Childhood Friend of the Zenith Chapter 11

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༺ Nine Dragons Day (5) ༻
  The Peng Clan attendants went to retrieve Peng Woojin, who lay sprawled out on the ground after taking the blow from the Second Elder.
  Peng Ah-Hee thanked the Second Elder for it, but looking at the red swelling on Peng Woojin’s face made me wonder if this was really okay. 
  Peng Ah-Hee did say he deserved it…
  “It was mutually agreed upon,” the Second Elder reminded me.
  In any case, I moved to distance myself. “If the Peng Clan complains about this in the future, please tell them I had nothing to do with this.” 
  “Don’t worry, I’ll make sure to tell them you were involved.”
  “Wait, what fault did I have in this?”
  “You didn’t stop us when you could have, Yangcheon, so you’re also at fault.”
  What is this old man on about?
  ‘How the hell am I supposed to stop you when you jumped in right away and floored him with a single punch!’
—Is what I wanted to say, but after watching the Second Elder beat the shit out of Peng Woojin in a hit, I decided to hold onto my words. 
  ‘…I’ll tone it down a little.’
  Peng Woojin was probably able to withstand the blow just because he was Peng Woojin. If I had gotten hit by that, I probably would have died on the spot.
   I decided that it was better to be safe with my body and stop acting out in a way that might invite such a blow upon me.
  In the midst of all this, Wi Seol-Ah was looking at the Second Elder with sparkling eyes. 
  “Huh, what are those shiny eyes for?”
  “Young master! POW! And he went down! That’s so cool!”
  Are you talking about the Second Elder beating the crap out of Peng Woojin…?
…Is there anyone not supposed to be scared by that? Does it make sense for her to watch that and say it’s cool?
  The Second Elder, now in a good mood, laughed at Wi Seol-Ah’s remark.
  “This pretty young lady here knows what’s up!”
  Then he took out a yakgwa and gave it to Wi Seol-Ah.
  “I’ll give you this for complimenting this old man.”
  “Woah! Yakgwa! You are awesome, Bear grandpa!”
  “Bear? Hahaha! This old man looks that strong, huh?”
  ‘No, I think she’s just calling you a bear because of how you look.’ 
  …Was also something I couldn’t say.
  The Second Elder smiled and let Wi Seol-Ah be, even though he technically had reason to be mad since she was showing too much transgression for a servant. 
  Is it because of her beauty? Or because she is young? Well, everything went well, so whatever. 
  The Second Elder turned away from Wi Seol-Ah, who had quieted down after receiving her yakgwa. 
  “About what I was saying earlier, before I got interrupted—”
  Come to think of it, he did say he was looking for me.
  The Second Elder continued as I gave him a curious look.
  “There is a fight one must attend after the Nine Dragons Competition ends.”
  “You’re participating in a bout? Who are you trying to kill this time…”
  “This time!? I didn’t even kill anyone last time! Also, it’s not me who’s going, but you.”
  “…Excuse me?”
  What the heck is he on about?
  “Me? All of a sudden?”
  Why would I have to participate in such a hassle?
  At around 1 o’clock in the afternoon, the Nine Dragons Competition finally began. People from all over  Shanxi were participating, so there were hundreds of people in attendance. 
  I had no clue how this could even finish within a day, let alone in the handful of hours before sunset as it was scheduled to.
  For now, I was just going to watch, so it was easier than actually fighting or judging the series of bouts.
  Too bad I now had to deal with a slight uneasiness about my own upcoming fight. 
  “I hope these fights just never end.”
  I would have an excuse to escape my newest obligation if the preceding matches lasted too long. 
  The Nine Dragons Competition was fun. Most people spectating probably found it amusing to watch people show off their martial skills. I wasn’t any different. 
  It was exciting to see a spearman step up after a while. He was a martial artist that was able to take the advantage of the long reach a spear had. 
  Unfortunately, his opponent was a swordmaiden. That wasn’t really a complementary matchup. 
  But even then, the swordmaiden kept her calm. She dodged all of the spearman’s attacks while still keeping an eye on him.
  ‘“Distant relative,” she said, right?’
  The swordmaiden had introduced herself as a distant relative of the Gu Clan. She’d said her name was Gu…something.
  The constant dodging eventually got to the spearman and he started swinging his spear more fiercely, although he still only cut through empty air. 
  I was able to see that he had put a lot of effort into his training.
  But his impatience acted like poison. 
  Putting unnecessary strength into his attacks only made him lose his focus. His opponent could then take advantage of that. 
  This match was already over. 
  The swordmaiden struck away the spear as it rebounded off the ground after a failed attack.
  Then, with the spearman caught off balance, the swordmaiden stepped in and re-engaged him at a much closer range. 
  The spearman couldn’t do anything now that he had let the swordmaiden narrow the distance. He tried to swing his spear again, but the blade of the sword had already arrived to point at his neck. 
  The spearman let out a sigh and stepped back, admitting his defeat. 
  His face was full of disappointment.
  After that, the judge announced the result of the match. 
  “Gu Sunyeol wins.”
  ‘So her name was Gu Sunyeol.’
  It was an entertaining fight, but I guessed she wasn’t going to become great enough to spread her name around much in the future. 
  Or maybe it was just me not remembering her. 
  “That girl will be picked, for sure,” the Second Elder said with confidence.
  Being able to maintain composure as a martial artist was a great skill to have. She would definitely be selected one day, if not today. 
  “How much time left…”
  When I looked, only half of the fights remained.
  I was expecting for the event to take much longer with the hundreds of people participating, but since each duel was so short, it seemed like it was already going to finish up soon. 
  On the first day, I had wanted to be done with all of this as fast as possible, but now I was praying that the second day’s events would never end. 
  I stared at the Second Elder with resentment. 
  The Second Elder talks to me as he notices me staring. 
  “How come you are eyeing this old man with so much animosity?”
  “Don’t misunderstand. I’m looking at you with respect.”
  “Even that mouth of yours is talking to me with so much animosity.”
  The Second Elder laughs as I let out a sigh.
  All because of the battle of blood relatives that I had to participate in. The only blood relatives in attendance were me and Gu Yeonseo, so it was obvious who my opponent would be. 
  I asked what made this all happen, and the Second Elder said that he had suggested it, thinking it would be fun, and the rest of the elders actually liked the idea enough to implement it. 
  The whole “fun” part reminded me of how Peng Woojin got beaten up. 
  ‘Well, not like I can just teach the Second Elder a lesson…’
  Beating him up was impossible, which led me to wonder if I could even get a hit in on him in the first place. 
  “Don’t worry.”
  I turned to the person who just spoke, Gu Yeonseo. 
  “No one is expecting anything from you. You don’t need to worry about being embarrassed when it’s already so obvious. Since you are a blood relative, I’ll end it painlessly.” 
  “…How considerate of you. I’m so thankful.”
   So thankful that tears were welling up in my eyes. 
   Gu Yeonseo had an air of confidence that showed she didn’t even consider herself losing.
  It was probably why she had gladly agreed to the Second Elder’s idea. She even looked happy about it.
  To be fair, it was indeed obvious.
  Comparing the me who never put effort into anything I did to a genius who heaped tons of effort into everything she did was like looking at the difference between the ground and the sky. 
  ‘It’s probably better for me to forfeit, right?’
  I was legitimately at a rock-bottom state where I couldn’t go lower than what I was at right now.
  My name was already stained enough that one more black mark wouldn’t do anything to make the blemish any darker than it already was.
  “Yangcheon, let me tell you in advance.” 
  The Second Elder whispered quietly to me.
  “If you are even thinking about forfeiting, I might accidentally hit you with a bit of strength.” 
  “—Forfeit? Of course not…”
  This mess of a household… No one was normal!
* * * *
  I’d already had the thought before, but unfortunately, time wasn’t something I could control.
  The Nine Dragons Competition wrapped up in a flash, and the moment I was dreading had arrived.
  Lights came on at sunset. This year, a total of 21 new people were selected as new Gu swordsmen. 
  The next day would be a festival. Of course, I had initially planned to leave inconspicuously after two days of staying here. 
  But then I had to get thrown into this mess.
  I had already received so much negative attention in my previous life that I figured I would be happier without any attention at all in this life. 
  I thought it would be great to live, quiet and peaceful, without needing anyone to acknowledge my existence. 
  But that plan of mine might be a tad bit—no, a huge bit ruined with this, so yeah. 
  I saw Gu Yeonseo already standing out in the open arena.
  Her posture and the way she held her sword showed a bit about her skill as a martial artist. 
  ‘I really don’t want to go…’
  I spoke to the Second Elder with an accusing tone.
  “You really want to see me get beaten up in front of so many people?”
  This old man was a demon in both this life and the last. 
  The Second Elder gave a weird smile at my resentment-filled words.
  Then, he said,
  “You’re really ‘not’ going to win?”
  I stopped at the Second Elder’s words as I was about to step up into the arena. 
  “What are you going on about again with your nonsense? What do you mean, ‘“not” going to win;’ it’s more like I ‘can’t’ win.”
  “Right, right, if you say so.”
  …This guy acts like a fox, even though he has the appearance of a bear. 
  Ignoring the Second Elder’s words, I stepped forth onto the arena floor.
* * * *  
  In the night sky, there hung a solitary moon.
  It was a waxing crescent tonight. 
  The arena was calm and quiet now that all the other fighters had left. 
  There were still many people watching from the spectator stands, but in the arena itself, there were just two people standing. 
  To make the blood relatives fight for people’s entertainment, even for the Second Elder, I thought he was going a bit far. 
  “You aren’t going to use a sword?” Gu Yeonseo asked as I stretched my body.
  A sword? Did I use a sword at this point of time?
  The Gu Clan fought with either swords or fists. We were a little different compared to the Peng, Moyong, and Namgung clans, who only used swords. 
  The Gu Clan flame arts could be channeled through any kind of melee weapon. 
  And among them, swords, along with fists, were the most compatible with our flame arts. 
  For me in particular, the most efficient way to fight was with my fists.
  “I’ve decided not to use a sword; it doesn’t really fit my fighting style.”
  “You say that so easily, even though you haven’t even put in any effort and time to justify your decision.”
  Gu Yeonseo didn’t know what I had been doing recently, so it was obvious that she would look at it that way. But I decided not to talk back, since it would look like I was only giving excuses if I did. 
  Gu Yeonseo spoke.
  “Do you know how long it’s been since our last bout?”
  “It’s been a long time. I’ve always been longing for the next one. This time I can officially beat you up. Not that I really want to do it in front of all this crowd, though.”
  “How could you say such a scary thing so effortlessly?”
  Most of my memories were faint. I had forgotten a lot of things. 
  But the last bout I had with Gu Yeonseo in my previous life was something I still remembered vividly. 
  It wasn’t just a sparring match. 
  Gu Yeonseo had been pointing her sword, engulfed in flames, at me.
「Flaming Sword」
  That was the title eventually given to Gu Yeonseo. The name really fit her quite well.
  Even facing the image of a destroyed man, one with tears in his eyes and blood leaking from his lips—even then, she still brutally attacked with the single-minded intention of slaughtering him. That was something that I could still recall vividly. 
  “You sick bastard, I will be the one to kill you! Me, and me alone!”
  It was raining that day.
  But it wasn’t raining right now.
  That event had yet to occur in this life, and I was now in a situation where I needed to prevent it from ever happening again.  
  I had to keep this in mind at all times. 
  “I’d always wanted to, if only I just had the chance. But you’d always run away before I could.”
  That baby face of hers, along with her voice that still sounded like a kid even now—
  They were completely different from the fully matured appearance and voice she’d had in my past life. 
  But the way she drew her sword against me was the same. 
  It was a wooden sword rather than a steel sword, but was still far too similar to her appearance that day. 
  Gu Yeonseo spoke to me again while I was trapped in the memory of my previous life. 
  “I hate you.”
  Her words were far from kind, but I came back to my senses thanks to that.
  “I know.”
  I already knew. There was no way I didn’t, considering how much she showed it when we were all alone. 
  “I hate how you don’t ever put effort into anything, and how you have a trash personality even though you were born as a son of the Gu Clan, and would ride on the Clan’s coattails.”
  “I’m aware, but hearing it first-hand does hurt.”
  I understood her. Even I would hate myself if I had to meet the past me.
  ‘It’s funny how I think I’m different now?’
  That was something I didn’t even know the answer to begin with.
  The Second Elder shouted with Qi amplifying his voice. My ears felt numb as I was caught off guard. 
  Gu Yeonseo immediately bolted forward, as if she had been waiting just for that moment. She didn’t show an ounce of mercy, even to a weakling like me.
  I felt Gu Yeonseo’s heat as she narrowed the distance.
  It was the heat from a practitioner who had reached the third realm of the Gu flame arts. The emanating heat permeated through the surroundings. 
  ‘She really has no intention of holding back even a little.’
  Gu Yeonseo’s form as she swung her sword truly showed the efforts she had put into her training. The movement seemed flawless. 
  I stepped back, and bent my torso to dodge the attack. 
  Gu Yeonseo’s eyes widened. She hadn’t expected me to be able to dodge that. 
  But she immediately continued to dish out more attacks. All of her strikes were aiming for my vital points. 
  At this point, all I could do was dodge using my basic physique. Using Qi while relying on this weak body only meant that I would stiffen up when I needed to stay relaxed instead.
  All of the attacks coming at me were definitely fast and critical, but I could still evade them by moving just a beat faster each time.
  I felt myself breathing heavily already.
  In my head, I thought about how to end this in the most natural manner, without getting beaten half to death or making the Second Elder suspicious.
  “You’re still! The same person! Who only knows how to dodge!”
  Gu Yeonseo exclaimed while continuing to swing her sword. 
  I was almost able to physically visualize her ferocity with how blatantly vicious her strikes were. 
  Although, I still managed to survive her offense unscathed
  Gu Yeonseo clenched her teeth progressively harder as none of her attacks had landed. The confident aura from earlier was nowhere to be seen. 
  What was she so impatient for? 
  Then, she stepped back to create more distance between us and shifted into her battle stance. 
  From within her wooden sword, some sort of heat rose up.
  That looked dangerous.
  ‘…I definitely can’t let that strike hit me.’
  Gu Yeonseo, who had just broken through to the third realm a while ago, was able to infuse her flame arts into her wooden sword. This meant that she was already closing in on ascending to the fourth realm.
  It was an incomplete and scuffed technique. Qi, on the other hand, was still unstable. 
  When I took a quick glance at the Second Elder, he was watching with his hands on his chin, implying that he somehow found our spar amusing. 
  He had no intention of helping me.
  ‘…Shit. Can I dodge this while also making it look like I get hit?’
  I felt like I could do it, but the risk seemed a little too high.
  ‘What should I do…’
  Gu Yeonseo’s wooden sword now had a faint red aura enveloping it. 
  Her hand was shaking, as she couldn’t fully handle the Qi circulation yet. 
  “You don’t do anything, you have no talent, and you never put in any effort to make up for it. But just because you are a son…!”
  She rambled on, as if her mind was a little shaken from trying to use too much Qi. 
  Again, I fully understood Gu Yeonseo’s feelings.
  I knew why she hated me and found it completely justified, so I was able to accept it all. 
  However, Gu Yeonseo kept on talking after that.
  “If you’re living like that, then… You should just disappear, just like your mother.”
  She said something she shouldn’t have.
  Gu Yeonseo rushed at me swathed in Qi. The arena cracked under the strength she exerted into her feet.
  However, her attack, infused with all her rage, made her impatient and easy to read. 
  I tilted my body enough to dodge her sword.
  As she registered that the opponent she had tried to strike was not there, she lost her balance, unable to control her power. 
  She reacted quickly and tried to balance herself, but—
  I, without hesitation, struck my fist into her face.
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