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    At Last They’d Returned

    On the cusp of winter, chilling winds now blew to herald the season’s advent.

    In the entry of winter when white mists billow out with each exhalation,

    the foliage boasting colorful beauty and splendor 

    had shed their cloaks, blanketing the earth beneath. 

    Each footfall along the paths rustled the crisp carpet of fallen leaves.  

     

    Clustered beyond the verdant Pohang Lake from which faint lapping could be heard—were structures as imposing and impregnable as fortresses, gathered together on a scale massive enough to dwarf ordinary towns or small cities. This expansive spread existed almost as a separate city from the urban sprawl of Nanchang’s Poyang Lake, enveloped entirely behind…walls? 

    No, calling it a wall wasn’t accurate. Over 20 meters tall and 5 meters thick, this enormous rectangular enclosure was hewn of gigantic, fitted stone blocks, making labeling it simply as a ‘wall’ somewhat forced. ‘Ramparts’ conveyed the concept much more appropriately. Scaling their towering height alone seemed improbable. These barriers evoked the imagery of unassailable bastions – cliffs too sheer to climb, bulwarks too firm to breach and impenetrable to batter down. Their fortified appearance was amplified by the thick, equally broad pathway lining the rampart summits.  

    This elevated avenue facilitated patrols and positioning of lookouts along predetermined points with ease. At its core, the epicenter of the mighty, magnificent battlements engulfing this colossal tract of land stood an obsidian gate as broad as 20 meters and nearly 30 meters in length. The ramparts around the gate climbed especially tall, due to the presence of a watchtower there. Including its roof, the quardturret’s elevation seemed to clear 70 meters.  

    Crowning the gate, whose imposing ramparts oozed a domineering aura—was a massive black plaque with golden trimming. Inscribed upon it in a font evoking a dragon that might spiral up into the skies at any instant were the golden characters for ‘Heavenly Martial Arts Academy’.  

    Solemn imposing manner, magnificence and majesty that one could sense without even entering. This place emanated an indescribable something that informed people of the concept called ‘awe’ and moreover encouraged them to embrace that awe – its name being none other than Heavenly Martial Arts Academy. But rather than denoting it as an academy for learning, grim bleak severity and austerity fitting of a fortress built in anticipation of countless showdowns and battles permeated this site. Then again, as a symbol of the peerless latent potential and hidden reserves of the martial world, perhaps the previously stated aspects were perfectly natural here.  

    Goyang-si and Baek Seok-dong, first-year students at Heavenly Martial Arts Academy, were currently on duty guarding the main gate. It was their turn to be on guard duty today. The academy’s security system required two people to team up and guard on assigned dates. The location of their duty changed each time. Goyang-si and Baek Seok-dong, having their duty day today, were thus stationed for guard duty. Their assigned position was the outer perimeter of the academy’s main gate. Unfortunately for them, this was a stroke of bad luck.

    Although termed outer perimeter defense, in effect this outer gate watch differed little from guest reception. As their position was outside the doors, they were saddled with miscellaneous tasks like screening people entering or leaving the academy, contacting personnel within, keeping visitor logs and records, and so forth. Hence it kept them busy without respite. It was the worst guard post, a location no one wanted to ever pull duty at twice. People beseeched the heavens while placing purifying charms, praying not to be assigned there again. Outer main gate watch could be considered the number one most notorious sentry point at the academy.  

    And the currently unlucky two standing at this hotbed of grumbles and nonsense were none other than Goyang-si and Baek Seok-dong today, whose fortune utterly failed them. Just how dire was this post when rumors spread within the academy that pulling outer main gate watch sapped your bones and sowed bald spots? Talk even went that if you pulled that shift once, your thingamajig wouldn’t stand up for an entire week afterwards.  

    Nanchang didn’t randomly become ranked first among the martial cities, of course. It owed its status as the current hub of the martial world and eminent city solely to the presence of Heavenly Martial Arts Academy there in Nanchang. And with Heavenly Martial Arts Academy occupying such a position, naturally countless visitors streamed to its gates. Just the academy affiliates alone, including enrolled students themselves, exceeded several thousand. But even discounting that, the crowds swarming daily easily amounted to hundreds.  

    Monitoring and inspecting each of these visitors was an arduous task. Although there wasn’t anyone specifically assigned to monitor everyone individually, the sheer volume of work was overwhelming, making it just as strenuous. 

    As a martial academy, Heavenly Martial Arts Academy operated under the ethos that those capable of wielding strength ought to rely on their own ability to defend the places they inhabited rather than depending on others. Hence roving patrols within academy grounds, guard posts, supervision of crowds, enforcement of discipline, dispute mediation and other affairs were divided among the academy body through self-governance, resolving all matters through independent effort.

    ‘Self-reliant strength to safeguard one’s training site without depending on others’—further exemplified Heavenly Martial Arts Academy’s ethos. However, no external forces had ever dared to infringe upon Heavenly Martial Arts Academy. After all, provoking Heavenly Martial Arts Academy which boasted the pinnacle of latent potential and hidden resources within Gangho held no prospect of gains for the aggressor. In fact, quite the opposite would happen—a thorough humiliation and defeat remained in the cards. Thus no factions ever picked fights or disputes with the academy either. Perhaps due to this, despite its scale, the Heavenly Martial Arts Academy’s security wasn’t enforced through stern means with large patrol units. Only a few rotating shift guards took turns at regular intervals.  

    During the day, the security presence was almost non-existent, and it was not much different at night. There were only a few who patrolled the academy walls and the students who took turns standing guard inside the premises. However, it would be a gross misunderstanding to think that the daytime guards had nothing to do and could idle away their time. This was especially true for the guards at the outer gate, as they had to manage the visitors to the academy. And the problem was the overwhelming number of these visitors.

    Neither Goyang-si nor Baek Seok-dong were in good moods. Assigning expected outstanding talents esteemed throughout the Gangho like themselves to tasks that should fall on lower ranked martial artists felt quite disagreeable. After all, the instant one passed Heavenly Martial Arts Academy’s enrollment examinations and entered its gates, that itself was acknowledgement of one’s martial prowess equal to the very best in the land. So for figures of their own caliber, to pull guard shifts and reception duties, was naturally rather grating.

    Baek Seok-dong was a promising student from the Beggar’s Sect, and Goyang-si was a disciple who had received personal instruction from the leader of the Qingcheng Sect, excelling in the Qingcheng’s swordsmanship. Considering those simply admitted into Heavenly Martial Arts Academy’s gates were already appraised as first-rate, these two could by no means be called greenhorns. Well, that is, unless they exited the premises – then they were worthless inside Heavenly Martial Arts Academy. Reputations garnered outside meant zilch within. A gathering place of dragons and phoenixes who were esteemed throughout the land, meager skills won no recognition here. Especially for first-year students like them, were utterly inconsequential to public eyes. To upperclassmen, juniors like them were just errand runners or playthings, nothing more.   

    Among the various guard duties, being responsible for the inner gate watchtower above the main gate was relatively comfortable. The roof provided shade from the sun, and occasionally, they could even sit and stretch their legs. Furthermore, patrolling the academy’s interior was one of the easier tasks, simply requiring them to walk around with a sword. 

    Yet such cozy spots naturally all went first to seniors while juniors like Goyang-si and Baek Seok-dong, what remained for them were only the most difficult tasks, akin to being left with only scraps. Such was tradition and custom here. Things were surely similar anywhere though. ‘I knew it’ Goyang-si and Baek Seok-dong muttered, hustling busily without a moment’s respite. Starting from the morning, there was a constant stream of people coming and going from the moment they replaced the previous shift at the hour of the rabbit. The academy permitted outsiders to enter starting from the early hour of the rabbit (around 8AM)  

    Yet oddly enough, as noon approached with the sun overhead, the traffic seemed to dwindle as people apparently went for lunch, finally allowing Goyang-si and Baek Seok-dong a breather, just as the morning affairs alone had drained them bone-dry. They sincerely expressed condolences to the next shift replacements for the torment that awaited them while catching their own blissful break. There was about half an hour left until the change of shift.

    Shortly after…

    Having caught his breath first with a relaxed mindset, Baek Seok-dong struck up a conversation with Goyang-si. The topic was about a group of people that had recently become the hottest subject of interest at Heavenly Martial Arts Academy.

    “Hey Goyang-si, have you heard about the recent talk over the Vermillion Bird team? The whole academy’s abuzz over them.”  

    “Obviously, Baek Seok-dong. It’s the hottest current affair around the academy premises. I hear even the training instructors and masters have been fretting plenty over the issue.”

    Goyang-si replied as if he knew some monumental secret.

    “That makes sense. The Azure Dragon, White Tiger and Black Tortoise teams all returned 2 months ago and have been immersed in training, yet aside from one measly letter, the Vermillion Bird team’s had zero contact in 2 months now. Their absence must be worrying the faculty sick.” Seemingly pondering for a moment, Baek Seok-dong appended another statement, “And that single letter they sent back just had the one line ‘We shall not return until we witness the ending. – The Vermillion Bird team’ apparently. I bet all the recent internal discussions are related to that.”

    As expected of a disciple of the Beggar’s Sect, Baek Seok-dong was already well-informed on all key events – his recollection of the letter’s contents was flawlessly accurate, truly befitting the disciple of Beggar’s Sect who was hailed as keeping abreast of every piece of information across Gangho.

    “I hear the Azure Dragon, White Tiger and Black Tortoise teams also have their nerves on edge. Well, after unexpectedly vanishing for additional months of secluded cultivation beyond all plans, I suppose it’s only natural for them to feel antsy over the Vermillion Bird team showing no signs of emerging from those mountains or returning. Right, Goyang-si?”  

    “Yeah, they seem to be preparing something big, so the rest are probably being vigilant and alert to avoid losing their spots.”  

    Up until now – no, up until summer – the handpicked members of the Vermillion Bird team had ranked at the bottom among the 4 top-tier groups. And that remained unchanged even when they departed for their joint training excursion. Everyone assumed the status quo would persist upon their return from the camp as well. Hence, the Vermillion Bird team’s sudden unforeseen delay and prolonged absence even skipping the latter curriculum had left the other 3 teams tense and on pins and needles.

    “My annoying senior brother Noh Hak, who often bullied me, also got dragged along in the recent incident of the Vermillion Bird team but there’s still no news about him too…”  

    Baek Seok-dong felt skeptical about Noh Hak truly being a disciple of the Beggar’s Sect since there had been no news from him. He recalled Noh Hak, who, despite being only a year his senior, always bragged about his experience and bullied him. The mere thought of it soured his mood. It was strange and quite suspicious for a disciple of the Beggar’s Sect to have not sent any news for two months.

    The information referred to here was not what was sent to Heavenly Martial Arts Academy but rather what should have been sent to the headquarters of the Beggar’s Sect. If there was a delay of two months, there must have been a significant reason, and in that case, Noh Hak should have managed to send some information to the headquarters, no matter what. That was the proper conduct expected of someone affiliated with the Beggar’s Sect. Yet, instead of the awaited information, only a single, dubious letter had arrived at the academy, stating nothing more than an unconvincing excuse about needing to learn more…

    Baek Seok-dong couldn’t help but be lost in thought. Just what kind of people were they that they hadn’t finished learning yet and wrote saying they would be back after absorbing everything? For freshmen like himself – no – for any new enrollment to the academy, they undoubtedly aspired towards becoming members of the Four Symbols Coalition, the top-cream elite squad. And now these select few admitted to that esteemed circle claimed to be lacking and deficient…? It was understandable if certain teachings were withheld, but failing to grasp what had been imparted…? Suspicions steadily stacked higher on deeper doubts over the matter.

    “Hmm?”  

    Just then, a group of people came stumbling towards the academy, their short midday shadows stretched out before them. It was a mixed group of men and women, all with disheveled hair and messy clothes, some with rips and tears. At their waists they carried various weapons, and despite their unkempt appearance, an ominous aura emanated from them.

    Adding to the impression, they all wore red clothes stained here and there with black splotches that looked eerily like blood splatters.  

    As they approached right in front of Heavenly Martial Arts Academy, Goyang-si and Baek Seok-dong drew their swords at the same time and shouted,

    “Who goes there! Identify yours- *Thwack!*”  

    A spark of astonishment flashed in Baek Seok-dong’s eyes.

    “How dare you address me informally!”

    The moment they shouted “Who goes there,” one man, wearing especially dirty clothes and an even dirtier face, charged forward and slammed a fist into Baek Seok-dong’s iron jaw. The force was nothing to scoff at. As punishment for Baek Seok-dong’s rude mouth and tongue, the messy man landed a blow on his granite-solid head. Notably, the man wore rags like those worn by beggars, yet like the rest of his group, his clothes were also red and spattered with black stains.

    At his waist hung an eight-knotted cord, symbolizing he was an 8th level disciple of the Beggar’s Sect, just under the Elders in rank, was no low status. While Baek Seok-dong himself had a 7-knot cord, he couldn’t exactly call the other man his junior, as the latter was certainly older and higher ranked. Among 7-knot disciples and up, there was no one younger than Baek Seok-dong.  

    The pain, the f*cking voice, the sh*tty attitude, everything – it was all too familiar, which honestly surprised Baek Seok-dong.

    “Senior…Noh Hak…?”  

    The response to his question verifying recollection arrived swiftly.  

    “That’s right, you bumpkin!” 

    Fortunately the assessment proved Baek Seok-dong’s cognitive competence and judgment weren’t too awful, a point worth celebrating, yet he felt no delight whatsoever. Why would he feel happy that his spiteful tormentor of a senior brother has returned? Maybe if a nice, easy-to-take-advantage-of junior was back instead… However, with the comeback of senior Noh Hak leading these 16 people, it conveyed a singular fact:  

    “The 16 members of the Vermillion Bird team have successfully returned to Heavenly Martial Arts Academy. Please send a notification inside.”  

    Stepping forward, the Vermillion Bird team’s team leader Namgoong Sang announced. Without Baek Seok-dong gesturing at all, Goyang-si immediately darted in to relay the crucial message.  

    At last, there was finally confirmation of the Vermillion Bird team’s return to Heavenly Martial Arts Academy. Their comeback bathed in blood-hued clothing beneath the midday shadows. Undeniably, the outfits had indeed been white – albeit still somewhat grubby – when they parted from Bi Ryu-yeon before the Central Armed Escort Agency at the foothold of Mount Emei. Now the drastic change into deeply crimson uniforms silently hinted at the many untold stories along their journey. It had been 7 months since their departure from Heavenly Martial Arts Academy.  

    Curiosity brimmed within Baek Seok-dong, as did manifold questions and doubts. But that was a common trait for most Beggar’s Sect members like himself. For the sect, where information was life, it was only natural.

    Yesterday there was a wedding at the Jang family for their son. Today there’s a 60th birthday banquet at the Jin family home for their patriarch Jin Dae-in. Tomorrow there will be a funeral at the Kang family’s place, and the day after is Choe family’s grandson’s first birthday party. Knowing detailed information like this makes it easy to act arrogant and throw one’s weight around.

    Starting from basics like that, the Beggar’s Sect expands out to gather all kinds of personal and private information – even highly restricted stuff. Like what color underwear the beautiful Jang Mo Yang, the forbidden fruit granddaughter of Elder Jang Moon-in of the Diancang Sect, and also a 2nd year student at Heavenly Martial Arts Academy, wore today, how many days she’s worn the same pair, how many times she changes them per week, what her menstrual cycle length is, the size of her breasts, the narrowness of her waist, the firmness of her butt, and precise measurements of her three sizes.

    With such devoted focus on gathering intimate personal data, especially on women, the Beggar’s Sect has built an unrivaled information network. Guys like Baek Seok-dong here, who leer at and collect that kind of information as a hobby, are pretty common. Data related to private affairs and identities are considered top secret, women’s information in particular.

    To give another example showing the extent of the Beggar’s Sect’s capabilities – they know exactly how many months pregnant the first daughter-in-law of the 1st year Diancang Sect’s Elder Moon-in currently is, whether the baby is a son or daughter, or even twins, and through fully checking, whether the child is really belongs to the husband’s or not. From this, one can easily grasp just how great their information gathering skills are.

    Due to this overwhelming intelligence gathering power, some people in the Gangho mockingly call Beggar’s Sect the “Big-eared fools with empty minds” and “Beggar’s Sect Head’s ears are donkey ears”. Apart from information, they say Beggar’s Sect members have nothing left in their heads but scalp stumps and cracked flower pots. Perhaps such endless curiosity and hunger for information is only natural for them.

    And so, Baek Seok-dong was dying of curiosity about what had surprised him. Even with esteemed seniors lined up and his spiteful senior brother mixed among them, he would not back down. While others may not, Noh Hak at least would answer—his personality may be shitty but he wouldn’t break the sect’s rules and protocols. As a 7th knot Beggar’s Sect disciple, Baek Seok-dong had access rights to information up to top secret level, so he had the right to demand and receive data from Noh Hak, unless it was S-class intel.

    What first surprised Baek Seok-dong was that their red clothes were not originally red. But when he learned the red dye came from people’s blood, he was even more shocked. The black splotches on the Vermillion Bird members’ clothes were bloodstains from wounds. Seeing them wearing clothes steeped in and reeking of blood, Baek Seok-dong couldn’t help his curious gaze. In his staring eyes, the character for “curious” was deeply engraved onto his pupils.

    “Seniors, just how on earth did your clothes end up like that?”

    With a face that said he absolutely couldn’t figure it out, Baek Seok-dong cautiously asked. His expression conveyed that he was going crazy from curiosity and desperately wanted an explanation quickly.

    Pfft. Amused by his question, Hyun-woon glanced at his friend Namgoong Sang standing beside him with a meaningful look. He must have something to say.

    “Quite incredible, wasn’t it?!”  

    As if concurring to Hyeonun’s borderline nonsensical statement, Namgung Sang silently nodded, answering bluntly, “Almost turned into a huge disaster!”

    “Damn right. I thought I was a goner!” Noh Hak cut in brashly.  

    “Back then, sir Joo’s face white as a sheet…” Recalling Jang Wooyang’s pallid expression, Geum Yeong-ho snickered softly.  

    “I was pretty hard-pressed when nearly 500 people suddenly popped out too…” As though the memory didn’t put her in good cheer, Jin Ryeong carefully picked out her words regarding the events of the past.  

    “Right, it was like they knew and were lying in wait to ambush us.”

    It was Tang Cheol-yeong. His hands have taken countless lives. They should consider themselves fortunate he did not readily take more.

    “But the boss of that first group that charged out looked kind of strange,” Nohak commented. He was genuinely curious about why the leader of the bandits, who had the audacity to raid a shipment of Central Armed Escort Agency and also one of the top ten escort agencies, looked so disheveled.

    “Yup, that too. That so-called mountain bandit boss of Tiger Bone or whatever, who popped out saying they’d completely sack us and fled… he had a swollen, bloody eye and his split, ragged lips looked so pathetic.”

    Apparently Geum Yeong-ho fully endorsed Noh Hak’s statement as well, albeit speaking lightheartedly as if ridiculing the image. But for listener Baek Seok-dong, the impact weighed anything but lightly.

    “Tiger Bone Fortress?! You mean the ones occupying a spot among the 72 Fortresses of Green Forests?!”  

    Mouth dropping open at this stunning revelation, Baek Seok-dong cried out.  

    “Yeah, one of the 72 for sure. Well, right smack at the bottom end though.” Noh Hak nodded in affirmation at his shock.  

    In truth, the rest hadn’t realized Tiger Bone’s place as one of the 72 either. Likely ignorance would have persisted if not for Noh Hak’s explanation. 72 Forts of Green Forests—as the name suggested, that made a whopping 72 mountain fortresses, didn’t it? Yet who had enough inclination or patience to memorize all 72 of them? Thus most could only name several of the more prominent, renowned ones while the identities of those at the farthest, most obscure fringes dwelling the bottom seats remained unknown mysteries. But Noh Hak knew, naturally. He was an esteemed 8-knot Beggar’s Sect disciple, after all.

    “Anyway, it was a huge fight. They weren’t all that capable individually but dang they had numbers. Just kept stupidly rushing in blindly relying on quantity. Well, the renown of being among the 72 Fortress probably bolstered their nerves somewhat. The escort group coming out unscathed aside from some injuries really was a blessing of fortune for them. We did bash those idiots half-senseless driving them off, but…” Noh Hak appended.

    “Once their boss was chopped down… they scattered on their own.” Jo Cheon Woo, who finds life’s joy in the occasional lines he contributes, seized the opportunity without fail. Without even that bit of joy, his existence loses meaning. For now, at least.

    “Not just chopped. Sliced in two.”

    In a position barely differing from Jo Cheon Woo’s, Kunlun Sect’s Yi Ja Ryong sharply jumped in to stake his claim. It was to make known of their existence and ensure they would not be forgotten.

    “….”

    In the end, Il-gong[1] preserved his trademark wordlessness.  

    “Two… times?”

    1. the one from Shaolin Sect[]
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