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    It was when I was heading back to Jinrang Valley near Luoyang to meet Mang-ryang. At a distance still a week’s journey away from Jinrang Valley, I noticed a massive dark cloud rolling in unexpectedly.

    ‘What is that? A rain cloud?’

    Thanks to my excellent eyesight, I spotted it, and it indeed was a huge cloud. At a glance, it was a vast rain cloud mixed with thunderclouds, likely to reach where I was standing within an hour or so. It was filled with an immense amount of water vapor, and entering that area would probably lead to a downpour.

    Naturally, even with my swift lightness skill, I couldn’t outpace the celestial clouds, so I headed into a nearby village. I then asked the villagers,

    “May I seek shelter from the rain here for a moment?”

    All eyes in the village turned to me.

    “Rain? It’s so clear right now, what do you mean…”

    A middle-aged man who had been resting under a tree from his farming chuckled. However, before he could make more idle talk, a strong humidity hit our noses. People began to notice the black clouds gathering from afar, one by one.

    “Rain, it’s rain!”

    “Trouble! We need to gather the dried crops quickly!”

    The villagers started busily collecting their crops in a frenzy. The middle-aged man, who had been standing there dumbfounded, shouted at me,

    “Young man! Sorry, but could you help? We need to get these sacks inside quickly.”

    “Of course. I can stay out of the rain for today, right?”

    “Yes! We’ll even feed you.”

    I moved swiftly, quickly transferring the sacks of grain he had been drying in the sun indoors. Before I could even catch my breath, the heavy sacks were inside, which astonished the middle-aged man. It made sense, considering I had moved what would take two or three strong men to carry in a mere instant. Since there was still time before the rain, I helped a few others as well.

    Ssshhh…

    Rumble…

    Shortly afterward, a thunderstorm hit, bringing heavy rain to the village. The amount of rain was too much to be considered a mere shower. Fortunately, many buildings in the village were well-prepared for flooding, so the damage from the rain didn’t seem too severe.

    Wiping sweat from his forehead, the middle-aged man who let me into his house said,

    “Phew… I really appreciate it. But how did you know about the rain?”

    “I have good eyesight.”

    “Right. There’s some porridge in the kitchen; I’ll serve you some. You can stay for the day.”

    Crackle…

    “Ugh… The fire won’t start.”

    “Just a moment.”

    Seeing that the dry firewood was not catching fire, I used my Spiritual Thunder technique to ignite the hearth. When I forced the fire onto the firewood, the middle-aged man looked surprised. It was probably beyond his understanding to use dry wood as firewood.

    “Huh… Are you a martial artist?”

    “I’m just wandering and practicing.”

    “Anyway, I can’t thank you enough. Do you have a destination?”

    “I’m heading towards Jinrang Valley. I was planning to walk all day, but it got disrupted.”

    Then the middle-aged man said,

    “Jinrang Valley is far away. You must be having a hard time.”

    “Not really.”

    “Oh, right! Since you’re a martial artist, I’ll give you a good tip.”

    “Yes?”

    He glanced around sneakily and then whispered,

    “If you cross two mountains from here, there’s a place called Jangryeong Valley. I’ve heard that a rich man living there enjoys posing intriguing problems to others. Rumor has it that anyone who solves them gets gold.”

    “Gold just for solving a problem?”

    “Yes! That’s why in recent years, many scholars and martial artists who pride themselves on their knowledge have been subtly heading towards Jangryeong Valley.”

    “Hmm…”

    I found the idea intriguing. Gold, not being an ordinary commodity but a symbol of wealth, it was fascinating that such a precious item was offered just for solving an intellectual puzzle.

    At the same time, I realized that this Jangryeong Valley must be an extraordinary place. If rumors of offering ‘gold’ even to common villagers had spread, it would be enough to attract the attention of bandits, thieves, or martial arts factions aiming at the wealth of the Jangryeong Valley rich man. Yet, as far as I had seen in my travels around this area, I hadn’t encountered any martial artists heading that way. I guessed that the Jangryeong Valley rich man must have the capability to protect his wealth.

    ‘Well… it’s not something to pursue right now. Meeting Mang-ryang is much more important at the moment.’

    I had seen enough gold when I acquired the Seven Luminaries’ treasure. Instead of craving material wealth, I was filled with the thought of using the treasure to find Mang-ryang. It was a task I could attend to later; my priority now was to hasten my journey.

    After being hosted for a meal and comfortably spending the night with the middle-aged man’s family, I woke up the next morning to realize that something unusual was happening.

    Ssshhh –

    The rain showed no sign of stopping. By morning, the village was muddy up to our ankles with water, and the rain was pouring down furiously. The villagers had woken up at dawn and were in chaos, trying to drain the water.

    Ssshhh!!!

    “Move quickly! Bail out the water!!”

    “Sodol’s house is submerged, what should we do?”

    “Ah!! The stream is overflowing, what can we do…”

    People were panicking and running around in confusion. It was because when such torrential rain falls, the stream overflows and causes flooding. If things went wrong, the villagers might have to abandon their homes and flee for survival.

    ‘This isn’t good.’

    Feeling something was off, I felt the need to take action. I couldn’t recall ever experiencing such a massive downpour. Besides, having stayed in this village once, I felt obliged to help.

    I surveyed the area, looking for a terrain where water could drain.

    ‘If I break that rock, the water should recede. And if I guide it to the side…’

    Once I had a plan, I shouted to the confused villagers.

    “Move aside! I’ll try to do something.”

    “What? What can a kid like you do…”

    “Just move!”

    When I shouted with my internal energy, the people flinched in surprise. Though I didn’t use it for killing or suppression, it must have felt like a thunderous pressure to the common folks. As people hesitantly stepped back, I concentrated my energy in the palm of my hand.

    “Haaaa…”

    I assumed the horse stance and focused my energy. Energy swirled around me like mist, eventually bursting with crackling force. When my internal energy reached its peak, I used the Thunder Cloud Palm technique, specifically the breaking form, and thrust it forward.

    Boom!!

    A thunderous sound echoed, and within a radius of five ‘zhang’ (about 50 feet), all rocks and boulders shattered and flew away. Even a huge rock the size of a ‘zhang’ (about 10 feet) crumbled to pieces. The sound of a small hillside collapsing was heard. Simultaneously, the water accumulated in the entire village started flowing through the newly formed channel, and the knee-high rainwater receded to just the feet.

    Rumble…

    Torrential rain poured down like muddy water. As the terrain was valley-like, breaking through the rocks eased the burden significantly. A few cows almost got swept away but were brought back to safety by the people.

    “……!!”

    “Woah!”

    “Thank you so much, really, thank you!”

    As the water receded like a tide, people danced with joy and tears in their eyes. The immediate danger of drowning was now gone. However, looking at the sky, I realized that this rain wasn’t going to stop anytime soon – it was likely to continue for at least three more days and nights. It was indeed the massive downpour I had initially anticipated.

    I looked around at the people and asked,

    “Is the village chief here?”

    “I am here.”

    An elderly man in his sixties, looking quite robust and strong-willed, stepped forward. I addressed the village chief.

    “This is just a temporary solution. You must pack up and evacuate immediately.”

    With this amount of rain, it was only a matter of time before the village would be irretrievable. Unless there was a dam or levee to block the river, the village’s destruction was inevitable. This was knowledge I had acquired from my past experiences as a courier.

    “Hmm… Is there no other way?”

    “If we don’t pack up within two ‘shichen’ (about four hours), it will be difficult to leave the village safely. Especially, the elderly and frail among us may become casualties.”

    “It can’t be helped then…”

    The village chief then shouted to the people.

    “Everyone! We need to evacuate quickly! Hurry up!”

    “Oh dear… There goes all my life’s possessions…”

    “Stop with the luxury talk. Thanks to that young man, at least we saved our lives.”

    Although saddened, the villagers hurriedly gathered their belongings. I ran around frantically, helping people. After ensuring with the chief that no one was left behind or overlooked, we all left the village together.

    Rumble…

    From higher ground, as we watched the village slowly submerge, the villagers’ faces darkened – their entire wealth gone in an instant. But as the chief said, at least their lives were saved, so no one openly complained or grumbled.

    I turned to the village chief and asked,

    “Do you have a place to take shelter?”

    “No… There are about seventy villagers; I have no idea where to lead them.”

    “Maybe you should go to the nearby government office and report the flood damage.”

    At this, the chief let out a bitter laugh.

    “I doubt the high-ranking officials will even listen to us… People from a backwater village like ours wouldn’t be given the time of day. And other villages are unlikely to welcome so many of us.”

    “… After the rain stops, there seems to be no other choice but to rebuild the village.”

    “Ah… Wandering for days in the rain will weaken everyone, potentially leading to death. What should we do?”

    I realized the villagers were in a dire situation. Even if the rain stopped in a few days and they could return to the village, they would have to rise from a desperate situation, having lost a year’s worth of crops.

    I wanted to help these people in their plight, but there was little I could do in this situation. Even though I had the Seven Luminaries’ treasure hidden with me, what could I do with it? As I remained silent, the chief spoke,

    “We won’t forget your kindness, young hero. We can walk, so we’ll manage somehow. I must do my best to lead them.”

    “Where will you go?”

    “Going to the neighboring village would likely yield the same situation… We’ll head to the open plain of Jae Cypress Flat  and think things over while sheltering from the rain.”

    The chief spoke with a lonely look in his eyes.

    “You should go on your way, young hero. Take care of yourself.”

    “……”

    Following the chief and the villagers wouldn’t change much. There wasn’t much I could do to help. It seemed the chief preferred to do his best to manage the villagers rather than exploiting me further. I said to the chief,

    “Since I don’t have any urgent matters to attend to, I will help you out a bit longer.”

    “Really?! Thank you…”

    For the next two days, I followed the villagers, clearing large trees that blocked the road and knocking down falling rocks from the mountains. I also revitalized the weak and drained children and women by infusing them with ‘true qi, bolstering their vitality.

    And when the villagers reached Jae Cypress Flat and sheltered from the rain for about a day and a half, the seemingly endless rain finally stopped. Jae Cypress Flat had a terrain that drained water well, so the people were able to shelter from the rain under the trees and in tents with less discomfort.

    The village chief, holding my hand, wept tears of joy.

    “Uhuhuh… Thank you. No casualties – it’s a miracle. Without you, more than ten people might have died… I’m really grateful, young hero!”

    “It’s nothing. But be careful on the way back; the roads might be blocked with mud.”

    “Don’t worry about that. We can take a detour around that. Uhuhuh…”

    “No problem.”

    I couldn’t help but smile wryly, feeling unexpectedly good about doing a good deed, although I didn’t do it for money or reward. It was just that, realizing I had the capability, I felt the urge to help.

    ‘Why am I doing this? Foolish of me…’

    Normally, I would have left in annoyance, but this was strange. The village chief, wiping his tears, suddenly whispered to me.

    “… The villagers were talking about Jangryeong Valley, and it seems Baekga might have put the idea in your head. He’s always been interested in the affairs of other villages…”

    “Why do you say that?”

    The chief’s following words contained unexpected information.

    “Don’t go to Jangryeong Valley. My cousin, a martial artist, told me that among the martial artists, Jangryeong Valley is rumored to be a death trap. It’s true they reward those who solve their puzzles, but so far, many have failed their three challenges and lost their lives. Especially, the master of Jangryeong Valley is rumored to be very powerful.”

    “……!!”

    “The young hero saved our village, so make sure to visit us again. We will surely repay you.”

    “Sure. Take care then.”

    I parted ways with the villagers and started walking on the road, which had cleared up after the rain. The road was a mess, overrun with muddy water. I used my lightning step technique to navigate the mountain paths, thinking to myself.

    ‘The master of Jangryeong Valley… reward for solving puzzles, but death for failing them…’

    I had a hunch that Jangryeong Valley might hold some strange secret. Although this area was a vacuum zone with little influence from major sects, it was strange that someone like the master of Jangryeong Valley could act so unusually without any checks. 

    But I chuckled to myself, muttering,

    “Maybe next time.”

    The risk of death was enough with the Seven Luminaries’ ruins. It wouldn’t be too late to uncover the secrets of Jangryeong Valley once my martial arts were strong enough. I hurried along, thinking the journey had been significantly delayed due to the sudden downpour.

    I ran and ran.

    It felt like I was watching muddy water all day.

    As a result, I arrived at Jinrang Valley at least seven days later than I had initially expected. I saw villages damaged by the heavy rain on the way, and the roads were almost completely blocked.

    Fortunately, Jinrang Valley was well-prepared for heavy rains, with sturdy embankments and levees, so it seemed to have suffered little damage. Probably, Mang-ryang, being a master of geomancy and formation, took great care to prevent his base from being flooded by natural disasters.

    I climbed the stairs to meet Mang-ryang.

    This time, Mang-ryang was not distracted by other things. Surprisingly, he was consulting with a ‘guest’ on a platform in front of his thatched house.

    “… So, according to my judgment, it’s an omen of misfortune, but it’s clearly due to the celestial movements… There won’t be any further cold damage or disasters.”

    A fat middle-aged man, dressed in luxurious silk, kept admiring Mang-ryang’s words.

    “Uh-hum, uh-hum… Truly, Master Mang-ryang…”

    “You can rest assured. It’s not a situation affected by bad luck, so you can compensate next year… To reduce the farmers’ backlash, you should consider some concessions.”

    “I’ll surely take care of that. Thanks for the advice.”

    “Hahaha… Don’t mention it… Huh?”

    Mang-ryang, who had been talking intently, seemed to have noticed me standing at the entrance. He looked startled and exclaimed,

    “Who are you to have breached the Web of Clouds Formation?!”

    Swoosh!

    Swoosh!

    “Who are you?!”

    “Reveal your identity!”

    Then, four bodyguards, standing beside the fat middle-aged man in silk clothes, simultaneously drew their swords. Knowing they were first-rate experts, I was tense, but from their aura and stance, they seemed to be on the level of ordinary escorts from a courier service. While they possessed combat skills far beyond that of average people, by the standards of the martial world, they were just average.

    ‘Have my standards become too high? Even these guys are quite skilled by normal bodyguard standards.’

     

    It seemed my taste had become luxurious after encountering numerous top-notch experts and imperial guards. I chuckled wryly and said,

    “I am also a guest. I have no intention of causing trouble, so I will wait until the prior guest’s business is finished.”

    Mang-ryang, realizing something, closed his mouth and made a gesture of silence. He then whispered something to the middle-aged man’s ear. The fat man waved his hand.

    “Put away your swords. Such a young child doesn’t seem like a wicked martial artist.”

    “Understood, my lord.”

    The bodyguards sheathed their swords. The middle-aged man, addressed as ‘my lord,’ stood up and bowed to Mang-ryang.

    “Anyway, thank you, Master Mang-ryang. I will ensure to show ample gratitude to Jinrang Valley later.”

    “It was my pleasure, my lord. I am glad I could be of help in this disaster.”

    “Haha… Let’s go!”

    Thud thud

    Shortly afterward, the lord and his four bodyguards descended the stairs and left. I looked intently at Mang-ryang sitting on the platform, who was waving his fan and staring back at me for a while. Then, he broke the silence.

    “Seeing you passed through the Web of Clouds Formation without a scratch, it seems you are a martial artist with distinguished skills. What business do you have with me, Master Mang-ryang?”

    “……”

    I suddenly felt a surge of emotion.

    ‘Ah…’

    I knew his title was Mang-ryang, that he was the beloved disciple of the real Master Mang-ryang, untrained in martial arts, lacking in sorcery talents but possessing an unparalleled mind, enjoying studying as well as indulging in pleasure and women, grumbling yet selflessly confronting evil, a brilliant strategist, an ex-imperial astronomer, and that his fan was actually the magical treasure ‘Five Fires-Seven Birds Divine Fan’.

    Yet, to Mang-ryang, I was a stranger he was seeing for the first time.

    Meeting a colleague I almost uniquely trusted – and one who died because of me – in such a relationship filled me with overwhelming emotion. My throat burned, and I wanted to kneel before him, weep, and confess my sins right then and there.

    [Heh… I’ve had a good time.]

    Mang-ryang’s resigned smile still lingered in my mind, as did the sensation of having slain him with my own hands. Yet, I managed to compose myself and spoke.

    “I… I am Baek-woong. I’ve come to make a request of you, Mang-ryang.”

    “Oh, a request from a martial artist like you must be significant. Let’s hear it.”

    He seemed to perceive me as a half-crazy martial artist. Calmly, I said,

    “… Please interpret the oracle bone script on this item.”

    I approached Mang-ryang with an ancient sword in hand.

    Ziiing – !!

    As I infused my internal energy, the sword’s blade lit up with an intense blue light, revealing the engraved oracle bone script. Mang-ryang’s face looked as if he was about to faint from shock upon seeing the script. Stammering in astonishment, he exclaimed,

    “This, this, this is…?!”

    Mang-ryang, as if snatching it, took the sword from my hand and knelt down, observing it as if his gaze could pierce through it. His eyes sparkled with childlike passion. After examining the sword for quite some time, Mang-ryang finally calmed himself and asked,

    “What’s the price for interpreting this?”

    “The price…”

    “This… This is an extraordinary item. It can’t be interpreted overnight. Hmm… No, this time I’ll do something special! A huge sacrifice! I’ll do it for free.”

    Watching Mang-ryang’s flustered behavior, it seemed he too believed this sword was related to the Seven Luminaries or was a treasure in itself. Naturally, a person immersed in the world of sorcery and scholarship would risk their life just to examine it.

    Seeing him like this, I bitterly smiled and said,

    “Free? That’s generous of you. Then I shall return in a few years to hear the interpretation of the oracle bone script.”

    Mang-ryang seemed to barely contain his excitement. For him to lose composure like that indicated his immense happiness. Indeed, if the sword were truly one of the Seven Luminaries’ swords, researching it would be a great undertaking.

    “Hahaha! Leave it to me. I will definitely interpret it. By the way, when do you plan to come back?”

    “……”

    “Hey?”

    I couldn’t bring myself to meet his eyes.

    Struggling, I managed to say what I felt deep inside.

    “I’ll come back when I feel strong enough to overcome my shame.”

    “Huh…? Do you like poetry? What’s with the cryptic talk?”

    “……”

    Mang-ryang looked baffled, but I remained silent.

    I could hear Mang-ryang grumbling.

    “Always so busy these days… If it’s not the local lord asking me to interpret astrological omens, it’s unique characters like you showing up. I just wanted a peaceful and leisurely life, but it’s getting tougher.”

    “I’m sorry.”

    “And don’t worry, I wasn’t really asking for an earful. Hahaha, but make sure to visit again! I’ll have it interpreted by then.”

    My own incompetence boils within me…

    Hearing Mang-ryang laugh heartily, I couldn’t help but let tears stream down my face.

    I had been barely holding back my shame until that moment, but now, feeling pathetic and cowardly, tears inevitably flowed. I had sworn not to cry if I could help it, but now an unavoidable flood of emotions was overwhelming me.

    “I’m sorry…!!”

    Thump

    As I knelt down and buried my head, Mang-ryang became flustered.

    “What?! Oh, it was really just a joke; don’t cry like that! Oh dear… Look at you.”

    I couldn’t help but cry.

    I was now facing my sins.

    I was looking at the person who had been sacrificed as the price for my foolishness.

    And despite knowing that I will continue to fail in my quest for power, the frustration at not being able to give up made me weep.

    “Then… see you next time…”

    “Take care, Baek-woong.”

    Wiping away my tears, I slowly walked down the stairs from Mang-ryang’s place.

    Many thoughts crossed my mind as I descended, but one thing was clear.

    What has happened cannot be changed.

    I must do my best going forward.

    ‘I must move forward.’

    I felt no regret for leaving a legendary weapon with Mang-ryang. Instead, I was relieved that I could compensate him in that way. By handing over something beyond martial arts, my resolve felt even more strengthened.

    I will return when I am strong enough not to feel ashamed.

    And then, I will confess my sins to Mang-ryang.

    To achieve that, I will have to train tirelessly at the Azure Dragon Martial Hall.

    Staying still solves nothing.

    ‘I will make it.’

    Even if it means dying at the hands of Threefold Expert Lee Gwang or Jin So-cheong, I will grit my teeth and endure, mastering the art of ascension!

    Even if it takes decades!

    This will be my way of overcoming failure and atoning for my sins.

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