༺ Third Chapter – Together to Ghost Valley (3) ༻
The fight wasn’t long.
No, it was over so quickly that it could be described as ending in the blink of an eye.
The man-faced spider lay dead, split exactly in half. Its skin was melted in various places, and its head appeared crushed as if struck by something.
Despite being a spirit beast, it could not withstand Tang Hwa-seo’s poison and was cut in two by Mok Riwon.
Tang Hwa-seo steadied her breath and absorbed the remaining poison from the man-faced spider lingering in the atmosphere.
It was practically the first time she had taken in such a potent poison since she had run away and took time for her to adjust, but as a result of that, she was able to enhance her inner qi.
The man-faced spider was undoubtedly a spirit beast with a poison gland.
If she could extract and process that poison gland separately, it would make for quite an impressive spirit core.
As Tang Hwa-seo thought that, she smiled ironically.
‘To resent them and yet use their martial arts so well.’
The irony of her situation felt somewhat contradictory, bearing a grudge towards the Tang Clan but using their martial arts.
However, Tang Hwa-seo felt no sense of self-loathing because of it. She knew better than anyone that they were not the kind of people who could be dealt with while harboring a useless pride.
‘I must use everything that can be used.’
Having organized her thoughts, she looked at Mok Riwon.
Mok Riwon had already sheathed his sword and looked at her sparklingly.
Although the blood poison pill was in his mouth, Tang Hwa-seo felt like she knew what he wanted to say.
‘It must be about that damned Great Family’s Martial Arts again.’
How had he acted after finding out she was from the Tang family?
Hadn’t he bombarded her with a relentless barrage of questions that almost made her go crazy for three whole hours?
This had to be a continuation of that.
‘The blood poison pill is working diligently.’
Tang Hwa-seo smiled slightly, watching Mok Riwon flail his arms around and give her a big thumbs up.
Just as she had expected, he was once again admiring her martial arts.
“I understand that you wish to talk, but let’s set that aside for now. Don’t we have something to take care of?”
“I will extract the inner core and poison gland. Please go wait over there far away.”
Mok Riwon hurriedly ran towards the entrance of the cave.
Wondering how his retreating figure could show so much emotion, Tang Hwa-seo shook her head in disbelief and began her work.
A familiar musty and foul air greeted them when they exited the cave. While resting at the entrance, Tang Hwa-seo showed Mok Riwon the inner core she had been refining moments ago.
It was the same size as the candied fruit Mok Riwon had eaten right before they came here.
“I will give this to Young Hero Mok.”
Mok Riwon startlingly jumped and waved his arms around, seemingly feeling guilty.
Wasn’t it just like him to worry about his conscience in such a situation?
Tang Hwa-seo chuckled quietly as she forced the inner core into his hand.
“I’m fine with just the poison gland. In fact, my body benefits more from the medicine made by processing it than from the inner core. Besides, if it weren’t for Young Hero Mok, we would never have found the spirit beast in the first place, right?”
He was too naive.
A martial artist should know how to claim what was rightfully theirs, yet his gentle nature made her worry he might easily fall victim to deception or humiliation.
“You understand, right? Especially in situations like this, you need to be more calculating.”
His face showed a deeply moved expression. As Tang Hwa-seo watched his eyes glisten with tears, she had an unexpected thought.
It crossed her mind that he resembled a mutt, his eyes lighting up and tail wagging at the mere toss of a snack.
Tang Hwa-seo quickly dismissed that rude thought.
In the middle of that, Mok Riwon, whose eyes had been sparkling continuously, spat out the blood poison pill and said.
“Thank you, Mistress! I could never pay this kindness in a lifetime! I’ll always be grateful…!”
“And how will you do that?”
Mok Riwon blinked rapidly, searching for the right words, before finally blurting out a response.
“I’ll strive to become a magnificent hero!”
Of course, nothing was better than when good intentions were met with even greater kindness.
Tang Hwa-seo burst into laughter at his ridiculous answer.
“Enough, let’s get up now. From here on out, we must move diligently.”
With the blood poison pill back in his mouth, he responded.
Then, the two of them started walking through Blood Valley once again.
They were in a good mood from the unexpected gains.
Tang Hwa-seo was in high spirits because of the fully refined poison gland, and Mok Riwon was equally as elated after experiencing something straight out of a story.
All they had to do was get out of Blood Valley now.
However, preoccupied with such a rosy future, there was something they had failed to consider beforehand.
This was Blood Valley.
The place where countless ordinary people were sacrificed in the Bloodied History that occurred twenty years ago.
Since then, none had entered, and none had left.
The village they arrived still bore the horrors of that time.
Mok Riwon’s excited expression had darkened; the same was true for Tang Hwa-seo.
The mere sight of the dreadful remnants revealed the extent of the tragedy that had occurred here, causing her face to contort.
The scene was completely different from the corpses of the martial artists they had seen so far.
That was the only word to call this decaying shanty village, completely covered with dried, blackened blood.
That wasn’t all.
The corpses all seemed like people who had failed to escape, turned into skeletons with their backs facing the center of the village, and mixed with those were skeletons hugging each other or rolling around on their backs.
The only way to describe this scene was… a one-sided massacre.
Tang Hwa-seo scowled deeply as she gazed upon the scene, then looked at Mok Riwon.
Tang Hwa-seo called out to him, wondering if the scene shocked him, but there was no answer.
Mok Riwon just took in everything with a sunken expression.
Mok Riwon stepped forward, and for some reason, Tang Hwa-seo felt that she shouldn’t stop him, so she silently followed behind.
‘What is he doing?’
Mok Riwon carefully observed the skeletons and looked around.
He examined everything. The indiscernible marks, the half-destroyed wooden shacks, and the rusted farm tools scattered about.
Mok Riwon was picturing in his head the events that had taken place here, recalling the story of Blood Valley that he had heard from Mok Seon-oh when he was thirteen.
–Did you save the ordinary people there?
–…I saved as many as I could. However, I could not save everyone.
Mok Seon-oh had smiled bitterly that day.
Mok Riwon knew how rare it was for that always dignified swordsman to show such an expression.
It was only when he felt sorrow over things that were beyond to power to change.
–Did you know, Won? In this world, there are those who have been driven into a corner and have nowhere else to run. Those who have fled and fled, yet see no way out and now wish to give up.
–Were those ordinary people like that?
–Indeed. They were those who had fled to the mountains because they could not grow enough crops to pay their taxes. That is why they had nowhere else to go.
–They couldn’t take refuge…?
–I could not tell them to do that. No, they did not wish for that, because there was nowhere left for them.
As a child at the time, he naturally questioned.
–Couldn’t they have fought back…?
–I suppose I must teach you this as well.
Mok Riwon reminisced about the words his master had said while looking at the falling leaves in the front courtyard that day.
–Not everyone in the world can resist the adversities that come their way.
–Why is that?
–Because they are powerless. You need power to resist, therefore all they can do is wail. But…
–…Even if they are such pitiable people, the world does not listen to the voices of the weak.
Mok Riwon absentmindedly searched the village, examining each and every corner.
‘This must be a fabric store.’
Was that word even appropriate anymore?
All that remained were rags so tattered that calling them leather and clothing scraps would be generous, but seeing them rot away on display, there was no better way to describe them.
When he turned his head, he saw a counter.
Beneath it was a dark, dry substance, so deteriorated that it was impossible to tell what it might have once been.
It could have been grass or medicinal herbs.
Maybe even the concept of currency here.
In the middle of the store, there was a skeleton with the cervical spine missing.
Perhaps it had been trying to protect this shabby shop.
Mok Riwon stared for a while before moving on to the butcher’s shop next door.
Despite the absence of meat, it was definitely a butchery from the skeleton lying there with a butcher’s knife in its hand and hooks on the wall that must have been used to hang meat.
‘These ordinary people must have tried to protect their shops as well.’
Mok Riwon continued his walk.
He passed through several shacks that appeared to have served as shops and into the residential area, then outward to the outskirts.
Tang Hwa-seo watched Mok Riwon worryingly.
The man’s steps, visualizing the horrors in his mind, did not cease, and the woman who observed him finally uttered the words.
“Young Hero Mok, that’s enough now…”
They needed to leave and continue on their journey.
She understood that the tragedy of this place pained his heart, but if they were swept away by such emotions and delayed, all their plans could go awry.
As she was about to express that concern…
A sound came from afar.
It wasn’t the sound of nature; the footsteps were unmistakably that of a human.
The two martial artists with keen qi detection looked towards the source of the noise.
And they witnessed.
A young girl.
It made no sense, but before them was a young girl who had peeked her head out from behind a building and was now hiding.
The girl ran away.
It happened so quickly that they could not even distinguish her features.
But what did that matter?
Mok Riwon turned towards her direction, but Tang Hwa-seo stopped him.
“Wait, it’s suspicious.”
Tang Hwa-seo glared straight at Mok Riwon.
“There shouldn’t be a girl here. This is the cursed Blood Valley that was forsaken twenty years ago, and as you can also feel, this place is filled with death and poison. It’s no place for ordinary people to enter. There is definitely something going on.”
Mok Riwon quietly looked at Tang Hwa-seo and then spat out the blood poison pill in his mouth.
“But it was clearly a girl.”
“More precisely, it ‘might have been’ a girl.”
Mok Riwon’s eyebrows narrowed.
“What is it…?”
“What did we see before we arrived here?”
“…A spirit beast.”
“Right. It’s a spirit beast. It’s not supposed to be here.”
Tang Hwa-seo told him her deductions regarding the strange casualty she felt.
“It has only been twenty years. It’s far too short a time for a spirit beast to arise and grow to such a size. I even thought that maybe the spirit beast had moved its territory before we saw that young girl…”
The girl they had just seen was pointing to one clear fact.
“…Someone might have moved the spirit beast here. To guard this place.”
“It might not be a girl. No, it may not even be human. It’s the same as the spirit beast.”
Tang Hwa-seo thought to herself that there must be a secret here that someone wished to hide, one that would be of no benefit to uncovering.
“If not human, then what are you suggesting?”
“I have a guess.”
Tang Hwa-seo’s gaze drifted towards the building the girl had disappeared behind.
“This land is overflowing with death qi and poison qi. The only thing that remains are human corpses. And among them, there exists something in human form.”
Mok Riwon, too, realized what Tang Hwa-seo was trying to say.
That was what she meant.
The girl might be a jiangshi, a reanimated corpse born from the unique characteristics of Ghost Valley.
The standoff was long.
While Tang Hwa-seo prayed that he would not exhibit his strange curiosity this time, just this once, Mok Riwon was deeply lost in thought and did not meet her gaze.
It was a tense moment.
The prayer she had wished for her with her eyes tightly closed ultimately went unanswered.
“…I must go after all.”
“Young Hero Mok, please!”
“It might actually be a girl. Someone who has stepped into this place by mistake.”
“If that were the case, she would have asked for help!”
“She might have thought we were evil.”
Tang Hwa-seo shouted and thought to herself.
‘I must be assertive.’
It was not entirely impossible, but the probability was merely a ‘not zero’ level. If she were to indulge this man’s stubbornness here, they might face unnecessary threats.
“We must leave this place. We have already dealt with the man-faced spider, so if we stay here, we might encounter the one who brought that spirit beast here! Or, the figure in the form of that young girl might have been bait laid by him!”
It was an obvious statement, but there was an absurd difference between merely dealing with a spirit beast and transporting a live one.
At the very least, they could not rule out the possibility of a martial artist at the end of the Supreme Realm, or even beyond, in the Transcendent Realm.
“Young Hero Mok, chivalry is fine, but you must always bear in mind. The most dangerous things in the martial world are none other than the old, the women, and the children.”
Mok Riwon’s lips were still tightly sealed.
Tang Hwa-seo felt a sudden headache at the back of her head. Normally she would go along with his tendencies, but this time, even she could not back down. When she was about to speak again,
“Your words are morally right, Mistress.”
Mok Riwon said, then continued.
“But as a martial artist upholding chivalry, you are wrong.”
Tang Hwa-seo stopped dead in her tracks.
At this point, she was so dumbfounded that she let out a bitter laugh.
“Mistress, I have always been curious about something.”
Mok Riwon walked past Tang Hwa-seo, in the direction that girl had disappeared.
“You know, I understand what you are saying, Mistress. There’s nothing more terrifying than a villain wearing the mask of the weak. Who could be more wicked than them? Your words that we must be wary of them are indeed correct.”
“But then, are those words not rather strange?”
Mok Riwon stopped walking as he said that.
“A hero is one who protects the weak and serves as their shield. If that is what a hero is, then accepting your words would mean they must be wary of the weak.”
Mok Riwon recited what was in his mind.
They were not fleeting thoughts but longstanding concerns.
Concerns that had always followed him, since the moment he resolved to become a hero and began to hear the various sayings of the martial world from the Beggar King.
“A hero is someone who protects the weak. Yet, the hero must also be wary of the very ones they vow to protect. If that’s the case.”
It was a question he could not quite figure out.
“If we’re wary of those we must help, then who the hell is our chivalry for?”
Mok Riwon looked at Tang Hwa-seo with a bitter smile.
Tang Hwa-seo’s body froze in place.
There was a lot she wanted to say.
From how this situation was too peculiar for such principles to apply, to his words being interpreted as defending evil.
Or that his naive, chivalrous romance does not save lives.
However, at this very moment, Tang Hwa-seo had no choice but to hold back the dozens of thoughts that came to mind.
It was inevitable because that principle stood as her truth.
She, too, had been saved by such righteousness.
Since all the words that came to mind ended up unspoken, Tang Hwa-seo licked her lips, sighed, and followed up with another doubt.
“…There’s over a ninety percent chance that it isn’t human.”
“A one in ten is still a chance.”
“It’s a ninety percent chance that we walk into our very deaths.”
Tang Hwa-seo’s fists clenched tightly.
Even though it was an irrational question, she asked anyway.
“…If it’s a trap, what will we do?”
Mok Riwon’s eyes widened, then returned to normal, realizing she had given her permission.
Irritatingly, even at this moment, he was dazzlingly beautiful.
“It doesn’t matter.”
As she had expected.
“That’s the kind of threat a hero must face, and why we build our strength.”
It was that very righteousness this time as well.
“Isn’t that the very reason we devote ourselves to martial arts?”
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