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    Of course, it was all just for show. They didn’t have the courage to stand up to Blazing Blade. Just as those typical characters who only talked big were about to rush forward, Frozen Sword raised his hand to stop them. If the disciples of the Martial Arts Hall charged in recklessly, it could lead to tremendous casualties, so he intervened to prevent such a tragedy.

    “Endure it. Regrettably, his words are true. Oon-su’s sword… is still far away!”

    “Grand Master!”

    Everyone exclaimed in unison, shocked. At the Martial Arts Hall, they revered him as their great teacher. His influence within the hall was absolute. It was utterly incomprehensible for him to readily agree to the other party’s unreasonable demands.

    “Just give them that worthless recommendation!”

    “We can’t do that!”

    Everyone in the hall protested vehemently. However, Frozen Sword’s resolve had already hardened like a diamond, impossible to scratch.

    “It’s useless to Oon-su anyway. In fact, with his current skill level, it’s still difficult for him to overcome the hurdle of the Heavenly Martial Arts Academy. Wielding a sword without having attained true swordsmanship, displaying meaningless sword techniques devoid of will, would only make him a laughingstock. Today’s event will serve as a sharp reminder for Oon-su! Let’s look forward to next year and give them that recommendation. It’s my fault for not properly recognizing Oon-su’s abilities.”

    This day truly became one where Gam Oon-su’s luck ran out, falling into misfortune. Frozen Sword let out a dejected sigh and raised his head, gazing endlessly at the sky. It was a silent declaration of his unwillingness to involve himself further in this matter. With his resolute stance, the disciples of the Martial Arts Hall no longer dared to refuse his words. Gritting his teeth, shedding tears, and with trembling hands, the Martial Arts Hall Master, Ho Cheon-sang, handed over the Ascending Dragon Badge, the special recommendation for the Heavenly Martial Arts Academy. It was not a mere piece of paper but a jade tablet made of green jade. On the green jade surface was a carved relief depicting a dragon ascending while riding a sword, and at the top of the tablet, the four characters “Heavenly Martial Arts Academy” were engraved in a magnificent, lifelike calligraphy. It was an extraordinary object exuding an uncommon aura. Perhaps that aura was the culmination of the collective will of the countless individuals dreaming of the Heavenly Martial Arts Academy. That’s what Bi Ryu-yeon thought. Of course, he also didn’t forget to consider that it could fetch a high price if sold.

    Having achieved his goal, Bi Ryu-yeon turned and left the Martial Arts Hall without any lingering attachments. Naturally, Blazing Blade accompanied him. Both of them didn’t spare a single glance back. Left behind at the scene they had departed from were the unconscious martial artists and guests who had been severely beaten, as well as the immense financial losses and the devastating wounds inflicted upon their pride and honor. Indelible scars of humiliation. This day would be remembered by the disciples of the Martial Arts Hall as a day of disgrace, along with the dark shadows of the two men…

    “Grand Master.”

    Ho Cheon-sang quietly called out to Frozen Sword from the courtyard where the two men had left without looking back. Due to the grave atmosphere, Ho Cheon-sang, who had been silently standing by, managed to utter the words stuck in his throat. His voice was very thin and weak, already lacking confidence. However, Frozen Sword didn’t even respond to his call and coldly turned his back.

    “I want to rest.”

    Leaving behind only these words, Frozen Sword disappeared into the pavilion. As Ho Cheon-sang tried to grab Frozen Sword, who had just turned around, his foot accidentally touched one of the scattered flowers and plants. It was an unknown flower with leaves resembling an orchid, but as soon as Ho Cheon-sang’s foot touched it, it shattered into pieces like glass fragments. Looking at the shattered flower and the spot where he stood, Ho Cheon-sang was horrified. The trees and plants within a one-jang radius had all frozen white. And when he lightly touched them, they all crumbled into ice powder, shattering into pieces.

    Ho Cheon-sang was shocked beyond belief. Without even realizing it, Frozen Sword’s cold ice true energy had been released, freezing the surroundings into pure white. This meant that even he, known for his composure and calmness, had exerted so much mental strength that he couldn’t easily control his true energy. Yet, he had tried to appear calm in front of Blazing Blade. Of course, the situation on Blazing Blade’s side was not much better. The trees and plants surrounding where Blazing Blade had stood had all withered and died, and the stones within a one-and-a-half-jang radius where he had stepped and stood were all heated red, to the point that touching them without drawing upon true energy would instantly cause burns.

    The withered plants turned to dust and scattered in the air as soon as they were touched by human hands. The two men had reached a realm beyond ordinary human understanding. Witnessing this, Ho Cheon-sang and his group(?) were at a loss for words. The thought of these two individuals with such capabilities clashing within his martial arts hall sent shivers down their spines. If the two had truly confronted each other here, the Martial Arts Hall would have been reduced to ruins, with even its pillars uprooted. It was a terrifying thought.

    Bi Ryu-yeon and Blazing Blade leisurely returned after achieving their goal—well, only Bi Ryu-yeon was leisurely—and for ten days after that day, Frozen Sword Gwan Cheol-su remained in seclusion, not leaving the pavilion. From the Martial Arts Hall Master to all the members of the hall, everyone looked up at the sky with a sense of desolation, and the sky was annoyingly still as high and blue as ever. As if mocking them, the afternoon sunlight quietly shone down on the courtyard littered with unconscious individuals and shattered debris, as if saying it had nothing to do with the situation. All of this had transpired within a single hour, starting from noon.

    ***

    The Talent of Taiji, Combining Two into One

    A week after the visit to the Martial Arts Hall! Na Junghae of Hall of Favorable Winds kept his promise.

    Three days after meeting Na Junghae,

    In other words, two days after the peaceful(?) and friendly(?) visit to the Martial Arts Hall,

    A messenger arrived from the Heavenly Martial Arts Academy.

     

    Blazing Blade’s condition was that they would agree to any terms he proposed. Of course, it was something they had been waiting for, so they gladly accepted the academy’s proposal. Thus, the matter was swiftly settled, and it was agreed that on the day of this year’s entrance ceremony at the Heavenly Martial Arts Academy, Blazing Blade would also enter the academy as a martial arts instructor. The best accommodations and treatment were to be provided. At least everything was going smoothly. Although Blazing Blade’s mood had been constantly unsettled lately, it did not affect the negotiations. The messengers displayed the utmost courtesy when they arrived and when they departed, just as they had done before.

    After the messengers from the Heavenly Martial Arts Academy had left, Bi Ryu-yeon quietly sat in his room, gazing out the window at the sunset, and took out an object, turning it over and examining it. This jade tablet, with a golden tassel and a carved relief of a dragon ascending while riding a sword within its green jade borders, was none other than the famous Ascending Dragon Badge. The Ascending Dragon Badge, the recommendation tablet for admission to the Heavenly Martial Arts Academy, obtained by thoroughly overturning a martial arts sect!

    How many people had shed tears of blood for Bi Ryu-yeon to acquire this? However, Bi Ryu-yeon, who seemed to have lost all seriousness, played with the Ascending Dragon Badge, which he had obtained through such a tremendous commotion, tossing and turning it as if it were a toy. It wasn’t that he had any particular thoughts; he was just bored and doing it for fun. As always, he had no serious thoughts.

    “Is this thing really that amazing?”

    The Ascension Martial Arts Festival, which began the day after the visit to the Martial Arts Hall, continued for a week. During this time, which could be considered long or short, numerous stages were set up and destroyed repeatedly to select the finalists. Then, through numerous matches where swords, palms, blades, and whips danced chaotically according to the principles and flow of martial arts, the gems among those named as finalists were distinguished.

    Finally, a week after the Ascension Martial Arts Festival, one of the biggest and grandest events in the martial arts world, concluded amid passionate enthusiasm and interest. The day of the announcement of the successful applicants, which everyone had been eagerly awaiting, had arrived. It was a moment that drew the attention of all martial artists throughout the Nine Provinces.

    On this day, the scene at the announcement board was extremely crowded, just like in previous years. A sea of black hair spread out. Crowds packed so tightly that not a single gap could be seen. A deafening buzz that made one’s head spin. The announcement hall was dominated by an exciting, sizzling heat that stirred people up. Anyone present here would undoubtedly feel the thrilling excitement and fervor. However, even the boisterous clamor that drove people crazy gradually subsided as the announcement of the successful applicants began, and eventually, the hall was engulfed in a silence so profound that one could detect the sound of a needle dropping.

    The announcement of the successful applicants was conducted by Ok Ho-jin, a renowned elder of the Wudang Sect. As befitting a renowned elder of the Wudang Sect, one of the two leading sects among the Nine Great Sects, he announced the names and affiliations of those admitted to the Heavenly Martial Arts Academy in a clear, articulate tone infused with internal energy, ensuring that the gathered crowd could hear him accurately.

    As each successful applicant was announced, there were people laughing, people crying, people laughing with joy, people laughing in despair, people crying with emotion, people crying as if wronged, people being tossed into the air, and even people throwing away their swords, the lifeline of a martial artist. It seemed like a place where one could comprehensively observe, witness, compare, analyze, and study all kinds of human characters.

    The announcement hall unfilteredly displayed the diverse appearances of these various individuals. Moreover, there were people who inevitably appeared on this day every year: those who wanted to voice their grievances about being unfairly rejected and those who couldn’t bear the resentment of failure and went to protest at the Heavenly Martial Arts Academy. Among them, there were frequent cases where some drew their swords or clenched their fists as a means of protest and grievance. However, what kind of place was the Heavenly Martial Arts Academy? Such fellows couldn’t even set foot inside the academy, let alone the tip of their big toe, and they were severely beaten and expelled at the entrance.

    They might try to make a meaningless display of swordsmanship, claiming it was an unfair judgment or that they were wronged, but if their skills were lacking and they were eliminated, how could they have the ability to protest properly? It was just a momentary impulse and a gesture that would dissipate as futilely as bubbles. They should have been grateful just to survive and keep their lives. They should have been a hundred times thankful to the academy’s personnel, who restrained themselves and didn’t want to see blood spilled on a good day.

    Despite the strict punishment for these violent protesters who tiresomely appear every year, as if critically lacking in rational thinking and learning abilities, a crowd control unit is always stationed at the main entrance on the announcement day to suppress the rioters who resurge in large numbers the following year. And even though they know it won’t work, like people under hypnosis, they come and draw their swords in a futile attempt, like a mantis trying to stop a chariot, and the unit deals with these pathetic fellows. The most troublesome ones are those who bring along their friends, disciples from their sects, or hired warriors from their families, and cause a commotion in groups. These are the most headache-inducing situations, and when such groups emerge, the Heavenly Martial Arts Academy shows no mercy. They must make an example out of them to deter others who might harbor similar thoughts.

    Once an example is made and some of these foolish groups receive severe punishment, with their limbs spectacularly broken or being dragged away by their companions to be carried to the physician, people’s blocked minds start to clear up a bit, and they begin to face reality. After that, the disturbance subsides considerably. The members of the crowd control unit are all senior disciples of the Heavenly Martial Arts Academy, and no matter how hard one looks, not a single ordinary martial artist of low or middle skill can be found among these supreme masters. And the commander in charge of leading them is one of the martial arts instructors personally. So how could riots and misconduct ever succeed against such masters? It’s simply preposterous.

    Since the establishment of the Heavenly Martial Arts Academy, there has never been a single instance of someone breaking through the main entrance by force. Yet, seeing these people rush in even after getting drunk, one can’t help but feel disillusioned and think that humans are truly the most pathetic creatures. These fellows, whose heads are indistinguishable from rocks, naturally deserved to be eliminated. How can someone who can’t even control themselves properly master martial arts? It’s like pouring water into a bottomless pot…

    The day of the announcement of the admission results at the Heavenly Martial Arts Academy is not only the most chaotic day in Nanchang City, but also the day when the entire entertainment district of Nanchang City makes the most profitable business. It’s the day when they earn the money they need to make in a month, all in a single day. Moreover, this sleepless city continues for at least a week. Whether they pass or fail, people end up drinking heavily. If they pass, they drink in celebration, and if they fail, they drink all night to forget everything and drown their sorrows. Those who fail the exam keep drinking until their brains are numb with alcohol, trying to forget their miserable situation. Is it a kind of compensation mentality?

    And if alcohol isn’t enough, they find women to cling to, above or below, writhing as they please. So how could the sales of the entertainment district not increase? If asked to pick the most profitable day of the year, the owners of all the taverns and brothels belonging to the entertainment district association of Nanchang would undoubtedly choose this day without hesitation. This day when the night of Nanchang is abuzz with drinking and dancing…

    However, there was someone who quietly observed this chaotic scene as if it had nothing to do with him. It was none other than Bi Ryu-yeon. At the moment, Bi Ryu-yeon’s mood was very unpleasant, despite having obtained the Ascending Dragon Badge.

    Ten days since the visit to the Martial Arts Hall. Blazing Blade still hadn’t recovered from the shock of meeting Frozen Sword Gwan Cheol-su. He remained silent, relying on the boat of silence and endlessly drifting down the river of contemplation. He was in a state of protest, with his mouth and tongue completely sealed, lost in thought. This gloomy appearance of Blazing Blade made Bi Ryu-yeon, who was watching from the side, feel suffocated. For Blazing Blade, who had a personality of eliminating the cause of his frustration before his own heart became frustrated, this behavior was extremely unusual.

    Bi Ryu-yeon found it suffocating and unpleasant to watch such a sight. Seeing someone who usually acted recklessly and violently according to his mood now engaged in an unsuitable activity of contemplation accompanied by silence was spine-chilling to the observer. Bi Ryu-yeon was holding back his urge to just beat him up, but his patience was already reaching its limit. It seemed that not many days were left before he would make a decision.

    The reason why Blazing Blade was always deeply lost in thought and had left an indelible scar on his heart was, of course, because of Frozen Sword. The Heavenly Martial Arts Academy, where only those with the strongest power, the strongest technique, and the strongest spirit could enter—his nemesis-like fellow disciple was teaching students there. And now, he himself was trying to enter that place. As a martial arts instructor with the same position and status as him! No, he held the position of a Grand Master, so would Blazing Blade be below him…? This was something he really didn’t want to think about.

    “Master!”

    Suddenly, his deceased master came to mind. The master whom even he and Frozen Sword together could hardly match if they attacked simultaneously. He was the martial artist most deserving of the title “The Greatest Under the Heavens.” His skills and techniques were so outstanding that he and Cheol-su had to inherit his incomplete martial arts, divided into two halves. How much had their master lamented back then? Even now, the master’s devastating disappointment was still vividly engraved deep in his heart, unforgotten. Even with just half of what they had refined and developed, they could each claim a spot among the top five swordsmen and top five blademasters in the world.

    The master, who was not ashamed of the title “The Greatest Under the Heavens.” Who would have expected death to come for such a master? He thought the master would live even longer than him… Although he had been wounded by someone—he still couldn’t believe that the master had been maligned by someone else’s hand—in fact, the master’s death could not be called a death. Even with wounds all over his body, the master’s face was strangely peaceful. And then, as if it were any other day, he sat in a proper meditation posture, savored a cup of Dragon Well tea, and quietly ascended to the heavens. He left the secular world of his own will. The master’s last wish was to find the talent of Taiji who could combine two into one, but in the end, Blazing Blade failed to fulfill it. Moreover, the possibility of fulfilling it in the future was virtually nonexistent. It would probably remain impossible forever.

    Sitting quietly and lost in thought for the first time in a long while, the master suddenly came to mind. He hadn’t thought of him recently… In the end, she also came to mind along with him. He really didn’t want to think about her. He wanted to bury her in the depths of his memory, but she unexpectedly resurfaced. Suddenly, his chest felt as if it were being constricted, and a terrible sense of loss and loneliness visited him.

    Forget it, forget it. Only after repeating this to himself thousands of times could he finally shake off her image. The master’s death was the most ideal death for a martial artist, but still, she couldn’t hold back her sorrow. She was immersed in grief, shedding tears as clear as crystal from her jade-like face. But… But… Again, his chest began to ache. Damn it, it was a warning that if he thought about it any further, he would suffer an even greater wound. The cruel wounds of the heart. It is said that wounds inflicted on the heart do not fade even in the next life. The indelible scars left by her, who had given him wounds that could not be healed—how much pain had he endured? Many aspects of his current fiery temperament were due to this.

    The most precious thing hidden in the deepest part of his heart had been wounded. That person, who had left an indelible mark of pain on his heart like a branding iron. He no longer wanted to suffer from the lingering traces of her. Absolutely not.

    He also wanted to be free from Frozen Sword.

    “I am Gwak Yeonghee, one of the top five blademasters in the world, wielder of the Fire Spirit Heavenly Soul-Stealing Blade[1]. Gwan Cheol-su of the Cold Moon Ice-Clear Fallen Sword[한월빙청낙백검(寒月氷淸落魄劍)]][! I will settle the score with him soon. I will no longer stand by and watch as his remnants grip my ankles and ceaselessly wound and torment my heart.”

    Finally, Blazing Blade made a resolute decision for his course of action. That decision was as firm and solid as a diamond. And he discarded all the bundles of thoughts he had been struggling with. From now on, never again would he hesitate or be reluctant in front of him.

    1. 화령염천탈혼도(火靈焰天奪魂刀)[]
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