Childhood Friend of the Zenith Chapter 126

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༺ A Girl Who Is Crazy About Poisonous Plants ༻
  Tang Soyeol became strange after learning that we were going to eat with the Sword Master.
  Her eyes quivered, and she began to cough.
  And she could not even keep her body still while looking nervous.
  I was perplexed as to why, but it was not too strange when I considered what the Sword Master meant to all female martial artists in the modern world. 
  If we excluded the Heavenly Sword Empress of the Unorthodox Faction, she was a martial artist who was considered to have reached the highest level of all the swordswomen.
  It was hard not to respect her, as she had many achievements despite relatively short life compared to other masters of the world. 
  Even when she did not wield a sword, she was a person worthy of respect.
  Even Namgung Bi-ah, who did not seem to care about the world as much as I did, seemed happy when she was talking with the Sword Master back when we were returning to Gu Clan on our trip.
  “I thought it was said that the Sword Master had been missing for a few years…”
  “She was just traveling.”
  Even though she had gotten better, it was hard to explain to her why the Sword Master had been hiding from the world for the past few years. 
  I had to give a different answer. 
  “Then why is she here at the Gu Clan?” 
  When I first got here, Tang Soyeol felt pressured, but now that we were talking about the Sword Master, she was asking a lot of questions with bright eyes. 
  She appeared to be very interested in the Sword Master and to look up to her a lot.
  The Sword Master came here so she could accompany Gu Ryunghwa, and she claimed to have business with the Gu Clan. 
  Of course, I could not easily tell Tang Soyeol this. 
  “I believe you should ask her when you see her later. As it’s not my business, I believe I should be careful with what I say.”
  Tang Soyeol whispered quietly to herself after hearing me. She looked like she was saying “Can I pull this off even though I’m shy?” or something along those lines.
  ‘Shy…? Tang Soyeol?’
  I didn’t really feel that from her, but I guessed it had to be true if she thought so.
  I put aside Tang Soyeol who couldn’t hold in her nerves, and looked at Namgung Bi-ah who was trying to hide herself in the corner of the room. 
  Like before, she didn’t seem too well. I approached her, thinking I needed to check on her, but she flinched again, this time slapping my hand away. 
  “Are you really okay?”
  She grabbed her long hair and brought it to her face to cover it. 
  She appeared to be aware of how red her face was at the time. 
  I was about to summon the Immortal Healer when I felt a presence from the room’s door. The door opened as I turned to face it. 
  “They said you were here, Brother-” 
  The one who opened the door and appeared was Gu Ryunghwa, who I’ve seen for the first time after arriving in the Gu Clan. 
  The girl frowned when she saw what was going on in the room.
  Tang Soyeol couldn’t stay still due to her excitement. 
  And Namgung Bi-ah was sitting in a corner, hiding her face.
  To Gu Ryunghwa, it definitely wasn’t a normal sight. After she looked around, she looked at me.
  “…What’s going on?”
  “Good question… What is going on?”
  I wanted to ask that myself. What’s happening here?
  I think it was too late to explain this complicated situation, so I let out a sigh and asked Gu Ryunghwa while looking at her.
  “You said you were eating with me today?”
  “Yeah. Did you not know, brother? You said we should eat together some time.”
  “I didn’t know that was today.”
  “Oh, did I not tell you? Oh well, it shouldn’t matter.”
  Like Gu Ryunghwa said, it didn’t matter too much. Eating together was fine, but I had to let her know that others would be joining.
  “I think more guests are joining us today; is that okay?”
  “More guests? Is it Sister Bi-ah?”
  I pointed to Tang Soyeol after Gu Ryunghwa asked. The Tang girl was making a face, wondering who it was that had just appeared. 
  “This is my little sister. And this is Tang Soyeol.”
  “Tang…? The Tang Clan of Sichuan?” 
  “Oh, hello. I am Tang Soyeol.”
  When Tang Soyeol learned who the girl was, she immediately got up and bowed to Gu Ryunghwa. 
  Gu Ryunghwa quickly matched her and showed respect.
  “I am Gu Ryunghwa…”
  My sister seemed like she was wondering why a person of the Tang Clan was here, but I had no way to explain it to her.
  – She came here because she liked me.
  I understood my situation well enough not to say that.
  The two girls looked at each other, and both their expressions showed what they were thinking.
  Gu Ryunghwa was thinking “She looks so innocent for a girl who uses poison.”
  And Tang Soyeol was thinking ”She looks so nice for a girl that has the blood of Gu.”
  The Tang Clan of Sichuan did indeed use the most brutal martial art that melted and rotted skin away, but they were also known for looking innocent and unassuming. Gu Ryunghwa did indeed look soft despite being from the Gu Clan. 
  They were rather similar to each other. I almost burst out laughing when I remembered Wi Seol-Ah saying that Gu Ryunghwa looked like a squirrel. 
  Back then, I laughed, which resulted in me being kicked by Gu Ryunghwa. I asked Gu Ryunghwa while holding back my laughter.
  “Where is your master?”
  “Brother, why are you smiling?”
  “I am not smiling…”
  “You look like it.”
  “I said I’m not. Do not move your foot.”
  ‘She’s quite keen. Who did she get that from?’
  「Well, definitely not you.」
  “Master said she would be late because she had something to do and told me to go first.”
  It seemed like the Sword Master would be late. After that, Gu Ryunghwa spoke while looking at Namgung Bi-ah in the back.
  “What is wrong with her over there?”
  “I don’t know myself. Go ask if you’re curious.”
  I told Gu Ryunghwa to do it since Namgung Bi-ah didn’t seem to like me going to her.
  Gu Ryunghwa attempted to approach her after hearing me, but Tang Soyeol intervened.
  “Sis said she’s a bit tired today. She’ll be fine in a flash!” 
  “Oh, okay…”
  “Oh, by the way… Are you the Sword Master’s…”
  Tang Soyeol was careful when asking Gu Ryunghwa if she was the student of the Sword Master. Gu Ryunghwa made an expression showing she was treading a thin line, but admitted it with a nod.
  Back then, she had the tendency to hide that for the Sword Master’s sake, but now she looked confident in admitting it. 
  It was probably because Gu Ryunghwa was awakening her potential and that the Sword Master was recovering her health.
  Tang Soyeol then grabbed Gu Ryunghwa’s hand. The girl seemed shocked by Tang Soyeol’s act for a moment, but she didn’t slap the hand away.
  “W-What are you doing?”
  “Lady Gu…”
  Gu Ryunghwa was signaling me to help her with her eyes, but Tang Soyeol asked her anyway, “Is there any poison that the Sword Master might like?”
  Gu Ryunghwa looked perplexed after hearing Tang Soyeol, and Namgung Bi-ah in the back poked her head out, wondering if she had misheard what was being said. 
  I thought to myself as I facepalmed myself. 
  ‘Could there even be a bigger mess than this?’
  * * * * *
  Around the time Gu Ryunghwa arrived at my place, the Sword Master was on the mountain that was located behind the Gu Clan.
  It was late at night and the path through the mountains was rough, but the Sword Master did not find it hard because she had gotten back about half of her strength. 
– Ring!
  When she had passed a certain point, she heard a ringing sound. She wasn’t flustered. 
  She felt like she was passing through a barrier. 
  She had only reached the middle point of the mountain, but she had already come across a barrier. 
  The Sword Master didn’t know how much Qi she used or how much more she would have to use.
  When she reached a flat part of the mountain, she saw someone standing in the middle while carrying something in the back.
  When she saw that, the Sword Master said, “I did not expect that you’d be here so early.”
  “I don’t really like making people wait.”
  “Right, you did always arrive before us.”
  The one that was standing underneath the moonlight was none other than the Sword Emperor. 
  The woman slowly walked toward the old man. 
  “It has been a long while indeed.”
  “Yes… Have you been well?”
  The trip had lasted months. The Sword Emperor was leading the horse, and the Sword Master was walking by his side.
  There was no way that the Sword Master wouldn’t notice the Sword Emperor. 
  She did not know why he was doing things like leading the horse of the Gu Clan, but the Sword Master just watched the Sword Emperor. 
  “Sir Alliance Leader.”
  The Sword Emperor bitterly smiled after hearing the Sword Master. 
  “Same with the Immortal Healer, it seems like everyone likes to call me that, even though I’m just a good-for-nothing old man now.”
  “If you want, I could call you elder.”
  “No need; not like anything would change just because you changed the way you call me.”
  “How have you been all this time?”
  How long had it been? The last time they had met was when the Sword Master had just returned from her traumatic experiences in the Abyss. It was at least a few years.
  Ten years, in fact.
  Much longer than it felt like.
  The Sword Emperor resigned from his position as the Alliance Leader and hid himself from the world, and Gu Cheolun, who was the leader of the Dragon Army, had become the lord of his clan after disbanding the group. 
  The Sword Master went to the Abyss in those times. She went there wanting to find and learn many things.
  Ultimately, she had learned more things than she should have. 
  “What do you think?” the Sword Emperor inquired, and the Sword Master didn’t say anything.
  She instead continued to stare at the Sword Emperor. 
  It was too late. The Sword Emperor, who had once looked like he couldn’t lose to anyone, was now defeated by the flow of time and had become a withered old man. 
  The darkness that resided in his wrinkled-up face showed passage of time the old man had gone through. 
  But the Sword Master couldn’t relate.
  “I have also become old due to time.”
  The woman that had once dreamt of world peace was now in her middle age. 
  “I had seen, and learnt, many things, but I still cannot understand what you have done, Alliance Leader.”
  “The Immortal Healer said the same thing.”
  “Why did you do it?”
  That was what the Sword Master wanted to ask the most.
  Why did he do such a thing?
  “Many people who looked up to you and followed your lead lost their lives.”
  That was the reason why the Immortal Healer felt hatred toward the Sword Emperor, and why the Sword Master felt resentment toward him. 
  The complete destruction of the Dragon Army. 
  The Sword Master still remembered the destruction of the Dragon Army after they had gone into the Abyss due to the Alliance Leader’s order. 
  She resented herself for not being able to join them, and she felt immense pain when she witnessed the youngest of the army end his own life even after surviving the ordeal.  
  “It wasn’t just a sacrifice.”
  Sacrifice was necessary. One couldn’t achieve anything without it. 
  That was why discussions were necessary and loyalty was prioritized.
  Everyone in the Dragon Army was that way. 
  Instead of living for themselves, they were prepared to die for their comrades. 
  For their goal, they sacrificed themselves without any hesitation. 
  The Sword Master herself knew that she wouldn’t have regretted anything if she had died in the Abyss.
  Even when the survivors of the Abyss ended their own lives, the Sword Master didn’t resent the Sword Emperor. 
  It was the same when she had heard about the destruction of the army. 
  She had not resented the Alliance Leader. 
  She had decided to live on as she had thought that these had been necessary sacrifices. They had made a sacrifice for world peace, and their deaths had been glorious.
  She had decided to think that way… until she learned the truth.
  “Please, answer me.”
  The Sword Master pulled out her sword as she said those words. 
  The Sword Emperor didn’t move one bit when he saw the Sword Master’s actions.
  “For what reason did we have to die? Was it really…” A light red aura started to form on her sword. “To save your child?”
  The Sword Emperor’s eye flinched at her words. 
  The sword aura condensed, and light began to swirl around the Sword Master. 
  “I’m sorry.”
  Along with a meek apology from the Sword Emperor, the Sword Master’s sword struck.
– Claaang!
  Along with a huge sound that reverberated through the area, a huge wind wave formed that blew dirt all over. 
  The land that had been flat had become a wasteland, and the sword explosion had left a sharp mark in the area. 
  Trees and rocks were cut in half.
  The dirt had finally disappeared where the Sword Master struck, and the Sword Emperor was still standing there. 
  He was in the same position as before, completely fine with not a single scratch on him. 
  When the Sword Master saw him, she spoke up.
  “…You are still the same.”
  The Sword Master could not help but smile bitterly. Her body was not in great shape due to the toxic Qi that had been inside her, and while she had not fully recovered her strength, she was stronger than the last time she had seen the Sword Emperor. 
  Since she had been swinging her sword endlessly after that day. 
  It wasn’t for revenge, however. 
  She promised herself that she wouldn’t use her sword for that.
  Even after becoming stronger, she still was far, far from the Sword Emperor.
  “Do you desire my death?”
  “What would you do if I said yes?”
  “I would go through with it if that’s what you want. I don’t think my life has much value anymore.”
  “However, I… I can’t die just yet.”
  The Sword Emperor didn’t have anything in his hand.
  He was just staring at the Sword Master, but the woman didn’t have a single strand of hope that she would be able to win against the Sword Emperor. 
  It wasn’t a pressure one could show by using their Qi.
  The Sword Master felt something overpowering that only a martial artist that had reached a certain level could exude.
  She wondered if she should be happy that she could at least see the difference between them, or despair at the huge, insurmountable wall that stood between them.
  The Sword Master had a hard time accepting either of the two.
  “That’s contradictory of you.”
  “I’m sorry…”
  “Is it because of that child?”
  “I also saw that child. She’s a very pretty girl.”
  Wi Seol-Ah, was it? The granddaughter of the Sword Emperor. 
  She was a beautiful girl. The Sword Master smiled when she saw that she was a kind girl who was friendly to everyone around her. 
  However, as the Sword Master recovered her strength, she was able to see the greatness that resided in that girl.
  Others would say that they couldn’t feel anything from her at all, but it was the complete opposite for the Sword Master.
  That girl’s power was so vast that they could not feel anything from her.
  The Sword Master saw this in Wi Seol-Ah. 
  The Sword Emperor didn’t respond to the woman’s question.
  “What do you dream of?”
  “Do you dream of that girl becoming happy?”
  The Sword Master’s tone became sharp.
  “If you were capable of having such a dream, then it makes sense for you to do what you did.”
  She remembered the youngest member of their army crying while he ended his own life in the arms of the Sword Master. A young hero at the age of just over twenty who had lived to protect others ended his own life because of this fear.
  “I don’t know what you and the captain saw or why you’re living this way, but you’re just running away from it.”
  When the Sword Master saw the giant tree that was in the Abyss herself, she too felt despair and accepted death, but she never gave up.
  And even if they had seen more than what she had, the Sword Master couldn’t understand.
  “I wanted to die by your hand, Alliance Leader.”
  “That was me a few years ago. However, no matter how hard I tried to find you, you left not a single trace.”
  The Sword Master didn’t know why the Sword Emperor decided that he should reveal himself now. More specifically, she didn’t care to learn anymore. 
  “But I also have a reason to live on now.”
  Her precious student was growing up. The Sword Master accepted death, but she wanted to keep living on now that she had gotten a second chance at life. 
  “I don’t know what you live for. I also won’t forgive you.”
  The Sword Master decided that she wouldn’t forgive the Sword Emperor even if an eternity had passed.
  It wasn’t even the Sword Master that the Sword Emperor should’ve been apologizing to. 
  “I at least hoped that you wouldn’t look like this… But I was wrong about that too.”
  If he had remained the greatest martial artist who looked down at everything, the Sword Master thought that she’d at least feel more relieved. 
  She would’ve shouted at him angrily and even swung her sword in resentment, despite knowing that she would lose.
  “Do you know the last words that Taeryong left behind?”
  It was the name of the youngest who died in the arms of the Sword Master.
  “He said he was scared. To live is to endure.”
  – Sister… I’m so scared…
  The Sword Master clenched her fists. She couldn’t win against the strength that went into her hands as the thought to swing her sword once more creeped into her mind. Still, she did her best to fight that urge and held back. 
  “I… Once I finish everything, I’ll end my own life and go see them to atone for my sins.” 
  “I won’t be coming to see you after this.” 
  Just like Gu Cheolun, the Sword Emperor also seemed like he had many things that he couldn’t say, but the Sword Master was done.
  No matter what reason there was, things that had already happened wouldn’t magically go away and therefore couldn’t be justified. 
  There were things too precious for the Sword Master to live for revenge. She had to protect them.
  Thus, she decided that she’d hold it in.
  From the Sword Emperor’s death to her own as well. 
  She had only come here to ask him those questions, and she achieved that goal.
  “Did the Immortal Healer also come to you to ask about that child?”
  The Sword Emperor remained silent on this question as well, but his silence was already a sufficient answer. 
  How did the Sword Emperor end up this way?
  The Sword Master knew that he wasn’t originally like that.
  He was a person who raised his sword for world peace, which he desired more than anyone, and he was a man of steel who valued loyalty above all else.
  “I don’t know what made you so weak, Alliance Leader, but I hope that you at least keep your pride.”
  The Sword Master retrieved her sword after uttering these final words. 
  She pondered for a moment. If she had been stronger than the Sword Emperor, would she have killed him?
  ‘…I don’t know.’
  Judging by how she wasn’t certain, she too thought that she wasn’t complete as a person. 
  She needed something to resent, and since she found the person to pin it on, she poured out all the emotions that had built up inside of her.
  “I’ll be going now. Thank you for coming out.”
  The Sword Master turned around and started to walk down the mountain.
  She was quick with her steps as her student was waiting for her.
  The Sword Emperor, who was left by himself, only had moonlight to accompany him. 
  He hid his hand that was shaking and fell to one knee. At the same time, the barrier that had been put up around the mountain disappeared.
  “…I’m sorry… I’m sorry…”
  He covered his face with his wrinkled hand. His tears had long dried out.
  He just had to wait for the right time. 
  He spent his silence thinking about the time he needed to end his incompetent life. 
  * * * *
  When the Sword Master arrived, she went to where everyone had gathered, accompanied by a servant. 
  She hid her pent-up emotions. Since her student was smart, she knew that if she did not fix her expressions, her student would notice. 
  After she calmed down and opened the door, someone came right up to her. 
  At first, she thought it was Gu Ryunghwa, but the girl’s dark green hair showed that it was not her. 
  She looked like someone from a certain clan, so she looked them up.
  The girl, Tang Soyeol, was nervous when she gave the Sword Master something. 
  “It’s an herb made with flowers of elegance…! I-It’s super good for your skin! Please accept it!”
  ‘Flowers of elegance…?’
  ‘Aren’t they poisonous?’
  When the Sword Master looked at the girl dumbfounded, Tang Soyeol just smiled embarrassedly. 
  – Pffb-!
  Gu Yangcheon, who was watching the spectacle from the side, spat out his tea.
  He didn’t actually expect her to give the Sword Master poison. 
  Then Gu Ryunghwa, who was sitting on the opposite side of Gu Yangcheon, was the unfortunate victim of all the tea that had been spat out. 
  Gu Yangcheon quickly apologized, but Gu Ryunghwa’s face had already turned into that of a demon. 
  He nodded approvingly. She really did have the blood of the Gu Clan for her face to turn like that.
  ‘She looks scary as hell.’
  “You bastard!” Gu Ryunghwa the demon roared out. 
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