Since you’re so insistent, I’ll tell you then. The Deep Floors are a warzone. How do I know that? There’s a crazy explorer that headed to the 11th Floor recently in search of down gems, only to barely make it out alive. I’m pretty tight with that crazy dude.”
“To be exact, it’s the 11th Floor that’s at war, am I right?”
“You know your stuff. So what else do you want to hear?”
“What I’m aware of is that this isn’t the first time war has broken out there. I want to know more about that in detail.”
Kim Jin-Woo had gotten that information from Mr Baek in their previous encounter.
If similar things had kept happening throughout history, there had to be an underlying reason why. He didn’t expect humans to know the exact reason, but he knew he could piece together all the information and come to a conclusion himself. That was why he kept asking for information from Song Jong-Chul.
“But why me? Didn’t you avoid me like the plague the last time we met?” Song Jong-Chul asked.
“Because I need you. Besides, I have no one else to ask,” Kim Jin-Woo said. He wasn’t brazen enough to stand in front of Lee Jun-Young while she mourned the death of Lee Jin-Tae, a death he had caused.
“I guess you had a falling-out with Lee Jun-Young and the rest? Whatever. I’ll tell you everything I know; take it as a sign of friendship.” Song Jong-Chul licked his lips as he started his story. “I was once a well-regarded explorer. Even up until five or six years ago, there wasn’t a single person who hadn’t heard of me.”
“Hey, don’t make that kind of face. I’m not making this up to show off.” Song Jong-Chul waved his hand to brush Kim Jin-Woo off when the latter raised his eyebrows at the bragging.
“But let me ask you, why did I create the Explorer’s Association while laying around on the surface? Why do you think so?” He paused as he raised the question. He then lifted his shirt to reveal scars all over his body. Not an inch of his skin had been spared.
He then touched the deepest, more gruesome scar that lay across his chest and let out a grin. “I was screwed hard by this fucking war.”