The second the call got disconnected, Gi-Gyu was out of the door. For all rankers and higher, running was faster than driving. It wasn’t because they were faster or could maintain their speed for longer—it was because they could ignore traffic laws.
Of course, random players sprinting to their destinations could frighten non-players. Hence, players had to ask for the association’s permission unless it was an emergency.
Gi-Gyu called the association earlier, so several association agents arrived before long. One of the agents asked, "Are you the player who called?"
"I’m a ranker." When Gi-Gyu replied, one of the players quickly rushed toward him and confirmed, "You must be Ranker Kim Gi-Gyu."
Things like this occurred rather frequently, so the KPA trained a bunch of agents for this. It had them memorize the faces of all Korean rankers and would deploy them whenever someone made a request.
When one of the agents recognized him, Gi-Gyu raised his fist. The association agents flinched, thinking Gi-Gyu was about to attack them. Their hands instinctively moved toward their weapons; thankfully, one agent recognized Gi-Gyu’s ring.
This agent asked, "You’re a mercenary… Where is your destination, Sir?"
"It’s Dongdaemun," answered Gi-Gyu.
"All right. Everything is ready so that no one will stop you on the way."
Thanks to the agent, who quickly recognized Gi-Gyu as a mercenary, things went smoothly and rapidly. Gi-Gyu was about to rush out when the agent added, "Next time, please contact your assigned association agent to avoid this annoying step."
After nodding, Gi-Gyu rushed toward his destination. Calling the association was a rash move; it would’ve been easier and quicker had he called his agent, Sung-Hoon.
After activating Accelerate, Gi-Gyu moved like the wind. His current speed was well beyond what any average player could dream of.
‘Old Man Hwang isn’t the kind of man I can choose not to help.’ Gi-Gyu wasn’t that close to the elderly man, yet his safety was a priority. After all, the old man was one of the few who could improve Gi-Gyu's battle power. If Old Man Hwang died, it would be a huge personal loss.
Hopping on one traffic light after another, Gi-Gyu flew toward his destination.
‘What happened to Old Man Hwang?’ Gi-Gyu wondered what could make the old man sound so desperate. Gi-Gyu wasn’t sure how strong the elderly man was currently, but there was no doubt he must’ve been a powerful player in his younger days. So what could have happened to such a strong man?
Gi-Gyu jumped to the ground and stood up.
"I guess I’ll find out when I see him in person," murmured Gi-Gyu. It hadn’t been many minutes since he left his home, but he was already standing in front of the old man’s workshop.
Instead of knocking several times, Gi-Gyu decided to rip the door open to save time. It was an emergency with many variables; now wasn’t the time for polite conduct. Also, he didn’t want to give the culprit a chance to escape if they were still inside.
Gi-Gyu approached the door quietly and was about to grab the doorknob when his Egos warned him.
-Please be careful, Master!
-Masterrr! Watch out!
Gi-Gyu quickly backed away from the door.
Suddenly, a metallic spike lattice was ejected from the ground, aiming for the spot Gi-Gyu was on a moment ago. Even though it wouldn’t have killed him, it still could’ve severely injured him. This lattice was quickly followed by numerous arrows shot from the ceiling and the walls. Gi-Gyu took another step back as he enabled his skill. "Death."
Death immediately turned the arrows into dust; a dark silence fell in front of the workshop door for a short moment.
"Ha…" Gi-Gyu muttered in surprise. The security system Old Man Hwang placed around his place was incredible. The elderly man was clearly preparing for someone’s attack. However, the intact traps that Gi-Gyu activated told him the elderly man wasn’t attacked.
-Be careful. There still might be more traps.
When Lou warned, Gi-Gyu replied lightly, "All right." He took out Lou and aimed him at the door, wondering if he should just destroy it. Since there could be more lethal traps, he let Lou’s violet smoke take care of the door. Within seconds, the door crumbled down into dust, giving Gi-Gyu a view of the inside.
"Sir!" Gi-Gyu screamed when he saw Old Man Hwang collapsed on the floor.
"Sir! Please wake up!" Gi-Gyu gently shook the elderly man, but the blacksmith didn’t move. Gi-Gyu quickly pulled out a healing potion and poured it into the old man’s mouth. Since Old Man Hwang was a player, the healing potion had to work on him. To Gi-Gyu’s relief, the elderly man’s pale face slowly improved. The blacksmith slowly opened his eyes and stared at Gi-Gyu. "Y-you came… Thank you…"
"Sir, I’m here. What happened to you?!" Gi-Gyu asked as he looked around the workshop. The place was a mess, and the blacksmith’s items were missing as if they had been stolen. What worried Gi-Gyu the most was the elderly man’s state: Someone had struck his head with a blunt object with quite a lot of force; it was bleeding heavily.
"Sir, your hands…" Gi-Gyu muttered in distress, looking at Old Man Hwang’s horribly crushed hands. Gi-Gyu quickly poured a healing potion on them, but it was useless. The elderly man’s life force was too drained for the potion to work; only the elixir could heal him now.
"I must get you to the hospital first." Gi-Gyu thought a hospital could somehow save the elderly man, but he replied, "It’s all right. There is no need."
Old Man Hwang’s voice was calm, but there was an unmistakable bitterness to it. The blacksmith looked straight into Gi-Gyu’s eyes despite the severe pain and said, "I’m dying, Young Man."
Lou and El agreed.
-He won’t live much longer.
-This old man’s life is almost over, Master.
Meanwhile, Brunheart asked in surprise.
-Master! Who is this old man?!
Gi-Gyu gingerly placed Old Man Hwang’s head on his lap. The blacksmith asked, "I don’t have much time left. Will you hear my story?"
Gi-Gyu didn’t know how to respond. The blacksmith might just live if he disobeyed the old man’s wish and took him to the hospital. However, if Gi-Gyu took him to the hospital and he died there, Old Man Hwang may die without peace.
It was time for Gi-Gyu to make a decision. "All right, Sir."
Finally, Gi-Gyu decided to treat the elderly man like a human rather than a blacksmith who could help him. Besides, even if the older man survived, Gi-Gyu suspected he would hold a grudge against Gi-Gyu for not listening to his story.
Old Man Hwang nodded in relief and whispered, "Good, thank you. Now, I need to ask you for that favor we agreed upon."
Gi-Gyu remembered the price they decided on for Oberon: He promised he would take one request from the elderly man. Old Man Hwang was now ready to claim his boon.
Gi-Gyu made his last attempt to convince the blacksmith. "Sir, if you die like this now, you won’t even know if I honored our agreement. So we should get you to the hospital first, and we can talk about your request after."
"No, I do not doubt that you’ll honor my request." Old Man Hwang was adamant.
"Haa…" Gi-Gyu sighed deeply. Now, there was no denying it: Old Man Hwang would die today. So, Gi-Gyu had to hear him out since that was also his dying wish.
Gi-Gyu asked, "What is your request, Sir?"
"Before I tell you that… Will you hear my story? You need to know this before I can tell you what I need."
When Gi-Gyu nodded, Old Man Hwang quickly began to talk.
Old Man Hwang began, "I am one of the forerunners."
Forerunners were the first humans to get an invitation from the Tower. Since they began hunting foremost, they also became stronger faster. However, being the first also meant they had to explore the many then-unknown territories and lose numerous comrades.
Tae-Shik and Tae-Gu were forerunners too. And…
‘My father was also a forerunner,’ Gi-Gyu thought. He didn’t remember his father very well, but this was what his mother told him a long time ago. He knew his father died in an accident that also gave his mother a terrible spine injury; apart from that, he assumed his father wasn’t a particularly powerful player.
Old Man Hwang continued, "The other forerunners climbed the Tower and hunted monsters, but I wasn’t interested in becoming stronger."
Gi-Gyu began focusing on the elderly man’s story. The blacksmith’s voice suggested that he missed those days as he added, "That’s why I stopped climbing the Tower. The other players ridiculed and shunned me. They claimed that I was running away from my duties to protect humanity…"
It was a sad story, but there was no regret in Old Man Hwang’s eyes. He continued, "But I didn't care. I was a blacksmith before I became a player, so I used my new power to create better weapons. But soon, my limits began hindering my progre—Khoff!"
Suddenly, the blacksmith coughed up some blood. Gi-Gyu hurriedly fed him a great healing potion, which helped the elderly man a little.
"I don’t think I have much time left… But you’ll still hear me out, right? I’ve been unable to tell anyone my story, so I would like to have at least one person who knows what I went through and what I know."
"Please don’t worry about that and take your time. It’s a fascinating story, so I would love to hear it." When Gi-Gyu smiled, Old Man Hwang smiled as well. He continued, "I’m actually a tanker, not a blacksmith. So creating weapons had nothing to do with what I was born to do. I could make decent weapons, but nothing special. So, in the end, I became a mediocre player and a subpar blacksmith."
Old Man Hwang grinned as he added, "I was an oddball. When I realized I had reached my limit, I concluded that there had to be a way to get better. So I entered the Tower again. I began climbing to the higher floors to go through the secondary job change. I hunted and hunted and hunted… Until one day, I began to wonder…"
"Wonder what, Sir?" Gi-Gyu asked to show his interest.
"Why do we only ascend the Tower?"
"...!" Gi-Gyu couldn’t hide his shock as the blacksmith continued, "I wondered if there was a basement? What was beneath the Tower? We, the humans, have designated the ‘1st floor,’ but I was curious if it was really the lowest floor. I had many questions at the time."
Many people still wondered what the Tower really was and why it appeared suddenly. There were plenty of scientists trying to figure out the answers to these questions. However, no one had ever thought about the Tower’s basement.
It was a refreshing idea to Gi-Gyu because he had also only ever thought about ascending the Tower.
Old Man Hwang explained, "I spent many years trying to find the basement. I roamed the 1st-floor countless times; I’ve even been to some 1st-floor spots no one has ever seen."
Noticing the anticipation in Gi-Gyu’s eyes, the old man’s face turned red in pleasure. "Finally, I found it."
It probably happened a long time ago, yet Old Man Hwang looked up in the air as if it were yesterday. "I found the door that led to the basement."
[You have received information beyond your qualification.]
[You will suffer a penalty.]
Old Man Hwang continued to speak calmly, but Gi-Gyu’s eyes wavered. When Old Man Hwang said that he found the door to the basement, Gi-Gyu alone heard a system announcement, and a sudden sharp pain assaulted his brain. It was so agonizing that Gi-Gyu almost fainted.
His Ego’s roar kept him from losing consciousness; then, Gi-Gyu bit his lower lip until it began bleeding to keep himself awake. The unpleasant smell of his blood tickled his nose.
‘Information beyond my qualification…? Penalty…’
As if he was falling into a deep sleep, his brain began to slow down. Before Gi-Gyu could process what was happening, Old Man Hwang continued, "And when I walked through that door…"
Old Man Hwang was panting breathlessly now, his face was deathly pale, and his breathing was uneven. However, he still finished the sentence.
"There was a whole new world behind it."