༺ Preparation (4) ༻
Uttered Yung Pung in a fleeting dejected tone after panting for some time.
The ground surrounding Yung Pung was dug up in numerous regions and everything was a veritable mess of the worst kind possible. Moreover, there was also a pile of broken wooden swords scattered about on one side of the area.
He had already run out of Qi and his body didn’t even possess the slightest strength to even pick up the sword any longer.
As they had not stopped their duel even when the sun went beyond the horizon even though they started dueling in the early hours of the day.
Yung Pung looked deeply at the owner of the voice.
That was the only thing that was running in his head right now.
The martial art skills of the man called Muyeon, acting as an escort for Gu Yangcheon, was simply amazing.
For Yung Pung, he welcomed Muyeon who came to him first for a duel as the tournament would start soon.
However, he didn’t expect him to be that strong.
Yung Pung suddenly remembered about Namgung Bi-ah.
Immediately, he noticed that his cheek grew hotter at the mere thought of that name.
As he was reminded of something shameful he had done in the not-so-distant past.
She had been the real reason why he challenged Gu Yangcheon to a duel and it was also thanks to her that he ended up achieving enlightenment in the process,
However, Yung Pung still couldn’t help but remember the immature self of his past.
‘It’s similar… but also a lot different.’
Yung Pung already knew that Namgung Bi-ah was a direct descendant of one of the Four Noble Clans— the Namgung Clan, but he also noticed a keen trait about her— it was the fact that Namgung Bi-ah did not hesitate, not even for a single instance, to train even though there was a crowd watching her training. Whether this was due to her personality or she was used to the crowd was something that he was unaware of.
However, from her display it looked as though she was welcoming the crowd of onlookers to watch her, thus delivering a beautiful show of her swordsmanship for the crowd to enjoy and witness.
The way she wielded her sword incorporated numerous slashes in succession that made it fast and unique.
This generally happened to people who trained by themselves with no mentor to teach them a specific sword art. Taking it from a negative perspective, there were a lot of useless and cluttered moves inside Namgung Bi-ah’s sword art.
However, even with that negative aspect being present, she had a flexible body and insane talent which complemented her unique and disproportional movements that made it a positive trait instead of a negative one.
At least to Yung Pung, that’s how it seemed.
However, if there was an undeniable fact, it was that he knew that he would lose if he were to fight with her.
‘But this person…’
It was the exact opposite in Muyeon’s case.
He was a well trained martial artist with a strong base.
To put it simply, he was an exemplary swordsman.
Yung Pung was able to quickly see the reason behind his loss against the man.
Muyeon’s sword didn’t depend on some unique movements or innate talent… it only had a strong and firm base that was unshakable.
Yung Pung lost because Muyeon’s sword was simply faster and heavier than his own.
Thinking till here, Yung Pung leaked out a dejected sigh as there were no excuses he could give for his loss.
‘There is no end to the world outside of the well, huh…’
Yung Pung’s pride had been thoroughly shattered when he saw Gu Yangcheon’s talent. Moreover, it was broken further when he found himself lacking even when compared to Namgung Bi-ah.
Again he felt those same feelings when confronted with Muyeon.
‘There is no way to boost my confidence.’
Yung Pung felt like the title of Sword Dragon that was given to him was becoming heavier and heavier with time.
Soon, Muyeon reached towards him, his hand outstretched.
“Thank you. I was able to learn a lot from the duel.”
“…Not at all, Master Muyeon. In fact, it should be me thanking you as you wasted your whole day dueling with me.”
Yung Pung grabbed Muyeon’s hand and stood up on his feet.
His clothes were covered in dirt all over, however, he didn’t care and just brushed it a few times with brief movements.
Muyeon spoke to him again.
“It seems like I stayed out for a bit too long today. I shall take my leave now. Are you planning on going back sometime later?”
“Yes, I think I’ll train a bit more and then return.”
He had no other choice but to train to calm his disoriented mind.
At least that was the only way the man named Yung Pung knew how to calm himself and his mind.
Muyeon nodded in response.
After finishing the duel, Muyeon trailed down the mountain road to return to the lodge.
Trailing down the mountainous road, embracing the fresh breeze of wind in the process, Muyeon donned an expressionless face throughout.
It was the first time he had spent the entire day dueling with someone, not focusing on his job as an escort.
‘What was the point of all this in the end?’
Similar to Yung Pung, Muyeon had conflicted thoughts of his own constantly swirling inside his mind.
He had done the duel to search for something, an answer of some sort, but the only thing Muyeon received in return was a disgusting feeling of guilt.
“An escort that’s good for nothing…”
Muyeon’s words had a lot of remorse mixed within them.
How many times did Gu Yangcheon get into danger while being under his protection?
Furthermore, whether it was because of the feeling of safety he naturally felt due to being inside a noble sect like Mount Hua or not, he let his guard down, and that led to Gu Yangcheon getting into a lethally dangerous situation where he had to fight against a martial artist having reached the Peak realm.
He idly wondered just what hell he was doing these days.
He tried to think of an excuse for his behavior but found none.
He had let his guard down. It was as simple as that.
He had let his guard down while escorting someone.
‘What a useless guy I am!’
Of course, Gu Yangcheon did a good job too by avoiding his sights and Muyeon also knew that the Young Master was reaching a level of martial prowess where he had no need for any escorts following him any longer.
However, that too was an excuse he was making up.
Muyeon understood that he was the Gu Yangcheon’s sword and shield.
The only time Gu Yangcheon was permitted to get injured was when he died.
It wasn’t due to the passion he felt for the Gu Clan, nor was it because of the loyalty he felt for Gu Yangcheon.
His feelings of dejection came from the fact that he was being irresponsible in his job, and that was a huge problem.
The life of a martial artist came to an end once they lost themselves.
Those were the words that came from the almighty Sword Emperor himself.
Gu Yangcheon was becoming stronger and stronger as the days went on.
When Muyeon had first seen him, he was just you average boy who hadn’t even climbed to the second-rate state as a martial artist.
But the Gu Yangcheon now… He had become a first-rate martial artist and was soon making his way to the peak realm, and it would not take him much time to reach it.
Such rapid progression was achieved in the span of less than a year.
However, what about him?
How many years had he spent just trying to reach the peak realm?
Muyeon thought to himself that he shouldn’t be feeling the desperation to improve at his age.
He believed that time was on his side, and he would be eventually able to reach that realm if he kept up the consistency and efficiency of his training.
‘…So when will that happen?’
Muyeon felt extremely powerless right now.
What was the point of training if a person training themselves to protect someone was not even able to do that?
Muyeon wondered what his sword was for.
He didn’t know. He felt like he got lost just as he finally found the correct path.
He then wondered again just what he had learned from the duel with Yung Pung.
‘I learned what my possibility was.’
Unlike others, Muyeon was able to see what kind of potential the kids had.
This applied to Yung Pung as well.
Muyeon saw that he was progressing and improving even during the span of the duel itself.
Even though he had missed five out of ten attacks from Muyeon at the start of the duels, he was able to catch all of the attacks during the end phases.
Moreover, Yung Pung’s openings that had been quite visible at the beginning were slowly diminishing more and more from the midway point and at the end, he had no openings left for Muyeon to exploit.
Yung Pung seemed disappointed by the outcome of the duel, but Muyeon knew that he had to hide his shock when he saw Yung Pung’s progress and feats during the duration of the duel.
Yung Pung would eventually come to reach his level, and there was definitely the possibility of him passing his level quite soon too.
He was certain that it won’t take long for this phenomenon to transpire.
‘Would I still be at the same spot even then?’
Guilt and self-reproach.
He could perfectly visualize the sturdy and broad wall that stood between him and the next level.
‘The demon that haunts my mind… Can I also see this as one…?’
He stopped in his tracks.
The refreshing breeze led him in the direction of the lodge, telling him to go back quickly,
However, Muyeon’s feet didn’t budge, as though stuck to the ground on this spot.
‘Just like this…’
Just for a little, let’s rest.
It felt like he was being turned inside out.
Muyeon decided to rest here for some time and then return, to continue working like nothing happened.
That’s what Muyeon told himself while not budging from the spot.
However, while he was standing still, he heard some distant sounds.
It wasn’t the sound of the wind.
Being a sword user himself, he was quite familiar with the sound he was hearing.
The feet that had been stuck on the ground till now seemed to be able to move now.
He began walking towards the sound that was resonating in his ears, in the distance, before he could even realize.
– Swish! Swoosh!
When he moved his steps towards the sound, he was able to see that someone was swinging a sword at a clearing.
Muyeon was shocked since he knew the person he was seeing right now.
It was none other than Wi Seol-Ah.
She was the direct maid of Gu Yangcheon who also happened to have a pretty face, and she always got spoiled by all the other servants.
And that very same Wi Seol-Ah was now swinging a sword in the middle of a clearing in the mountainous terrain during dinner time with nary a soul around her.
‘Why is she doing that?’
– Swish swoosh swish!
From her swings, it was evident that she was making a lot of unnecessary movements, movements that should not be made while swinging a sword, probably because she hadn’t been taught by anyone,
However, there was still a strange sense of strength and power behind each of her swings and strikes.
‘Is she trying to exercise?’
That was the only thing Muyeon could think of right now upon seeing the scene since Wi Seol-Ah was just a servant.
All of a sudden, Wi Seol-Ah stopped swinging of her sword and tilted her head, confusion evident in her eyes as she twisted her body and turned her head around.
“Is this not it?”
Muyeon wondered if she was just talking to herself right now. It was pretty understandable as she had a rather… eccentric personality.
“It’s hard… but this seems right.”
However, Muyeon had no choice but to gasp after seeing the movement of the sword that Wi Seol-Ah did just now.
From the top to the very bottom of the sword path,
Her sword strike was super clean and even in Muyeon’s eyes, her movement while slashing the sword had been correct.
It was far different from the poor movements that she had been executing up until now.
He had clear doubts about what transpired even though he had registered them with his very own eyes.
“Doing it this way feels prettier and more comfortable, so why should I do it differently?”
Muyeon frantically looked at the surroundings to see if there was anyone else around this place since she kept talking by herself like that, however, he was not able to feel the presence of anyone.
“…I should just go to grandpa after all— …No, I’m not going to grandpa, he was mean to me.”
Her face immediately morphed into a sullen look at that thought.
Muyeon received further bouts of shock after witnessing more of Wi Seol-Ah’s movements.
They were all very basic movements, but each and every single one of them were flawless.
She was simply doing ordinary slashes and strikes as she swung her sword with light movements,
However, there was something that was definitely different about them.
How can it be like this? Disregarding the shocked Muyeon, Wi Seol-Ah swiftly put her sword movements to an end.
“Fine… I won’t do it.”
As though she had gotten scolded, Wi Seol-Ah went back to executing the initial poor movements that Muyeon had first seen her doing.
Muyeon couldn’t help but step forward toward her after seeing this eerie set of events.
He couldn’t just sit and watch anymore.
“Oh! Brother Muyeon!”
Waving her hands so happily, she was indeed the Wi Seol-Ah whom Muyeon was so well acquainted with.
“What are you doing here…?”
Wi Seol-Ah responded with a bright smile at Muyeon’s question.
“I’m learning to wield a sword!”
Wi Seol-Ah stopped her words all of a sudden and then rolled her eyes as if quite a bit surprised by that question.
“…I was doing it by myself.”
She changed her words.
No matter how many times he checked, Wi Seol-Ah was indeed alone and by herself. So, it didn’t seem like she had been lying just now. While Muyeon was lost in his thoughts, Wi Seol-Ah asked him something.
“Is brother Muyeon on his way back to the lodge? Young Master was looking for you earlier.”
He felt like he had just made another mistake…
Hiding his emotions, he responded to Wi Seol-Ah with a thin smile on his face.
“I couldn’t focus on my job today as I was doing some training. I’ll go and apologize to the Young Master.”
“Huh? No, the Young Master said that it’d be fine since it’s Muyeon and didn’t say anything else!”
She looked quite cute while trying to impersonate Gu Yangcheon with her expressions.
Muyeon reached his hand out to pat her head as she reminded him of an adorable little sister but he soon stopped before his hands could reach her.
Wi Seol-Ah was nice to everyone, but it was evident that she had erected a line that she didn’t let other people cross.
Especially when it came to patting her head, she hated it when someone tried to do that.
The only people that, Muyeon was aware of, were allowed by Wi Seol-Ah to pat her head were Elder Wi and Gu Yangcheon, so he stopped before doing something unnecessary.
While the situation was about to shift in an awkward direction, Wi Seol-Ah asked Muyeon.
“So are you going back to the lodge now?”
He nodded his head in response.
“Yes, I took too long of a rest yesterday and I should go back now.”
He then glanced towards the small wooden sword Wi Seol-Ah was holding onto and cautiously spoke out.
“Uh, Maid Wi…”
“What made you suddenly take up the sword and train in it?”
She immediately blinked her eyes at his question, thinking long and hard about how to respond.
It didn’t take too long for her to settle on an answer.
“The Young Master keeps coming back with more and more injuries. I think he’s constantly getting bullied.”
From the small and faint scratches to the serious wound Gu Yangcheon had received from that dangerous incident before, she felt that her heart was about to be ripped out of her chest when she saw him in that miserable condition.
Even though he wasn’t that hurt.
Wi Seol-Ah simply hated that sensation.
She hated how she felt incredible pain at that sight and hated it even more when she realized just how much pain Gu Yangcheon must be feeling due to those injuries.
“So I want to protect him.”
Muyeon was at a loss for words after hearing the words she uttered as if they were nothing.
All servants knew that Wi Seol-Ah liked Gu Yangcheon as it was very noticeable to everyone.
Honestly, it was almost too noticeable at this point.
However, doubts still remained in his mind.
The movements she had shown earlier, they were impressive enough to shock even him as a martial artist of the sword path,
‘But she’s just a maid in the end.’
He had to clench his teeth at the sudden thought that flashed in his mind.
He realized that he was already looking down on Wi Seol-Ah without even noticing it himself.
She just continued smiling, not knowing the things going on in Muyeon’s head.
The next moment, she spoke to him with a bright voice.
“I’m going to go down too! Young Master must be waiting for me.”
She picked up the wooden sword and started making her way to the lodge.
Muyeon shifted his gaze toward Wi Seol-Ah’s back while she was walking away.
‘How pathetic of you Muyeon. Thinking that others can’t achieve something when you yourself can’t achieve it either.’
He knew full well that Wi Seol-Ah was being truthful when she said those words, but he still harbored negative thoughts about her.
‘Wake up. I still have a long way to go.’
He couldn’t afford to crumble down in a place like this. Muyeon woke himself up from his reverie with that thought.
He let out a long and deep sigh, throwing away all the negative thoughts in his mind with that exhale.
But at that moment, the playfully hopping away Wi Seol-Ah stopped in her tracks, turned around, and came back to Muyeon with a light and dignified gait.
Muyeon had no choice but to step backwards.
Her face which had a bright smile not long ago was no longer present and was replaced with a cold and apathetic expression.
The voice he heard was much deeper than usual. He wondered what in hell was going on right now.
Without caring about his reaction, she continued on with her words.
“It seems like you know what you have to do, so I don’t have anything to say about that.”
Her small and milky white hands touched his chest.
Muyeon tried to get away from her touch, but his body seemingly froze for reasons he himself was unaware of.
Wi Seol-Ah didn’t even look at his face, she just kept staring on at his chest as she spoke to him with that eerily deep voice of hers.
“Don’t be stuck in just one spot, sometimes you just have to break through it with brute force.”
He had to take a step back after being pushed by those dainty hands of hers.
Suddenly he felt a blunt impact pounding on his chest and spreading throughout the entirety of his body.
Is it a surprise attack…? That was Muyeon’s initial thought.
Why did she do that?
He tried to use his Qi instinctively, completely befuddled by the current situation, but the force spreading throughout his body went away as soon as abruptly as it came.
Once he came back to his senses, Muyeon couldn’t help but swiftly rub his chest.
“What are you suddenly—!”
He tried to complain, but noticed that Wi Seol-Ah had returned back to her normal self, smiling at him with a bright expression.
She spoke to him, the bright smile never leaving her face.
“Was what she told me to say to you!”
She didn’t respond. She just ran towards the lodge and disappeared from his sight soon after.
A state of confusion colored his face after going through this bizarre event.
Is it just a joke? He didn’t know that Wi Seol-Ah was capable of putting on such an act.
Letting out a sigh of relief at that thought, he began pondering over the last words that she had conveyed to him just now.
‘What do you mean by breakthrough?’
He believed that she was just joking with him, but still, there was a lingering feeling in his mind that he would be able to use those words for his benefit.
He stopped his steps, wondering if he had just received enlightenment by those words, but then shook his head to chase those thoughts away.
“If it’s that easy to be enlightened… I wouldn’t have to worry about it in the first place.”
However, even after saying so, he felt that all the complex thoughts that were jumbling inside his mind were washed away with Wi Seol-Ah’s words.
Being satisfied at that realization, he followed behind her and headed to the lodge.
* * * *
“…What is this?”
Sitting on the floor, I saw Wi Seol-Ah returning to the lodge followed by Muyeon who came shortly after.
When I had asked Hongwa about her whereabouts, she replied that she had gone out for a walk. I couldn’t help but complain, asking why she had let Wi Seol-Ah out this late at night, after hearing her reply.
I was harboring the thoughts of going outside and bringing her back myself… but she returned before I could.
“Did something happen?”
Muyeon, who had returned shortly after her, seemed a bit off.
Putting aside the fact that he looked like he had lots of thoughts going through his mind…
‘Am I just mistaken?’
He felt a bit strange… Am I just feeling that way because I’m tired?
He then came towards me after noticing my presence and my gaze that was directed towards him.
“Huh? For what?”
“I took a day off without even telling you. This will never happen again.”
Oh, is it just because of that?
“You should rest too sometimes, and you probably trained anyways even though you took a day off, right?”
“I guess I’m correct since you aren’t responding.”
I felt like I was beginning to understand Muyeon’s train of thoughts and feelings by now, however, I had no way of helping him.
‘It looks a bit different from Yung Pung.’
If the wall that was stopping Yung Pung’s progress was his arrogance, then the solution to it was to shatter that arrogance of his— as I did back then.
However, the wall that Muyeon was facing was something that he needed to overcome by himself.
“If you still feel the need to, rest more.”
After informing me that he would start working properly from tomorrow onwards, Muyeon left.
I assumed that he was going for a night watch right now.
I felt a bit concerned after seeing the exhaustion on his face. Is it bad enough to be dangerous?
‘I guess I’ll have to try that later when I find the time.’
I was not able to break the wall that stood before him and his progress, but I still hoped that I could help him in some way or form even if by the slightest margin.
I wouldn’t usually care about these things, but since it was Muyeon, I felt it was right to help him out slightly.
‘It would be a waste for that talent of his to not even bloom, right?’
So thinking of the future ahead, it might be a good thing to help him out right now. While I was putting an end to my thoughts, I saw Wi Seol-Ah approaching me after washing herself.
I was about to scold her for going outside all alone this late at night, but I just gulped those words back down in the end.
“I worked hard tonight as well!”
“…Right, good job.”
Responding to her with those words, I pulled out something from my pocket and handed it over to her.
Wi Seol-Ah’s eyes became as round as saucers after witnessing the object that was in my hand.
Feeling embarrassed for some reason, I spoke to her while avoiding eye contact.
“It’s nothing much, but I’m giving it to you since you’re working so hard.”
It was a hair accessory that shined with sparkling white light.
I had bought this accessory when I had gone down to the market of Huayin with Namgung Bi-ah and Wi Seol-Ah.
I had bought one for Namgung Bi-ah as well, but I didn’t get the chance to give it to her yet.
“Y… You are giving this to me?”
“You don’t want it? Then I’ll just give it to someone else—”
She quickly took away the hair accessory from my hands.
And then started to giggle like a fool as she hugged the first gift I gave her in this life.
I felt a hint of surprise coloring my face as her reaction had been far better than my expectation.
Is this really something that was enough to make her that happy?
It’s just some cheap hair accessory though.
This made me want to ask Elder Shin for some advice on this matter.
‘…Would Elder Shin yell at me for something like this?’
I felt like he would certainly do something like that, yeah.
Wi Seol-Ah pondered on what to do with the gift she received but then, having thought up something in her mind, she stared at me with those large eyes of hers.
Feeling a bit pressured by that look of hers, I had no choice but to ask her while still avoiding eye contact.
“Why are you staring like that?”
“Can I give you a kiss on the cheek?”
“Wait—! I didn’t say anything yet—”
Now that I thought about it clearly,
Wi Seol-Ah never listened to me anyways.
And on the next day…
The Mount Hua Sect’s annual festival— the day of the tournament had finally dawned upon us.
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