Ma Dong-pil bowed his head to Gi Yang.

    “First Captain, you’re here too. It’s been a while.”

    Gi Yang couldn’t continue speaking. It was the same for Lee Gun-seong.

    It was their first time seeing Ma Dong-pil in eight months.

    His stoic expression was the same, but there was a vertical scar engraved on his left eye.

    It wasn’t a scar from a weapon. It was a deep mark carved by something sharp yet blunt. Fortunately, his eye didn’t seem to be injured, but…

    However, the two weren’t surprised simply because of the scar.

    Swish.

    The air in the room rapidly turned cold.

    The two were startled by the dangerous energy emanating from Ma Dong-pil’s body.

    ‘…Killing intent?’

    An unusual killing intent was mixed into his flowing energy.

    It was a vicious killing intent that even the two, the strongest experts in the Protector Court aside from the Hallmaster, felt chilled.

    Ma Dong-pil turned his head towards Lee Gun-seong.

    Shudder.

    Lee Gun-seong unconsciously felt moisture accumulating in his tightly clenched fists. He had become tense just from his gaze.

    A look of puzzlement filled Ma Dong-pil’s face.

    “Are you perhaps feeling unwell?”

    ‘He doesn’t know?’

    That’s right. Ma Dong-pil himself wasn’t aware of how vicious the killing intent he was exuding was.

    “Third Captain.”

    “Yes.”

    “Are you alright?”

    “Yes, I’m fine, but.”

    “…I see.”

    Ma Dong-pil’s puzzlement only deepened as he watched Lee Gun-seong hesitating.

    “…”

    “…”

    “…”

    An inexplicable silence.

    Ma Dong-pil politely bowed his head.

    “I think I’ve come at the wrong time. I’ll take my leave now.”

    Lee Gun-seong was startled and waved his hands.

    “No, no. We haven’t seen each other in a long time, so how can we leave it at that? Sit here.”

    “Are you sure?”

    “Of course.”

    “I’m sorry, but I also have to leave soon, so I don’t think I can have a long conversation. I came to see the Captain to ask a favor.”

    “A favor?”

    “Do you happen to have any Quansong tea leaves?”

    Lee Gun-seong tilted his head.

    Quansong tea was made by drying and brewing tea leaves grown in the Ten Thousand Grand Mountains. Its aroma was so heavy that few people enjoyed it.

    “I have some, but…”

    Lee Gun-seong was one of the few who did.

    “Then may I have some?”

    “That’s not a problem, but what do you need it for? You don’t like Quansong tea, do you?”

    “The Third Young Master requires it.”

    “The Third Young Master?”

    “Yes.”

    “…Alright. Wait a moment. I’ll bring it right away.”

    As Lee Gun-seong disappeared with a puzzled look, silence once again enveloped the office where only the two of them remained.

    Gi Yang felt awkward for no reason. Even though he was overjoyed to see his junior after a long time, it was difficult to strike up a conversation.

    ‘Why?’

    Because of this vicious killing intent? No. The shocking scar? In the Demon cult, a scar like that wasn’t even worth mentioning.

    ‘He’s not the Third Captain I know. He has fundamentally changed.’

    It was because Ma Dong-pil had changed as if he were living in a different world.

    He had become an unfamiliar person, as if he belonged to a separate realm, not the Third Captain of the Protector Court. And that too, in just eight months.

    The bond between the captains of the Protector Court, the connection between the hearty senior and the steadfast junior, had been severed. It felt as if they had been living in different worlds from the very beginning.

    ‘Moreover…’

    Gi Yang looked at Ma Dong-pil’s hands.

    They were covered in small scars that he had never seen during his time in the Protector Court. Even his palms, which were barely visible, had evident traces of repeated tearing and healing.

    ‘Just what kind of life has he been living?’

    Even outside of missions, he had trained relentlessly. But even then, he had never carried such wounds.

    The more he looked, the more puzzled, distressed, and uncomfortable he felt.

    At that moment, Ma Dong-pil, who had been maintaining silence, opened his mouth.

    “You must feel both relieved and disappointed.”

    “Huh?”

    “I heard the Vice Captain of your squad is getting married.”

    “Ah!”

    Gi Yang shook his head.

    “When the time comes, he has to go. By the way, you must have been busy in the Bamboo Forest of Solitude, so where did you hear that rumor?”

    “I come to the inner palace once or twice a month to get supplies.”

    “Is that so?”

    “Yes.”

    Gi Yang spoke as if he felt sorry.

    “You fool. If that were the case, you should have stopped by and shown your face long ago, not just now.”

    “I apologize.”

    Ma Dong-pil scratched his head as if embarrassed.

    Seeing his junior’s more relaxed demeanor, Gi Yang’s face also softened.

    “How is it serving the Third Young Master? Is it not difficult?”

    “The more difficult it is for me, the more comfortable it will be for the Young Master. Of course it should be difficult.”

    Gi Yang smiled slightly.

    ‘Right.’

    He thought that the unfamiliar appearance he had felt until now might have been his own misconception.

    Although his appearance and temperament had changed, Ma Dong-pil was still Ma Dong-pil.

    “It’s a pity that you’re short on time. Make sure to stop by sometime soon. Let’s have a drink and catch up.”

    “I understand. Please tell the Vice Captain that I’m sorry I can’t attend the ceremony.”

    “Don’t worry about it.”

    After a while, Ma Dong-pil, who had received the tea leaves brought by Lee Gun-seong, immediately stood up.

    Watching Ma Dong-pil’s retreating figure from afar, Gi Yang said,

    “Did you feel it too, Senior?”

    “I did.”

    Concern cast over Gi Yang’s face.

    “No matter how I think about it, that killing intent is not normal. Even a murderous demon who kills as often as eating wouldn’t emit such killing intent.”

    “…”

    “Could there be a problem?”

    “It means he’s been living a life dangerous enough to naturally exude such killing intent. And he’s still alive and well.”

    “…”

    “It’s unfortunate, but isn’t it a relief that he at least looks healthy?”

    Gi Yang sighed.

    A look of pity suddenly appeared on Lee Gun-seong’s face.

    ‘He has become stronger.’

    Ma Dong-pil’s martial prowess after eight months.

    In less than a year, he had become unbelievably stronger. His internal energy had increased astonishingly as if he had taken a spiritual medicine, and he had also become adept at controlling his energy.

    ‘That’s why I’m worried.’

    Even after controlling his energy, such killing intent was leaking out. It was unimaginable how vicious the killing intent Ma Dong-pil would emit when he was determined to engage in battle.

    ‘Just what kind of life has he been living?’

    Battles with demon beasts must have been frequent. However, it was unknown what kind of demon beasts he had fought against.

    Even the Guardians who had managed the Bamboo Forest of Solitude for several years had never entered the center of the forest. It was the same for Lee Gun-seong.

    ‘The position of the Third Young Master’s personal guard. He must have felt burdened. He probably crossed all sorts of deadly situations to protect the Young Master.’

    Gi Yang asked in a low voice.

    “He’ll manage well in the future too, right?”

    “Of course.”

    Lee Gun-seong replied with a forced smile.

    “He’ll return even stronger. That’s what I believe.”

    ***

    Swish.

    The entrance to the Bamboo Forest of Solitude.

    Ma Dong-pil checked his condition one more time.

    ‘I’ve gathered everything I need.’

    He had obtained new weapons, medicinal herbs from his fellow disciple in the Blood Soul Pavilion, and Quansong tea leaves from the First Captain.

    ‘Shall I go?’

    Whoosh!

    Ma Dong-pil’s body shot forward like a white line.

    Even without employing his movement technique to the extreme, he seemed to have become twice as fast as eight months ago. His once precise posture had become quite free-spirited, and his gaze, which had only focused forward, had widened to the left and right.

    The ease shown in his martial arts was proof that he understood the techniques well. The intense experiences over the past eight months had further enhanced his martial arts.

    Ma Dong-pil, who had found his identity as a proud martial artist rather than a mere bodyguard, was now an expert whose future growth was anticipated.

    How long had he been running like that?

    Aaaah!

    From somewhere in the forest, a beautiful woman’s voice could be heard.

    Of course, it wasn’t a real woman. It was the sound made by one of the demon beasts that had crawled to the outer edge of the forest.

    A beautiful voice that evoked a strange chill.

    ‘It’s a Zhu (human-shaped bird).’

    It wasn’t a highly dangerous demon beast. If someone with weak internal energy heard that sound, they would have a seizure, but it didn’t apply to Ma Dong-pil.

    Ma Dong-pil passed by that sound with familiarity.

    Before adapting to the forest, he had to find and kill it. He was afraid of the aftereffects.

    But not anymore. Neither Ma Dong-pil nor Seo Ryang were weak enough to be affected by such a low-level demon beast. There was no need to waste energy.

    Whoosh!

    After running for a moment longer, he finally saw the Bamboo Fortress, his residence.

    Thud!

    He stopped and spread his senses.

    Woong!

    The demonic energy that spread out had undergone a qualitative improvement incomparable to before.

    As Ma Dong-pil looked around, he tilted his head. He couldn’t sense the Young Master’s presence.

    “Did he go out?”

    He let out a deep sigh.

    “He moved alone again.”

    He wouldn’t have gone to a dangerous area. They had even made a promise not to do so unless they were together.

    Even so, he couldn’t help but worry. He was concerned that something might happen.

    “…Although he’s no longer someone who would be defeated by demon beasts.”

    Ma Dong-pil’s eyes wavered.

    On his stoic face, there was undeniable admiration and respect beyond mere respect.

    Ma Dong-pil had become stronger. The spiritual bamboo he had luckily harvested had been refined into high-quality spiritual medicine by Seo Ryang’s Boundless Arts, and some of it had entered Ma Dong-pil’s stomach.

    The medicinal power was so tremendous that he hadn’t even absorbed half of it yet. Nevertheless, the size of his dantian had doubled compared to before.

    Having a larger dantian doesn’t necessarily make one’s martial arts stronger, but it was common knowledge that it would greatly help future development. That alone was tremendous luck and immense growth.

    Meanwhile, Seo Ryang had surpassed even that level.

    ‘No matter how much enlightenment he has gained.’

    Ma Dong-pil shook his head.

    Everything about the Young Master was incomprehensible. It was full of things that ordinary people couldn’t understand.

    “I should clean up before he returns.”

    Ma Dong-pil entered the Bamboo Fortress and organized the supplies, then picked up a broom.

    Swish! Swish!

    With a single sweep, the bamboo leaves flew away. The dirty courtyard became clean in an instant.

    After easily cleaning the courtyard, he thoroughly cleaned Seo Ryang’s room, his own room, the storage room, and even the kitchen. He had become so accustomed to it that his sweeping and mopping exhibited the touch of a master.

    “This should do.”

    Having finished all the cleaning in less than half an hour, he glanced up at the sky.

    “It’s about time for the sun to set.”

    Rustle rustle.

    Ma Dong-pil’s eyes deepened.

    In the distance, the bamboo swayed. It seemed that the demon beasts were eating the bamboo.

    ‘They’ve come closer.’

    This Bamboo Fortress was the safest place in the Bamboo Forest of Solitude.

    But that was a thing of the past now. The current Bamboo Fortress had become similar to the middle region of the Bamboo Forest of Solitude in terms of the frequency of demon beast appearances, and it was expected to increase further.

    ‘It’s going to get tougher and tougher.’

    At that moment…

    Screech!

    From the place where the bamboo had swayed, the screams of demon beasts could be heard.

    Ma Dong-pil, who had been watching that spot with a calm face, brought his hand to the long sword at his waist. He was ready to draw it if necessary.

    Some time passed.

    Rustle. Rustle rustle.

    An unknown being slowly approached.

    Tension rose in Ma Dong-pil’s eyes. The spiritual energy of the Bamboo Forest of Solitude was the same as the spiritual energy of the demon beasts, so he couldn’t sense their presence unless they narrowed the distance to a certain extent.

    ‘The footsteps are heavy and steady. Not an ape… But it’s dragging something?’

    Woong.

    A faint demonic energy emanated from Ma Dong-pil’s body.

    The unknown being gradually, but certainly, drew closer.

    Grip.

    He tightly grasped the hilt of his sword.

    After a while, that being revealed itself.

    “Oh? You’re back already? I told you to go and catch up with your colleagues.”

    Recognizing the familiar face, Ma Dong-pil let out a sigh of relief.

    “You’re back…”

    Suddenly, he couldn’t continue speaking.

    The young man’s body was heavily stained with blood, and the body of the demon beast he had dragged along was brutally mutilated.

    “…Deer Demon?!”

    “I finally caught it. Damn, it was so difficult.”

    The young man, Seo Ryang, grinned.

    “Put water in the pot. Let’s have some venison meat.”

    Want to Read Ahead? Purchase Blooms or Subscribe Now

    Email Subscription