Childhood Friend of the Zenith Chapter 96

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༺ Tournament (1) ༻
  Having woken up earlier than usual, I finished my morning training a little early as well. 
  I had been training in the morning practically every day recently.
– Crack-! 
  Every time I moved my bones, I could hear cracking and popping sounds setting off from them.
  It seemed to me that my body was in good condition.
  I checked every nook and cranny of my body as soon as I finished my rigorous training.
  All the injuries I had gotten from the previous fights had been healed by now, and only a minuscule amount of Demonic Qi now lay in my dantian. 
  ‘At this rate… I think it’ll be done being purified by tomorrow at the latest.’
  Thankfully, the Demonic Qi was still being purified inside of my body.
  Due to the purification, the total proportion of Demonic Qi inside of my body had been reduced by quite a bit.
  The Plum Blossom Sword just had way too much Demonic Qi inside of her body. 
  I could quite literally feel my Qi increase… since every bit of Demonic Qi that was being purified was also being absorbed and added to my normal reservoir of Qi. 
  ‘I guess this could also count as me absorbing Qi again.’
  By this point, I was no longer in a position where I needed to struggle in doing something due to a lack of Qi. 
  It was highly likely that not every bit of the Demonic Qi would be absorbed and converted, but most of it would still end up being added to my reservoir of usable Qi, increasing my strength further. 
  Which made me wonder,
  ‘How and where did the Sword Master get this much Demonic Qi inside of her?’
  According to the Immortal Healer, the Sword Master was currently under a formation that forbade her from speaking the details about her infliction with this ominous Qi.
  And that knowledge gave me chills all over. 
  “…Demonic Qi and this ominous formation.”
  This was basically the same as the traces that the Heavenly Demon used to leave behind when it turned normal martial artists into demonic humans.
  The only difference among them, that I was able to figure out, was the fact that this was somewhat ‘tolerable’ in comparison. 
  Due to this feeling, I wasn’t sure if the Sword Master met the Heavenly Demon or not.
  If the Heavenly Demon really gave the Sword Master this staggering amount of Demonic Qi, which she had to suffer from for all these years… it wouldn’t just stop there.
  At least that would be the case if it was the same as the Heavenly Demon of my memories. 
  ‘I also gotta look into the traces of Demonic Qi that those Black Palace guys had in their bodies too.’
  Mount Hua Sect was probably on the move about this matter themselves, but I also wanted to find out the reason behind the guys from the Black Palace going as far as to fully drain the blood inside the bodies of the swordsmen from the Mount Hua Sect. 
  The ominous feeling that I was feeling in my bones made me feel that this issue was going to be very complicated indeed. 
  “Do I have to go to the hideout that the people of Mount Hua found?”
  It would’ve been difficult to find the location of their hideout— but since the people of the Mount Hua Sect had already found its location and were currently managing it themselves, it wouldn’t be hard for me to find it. 
  ‘I should take a look there before I return to my clan.’
  There was a very high possibility for the people of Mount Hua to already see and take care of all the traces that were left behind by the guys from the Black Palace. 
  However, I still wanted to go there since I didn’t want to wallow in this habit of hesitating in doing something any longer. 
  ‘If the Black Palace really has some relations to the Demonic Cult.’
  They are a group that would be completely destroyed by the Murim Alliance just a few years later.
  Those were the thoughts I had been harboring previously, but since I had found out about the traces of Demonic Qi in them, 
  ‘I gotta do something.’
  I still didn’t wield the strength to get rid of the Black Palace with my own hands.
  Moreover, they weren’t really weak by any means either. 
  ‘But I should be able to handle them in a few years.’
  Of course, I still thought that I should mull over the necessity of me acting like this… 
  But I didn’t really have the time to think this over.
  “I’m already done thinking about it anyways so let’s just do it.”
  Since I had already decided that I won’t wallow in hesitation any longer, I couldn’t just spend all my time thinking things over as I did previously. 
  When I returned to the lodge, I found Wi Seol-Ah bringing over a towel for me with a bright smile on her cute face.
  It was brought to me with the intent of using it after showering. 
  I asked her since she was here already.
  “You woke up early huh?”
  My eyes were affixed on Wi Seol-Ah’s hair as I leaked out those words. 
  She was currently wearing the hair accessory I had given her yesterday. 
  And seeing that sight, I was reminded of the sensation of her soft lips against my cheek that I had felt yesterday— forcing me to rub my cheek in a fit of embarrassment. 
  As she stared at me with that ever-bright smile on her face, she suddenly asked. 
  “Young Master, are you feeling ill?”
  “Nope, I’m fine.”
  “Then why is your face so… red…?”
  “…You’re seeing things.”
  I quickly passed by her and went into my room to get a change of clothes. I then proceeded to wash my face with some cold water, but strangely… the heat still lingered on my face. 
  ‘I can’t believe that I’m still behaving like this just because of that one thing that happened yesterday.’
  Even I found it to be absurd.
  I even went as far as to have stupid thoughts— such as wrapping myself with my Flame Qi so that the heat that was pervading my face would not be noticed by others. 
  However, I just gave up on that thought since doing that would quite literally crush my pride as a man. 
  After changing my clothes and washing my face, I went outside my room and was greeted with the sight of Namgung Bi-ah, sitting on the floor.
  To be precise, she was dozing on the floor while sitting like that. 
  I was about to leave her there, as it seemed that she was about to fully enter sleep mode, but it seemed like she was able to wake up somewhat from her sleepy state.
  I watched her in that drowsy state quietly for some time, but I soon coughed to gather my bearings and proceeded to put on the hair accessory that I had prepared for her on her hair. 
  The problem here was that… I had never really touched a woman’s hair before, in both my lives, and it only led to the unsightly result of me messing up her hair even more than it had already been before. 
  “…I f*cked up.”
  I wanted to give the gift to her secretly, but what was I to do now? 
  While I was struggling in applying this accessory to her hair, Namgung Bi-ah turned her head around while rubbing her eyes since I ended up making my presence known due to the mistake I made while setting up the hair accessory. 
  Her half-lidded eyes, filled with sleep and exhaustion, soon met mine.
  And Namgung Bi-ah proceeded to wave her thin and milky white hand softly towards me. 
  This was her usual way of greeting me in the morning.
  And in the middle of her usual greeting, I was able to see the hair accessory dangling along with her messy hair. 
  ‘…Should I tell her?’
  How can I even tell her?
  I wanted to just give the gift to her secretly, but I couldn’t just leave it there like this. 
  While I was struggling to come up with an answer, Namgung Bi-ah looked at me strangely, wondering why I was acting this way.
  I reached my hand out to her hair in order to retrieve the accessory, but Wi Seol-Ah suddenly found us here and spoke before I could take the accessory back. 
  “Huh? Sis also has the same thing on her hair as mine?”
  “The same thing?”
  Namgung Bi-ah finally noticed the change in her body and went on to grab the hair accessory that I had failed to retrieve from her hair.
  And she immediately proceeded to look at me. 
  She was looking at me while wondering what the item was for.
  I looked at Namgung Bi-ah’s puzzled face and responded in a quiet tone. 
  “…Uh, it’s just something I bought.”
  I wanted to give it to her yesterday, but I was only able to give one to Wi Seol-Ah.
  I immediately looked away after speaking those words to her. 
  Why is it so hard for me to look at her when I’m simply just giving her a gift?
  By the way, it was not really identical to the accessory I had given to Wi Seol-Ah.
  It was very slight, but there was still a difference between the accessories.
  Initially, I wanted to gift them different kinds of accessories. However, as ignorant as I was in these matters, I just ended up choosing these accessories as gifts for the girls. 
  ‘Why did I even bother…’
  It might’ve been better if I just didn’t buy anything for them at all.
  No matter how I spun this matter, I genuinely thought that I shouldn’t have gone through with this buying them gifts. 
  After looking at the accessory for some time, Namgung Bi-ah shaped her hair in a certain style and placed the accessory on it in an elegant fashion. 
  Her milky white nape became visible in the process.
  It was so fascinating that she looked and felt so different after slightly putting her hair up like that. 
  Namgung Bi-ah looked at me and asked faintly.
  “…How do I look?”
  “You look… fine.”
  There was a word that was about to jump out of my throat by instinct, but I was barely able to hold it in.
  It was very hard to say the word ‘Pretty’ to her.
  Thankfully, Namgung Bi-ah smiled as she seemed satisfied enough with my response regardless.
  I felt that she was smiling more often lately. 
  Just by looking at her smiling figure, I genuinely got the feeling that this life was much different from my past life.
  I was not really able to say that this was necessarily the life I wanted, but it wasn’t all that bad either.
  This life was good enough for me to have the thoughts of maintaining it for as long as possible, maybe forever. 
  ‘So that’s why…’
  I gotta do something.
  Only then would something change from the dystopian future that I was privy to. 
  I realized that the forked path that had stopped and agitated me for a long time… was funnily not that much of a big deal after all. 
  I hid away the awkwardness that was creeping up my face and asked, acting as though nothing happened. 
  “I’m going to go watch the tournament that will start soon, you guys want to come with me?”
  Namgung Bi-ah and Wi Seol-Ah nodded at the same time to my question.
* * * *
  Originally, my plan was to return to the clan before the tournament even began in order to go home as early as possible, 
  However, I decided to wait since Gu Ryunghwa informed me of her desire to return to the clan.
  Moreover, I needed to delay the plan anyway since I ended up having some work to do in Shaanxi, so I guess I should just be feeling thankful for that. 
  ‘But the problem here is the Sword Master and the Immortal Healer.’
  Two cumbersome people informed me that they would be returning to the clan with us. 
  I couldn’t fathom why they decided to do that, 
  But it was beneficial for our clan.
  Although the Sword Master had somewhat of an awkward relationship with our clan,
  The Immortal Healer, on the other hand, was welcomed by just about everywhere in the world— and that included the Gu Clan as well. 
  ‘Father though…’
  I wasn’t too sure about what my father would think about their visits. 
  I was planning to send a letter to the clan— informing them of the chance of our crew and the Immortal Healer being targeted by the Black Palace on our way back. 
  Moreover, since I wasn’t aware of the extent of the Sword Master’s recovery, I also asked for backup in case of surprise attacks and ambushes when I wrote the letter. 
  However, the letter would’ve been mostly written with the intention of letting them know about the entourage that was tagging along with us. 
  Now that the matters had escalated to this extent, there was no choice for me but to send the letter now. 
  Around 12 PM, 
  There wasn’t even 30 minutes left before the tournament would begin. 
  ‘Two days for the tournament was what I heard.’
  If I had to point out a difference between this tournament and the Nine Dragons Tournament that was annually held in the Gu Clan, then it would be the fact that outsiders weren’t allowed to participate.
  It was a small tournament intended for the martial artists of the Mount Hua Sect and them only.
  It was merely a simple festival for the sect which was why it didn’t include any collaborations with other clans and sects. 
  During the length of the tournament, outsiders were allowed to visit the tournament premise freely. Everyone was welcome to come and watch the exchange of martial combat at any time. 
  However, the only problem here was the fact that the sect was located on top of an absurdly tall mountain— Mount Hua.
  I believed that practically no one would bother to come and watch the tournament due to the absurd location of the event. 
  But people’s passion was definitely impressive.
  “It’s crowded…?”
  Mount Hua Sect may have had a good reputation and a renowned location as its base, but it didn’t have the biggest land out there.
  But even after all that, for it to be completely filled to the brim with people is…
  Considering that most people attending the event were average people without a hint of Qi in them, it must’ve been absurdly difficult for them to climb all the way up here.
  Furthermore, they would have had to start climbing the mountain very early in the morning to arrive by this time.
  Witnessing this scene truly made me realize the overwhelming amount of respect and adoration that the people from Huayin City had for Mount Hua Sect. 
  It seemed that the sect was expecting the people’s arrival as well, considering all the seats they had prepared. 
  Although the overall quality of the event was more or less a bit poor compared to the Nine Dragons Day, the crowd seemed more upbeat.
  I could hear the crowd speak,
  “Will the Sword Dragon participate this time?”
  They were talking about Yung Pung.
  “I didn’t see him last year… so he must be participating this year.”
  “He wasn’t even the Sword Dragon then, who was the winner last year? Yung… something.”
  “Of course, it’s someone named Yung, you moron. Every third-generation disciple has the surname Yung.”
  “I believe you are talking about Yung Sung.”
  “Oh! Yeah, Yung Sung! It was something like that— …Who are you again?”
  The person who barged into the conversation that was taking place among the chattering crowd was wearing the traditional uniform of the Mount Hua Sect. 
  When the people noticed his uniform, they became a bit more reserved. 
  One of the men carefully asked the individual…
  “Uh… Are you someone from the Mount Hua Sect?”
  “Oh, yes, my name is Yung Pung.”
  ‘…What is he doing there now?’
  The individual that had so blatantly barged into the crowd was surprisingly Yung Pung.
  What’s he doing there instead of preparing for the tournament…?
  “Yung Pung… Yung…! Y-You don’t happen to be the Sword Dragon, right…?”
  Yung Pung awkwardly scratched his head at the man’s question.
  He was basically admitting that he was indeed the Sword Dragon.
  While the man was informing the others of the Sword Dragon’s identity with shock and jubilation in his voice, our eyes met. 
  “Oh! Young Master Gu!”
  He ran towards me the moment he saw me. People’s eyes immediately trailed along with Yung Pung’s figure, moving towards where he went. 
  It seemed that everyone had figured out his identity by now. 
  I was able to see that everyone was looking at him with a shine in their eyes.
  Makes sense, since it’s not easy to come across one of the greatest young prodigies of the world.
  The Five Dragons and Three Phoenixes were the core group that would lead the future generation of martial artists. 
  ‘…And I treated that big shot Yung Pung rather harshly recently.’
  Yung Pung’s weird personality probably had to do a lot behind my teasing attitude towards him, but it was still undeniable that I had treated him rather harshly. 
  Watching the scene before me made me realize once again just how impressive of a position Yung Pung held in the world and in people’s hearts. 
  Yung Pung greeted Namgung Bi-ah and Wi Seol-Ah as well once he reached my location.
  Looking at his robust figure, I asked.
  “Are you not participating in the tournament?”
  “Oh, no. Only the third-generation disciples participate today.”
  “Then why— …Oh.”
  I already forgot… But he had told me previously that he would be participating along with the second-generation disciples.
  “Is Young Master Gu here to see how Senior Sister Gu would perform?”
  I hesitated in answering Yung Pung’s question.
  It was indeed true that I was curious about Gu Ryunghwa’s performance, but I didn’t feel comfortable saying that I had come here for my little sister. 
  “I mean… yeah, but since it’s just the third-generation disciples, I don’t think it’s necessary for me to be here.”
  Namgung Bi-ah and Wi Seol-Ah were unaware of this fact, but I had only come here to see a certain someone, but if things keep going like this…
  “Oh, then it should be fine for you to wait.”
  “I heard that Senior Sister Gu is not participating today.”
  I was not able to understand Yung Pung’s words.
  “Master Yung, I could’ve sworn that today was the day for the third-generation disciples, right…?”
  “…That is true, but…”
  He hesitated. It seemed to be difficult for him to answer my question. 
  Yung Pung clapped his hands after seemingly figuring out a solution.
  “Since we still have some time… Will you follow me?”
  After speaking those words, Yung Pung trudged along a certain path and I followed him without saying a word.
  Soon, I ended up in the rear side of a building, having followed behind Yung Pung.
  Judging by the uniforms that were donned by most of the people here, it seemed to be a place of preparation for the martial artists. 
  ‘A preparation area for the third-generation disciples, huh?’
  I could see at a glance that they were either slightly older or slightly younger than Yung Pung.
  Some were already at the age of twenty, or slightly over it, and the others were just shy of reaching twenty. 
  Putting that aside…
  “Master Yung Pung…”
  “Yes, Young Master Gu?”
  “What are they doing there?”
  Where I pointed towards— there stood muscular individuals in a row and there were even faces that were already known to me. 
  They were the second-generation disciples who traveled with us during our journey to Shaanxi.
  I was able to see the sight of them hiding behind a pillar and glancing at me secretly. 
  Do they think that they can hide themselves like that with their gigantic body?
  Gu Ryunghwa also seemed to have a tendency of hiding like that. Did the Mount Hua Sect not even teach a proper hiding technique to them…? 
  Standing beside me, Yung Pung hesitated slightly before speaking.
  “I believe uh, they are acting this way because of Senior Sister Gu.”
  Why is Gu Ryunghwa involved in all this all of a sudden?
  However, I was suddenly reminded of the scene of everyone being shocked once they found out I was related to Gu Ryunghwa by blood on our way here to the Mount Hua Sect. 
  ‘Is she getting bullied or something?’
  If that were to be the case, then it would piss me off a lot. 
  And it wasn’t just because she was getting bullied for sure. 
  Moving my feet, I trudged towards the group of muscular hiding behind the pillars. 
  “Huh? Huh? Young Master Gu…! Wait a min—“
  Yung Pung tried to stop me, but I didn’t listen to him.
  I’m not trying to act like an older brother now, but just looking at them made my head feel hot.
  As I went closer and closer, I was soon able to register the words that the second-generation disciples were uttering among them. 
  What are they focusing on so much that they can’t even notice me walking up to them?
  “…Why is she trying to participate along with the third-generation disciples?”
  “I know, shouldn’t we do something about it?”
  Are they all talking about Gu Ryunghwa?
  “All of you stay quiet. She made this choice herself, and you should respect it…!”
  “Even you are acting like this? How can we trust those stinky juniors…”
  “In my eyes, you are the stinkiest of them all, so just stay quiet.”
  What is it that they couldn’t trust about the third-generation disciples, and what were they trying to do?
  I never heard that Gu Ryunghwa was going through something like this.
  ‘I guess that just shows the distance between us.’ 
  It was all my fault in the end, so I was simply unable to say anything to my little sister. 
  First things first, I calmed myself down in order to not act on my emotions. 
  I repeatedly told myself that I just couldn’t afford to cause a problem in a place like this.
  When I got close enough, I started speaking to the second-generation disciples.
  “What are you guys—“
  “Then what do we do if she gets hurt…!”
  “…Do… ing…?”
  I had to stop my words, confusion coloring my face. 
  The second-generation disciples immediately turned their gazes towards me once they heard me speak. 
  “Huh? Young Master Gu?”
  Cold sweat immediately started flowing down my back. 
  …What did I just hear?
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