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TL: FoodieMonster007; ED: TheGreatT20 If you see this, you are at the wrong site!


I returned to the scene of the explosion, scouring the area for any trace of the creature that had once been Cho Maksaeng.

“Holy shit…”

There was nothing left of the boy but a gruesome amalgam of flesh, bone, and blood.

So this is what Soul Alteration does to a person.

As if implanting demonic arts into children’s minds and gradually turning them into mindless ghouls wasn’t bad enough, these people were even programmed to explode when they died. It was a cruel strategy that could even bring down a martial arts master if they were caught unawares.

“Elder Lee, how do you control the Soulless?”

“Kukuku, are you curious?” The Demonic Strategist sneered.

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I longed to wipe that grin off his face, but now was not the time to reveal my murderous intent. Struggling to keep a poker face, I asked innocuously, “Wouldn’t it be too risky if we couldn’t control them? They’ll rampage indiscriminately as soon as they turn into ghouls.”

“Fear not. Our Lord rules over all demons, so even the Soulless will kneel and worship Him.”

Our Lord… So the Blood Demon has a means to suppress the Soulless? Even then… Hoping for more information, I pressed, “But he can’t always be present, and in a conflict, the frontline commanders will need a means to control the ghouls…”

“Aren’t you unusually chatty today? Why are you asking so many unnecessary questions? Are you planning to sell my secrets to the Murim Alliance?”

“Of course not.” I averted my gaze.

“Kukuku, I was only kidding, but curiosity killed the cat. Your only concern should be completing the Four Demons.”

“I know.”

“Come, help me identify the gifted children. I’ll personally teach some of them as an experiment.”

A chill ran down my spine. Of all the horrifying encounters I had encountered in my previous life, this conversation with the Demonic Strategist about Soul Alteration was undoubtedly one of the most harrowing.

“Demonic Strategist, are you really still alive, or are the remnants of the Blood Cult just carrying on your legacy and stirring up this mess?”

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Gritting my teeth, I tried to erase the memory of Cho Maksaeng’s tortured, tear-stained face from my mind, but I failed. Still, I felt no guilt for killing him. The boy was a scoundrel through and through. Even if he hadn’t undergone Soul Alteration, there was a good chance that he would still have gone down the path of a serial killer, leaving a trail of shattered innocent lives in his wake.

But was his evil innate? Or did he suffer some kind of brain damage when his head was cut open and tampered with?

“Kihihihi! Kill me, or I’ll kill them all. The bastards who looked down on me just because I’m an orphan…!”

Had his life taken a different turn, he might have lived a mundane, unremarkable existence.

“…Although it’s useless to dwell on what-ifs now.”

I set to work cleaning up Cho Maksaeng’s remains as best I could. I even collected the tattered shreds of clothing and burned them, erasing any evidence that the constables could use to identify him. By the time the first rays of dawn began to streak the sky, the job was done.

Although I had worn a black outfit to hide the bloodstains, there was nothing I could do about the metallic stench of blood.

“Hoo… I’ll have to change as soon as I get home,” I sighed, taking my time walking home to collect my jumbled thoughts.

The mysterious man who gave Cheong Cheon the Blood Rain Demonic Art and Wiji Cheon the counterfeit Unlimited Sword, the massacre at the Hyonwon estate, and now Soul Alteration… All these reek of an organization working behind the scenes, likely for decades, concealing their existence even as they amass power.

Only a fool would fail to recognize the looming threat.

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“Fuck, I’m going crazy…”

I knew more about the machinations of the Blood Cult than anyone else. More than the Murim Alliance, who were still chasing shadows, more than even the descendants of the Blood Cult like the Wiji Clan. Armed with this knowledge, I instantly recognized Cheong Cheon’s demonic art, saw through Wiji Yeol’s facade at the Freelancer’s Bazaar, identified the masterminds behind the Hyonwon Clan massacre, and searched for traces of Soul Alteration on Cho Maksaeng.

Much to my frustration, however, none of this was information I could share with others.

Still, of all the things the Blood Cult had done lately, Soul Alteration was by far the most absurd.

Where did the Blood Cult get the financial resources and highly skilled personnel to carry out Soul Alteration? These things are difficult enough to obtain individually, but both at the same time? Only the most prestigious sects, such as the Nine Great Sects or the Five Great Clans, can afford such luxuries…

“Cough! I really don’t know, I don’t know anything! B-Blood Cult? I’m an orphan… Cough! Martial arts, I learned them at the orphanage, then… Cough! From the Namgoong Clan…”

Wait, the Namgoong Clan? Was it really just a coincidence that Cho Maksaeng grew up in an orphanage sponsored by the Namgoong Clan? …No, that seems too far-fetched. With the greatest swordsmen in the Five Great Clans, the Namgoong Clan is a formidable force that rivals the Nine Sects One Gang. Infiltrating them unnoticed is impossible. Still, just to make sure… I should go visit that orphanage sometime.

I made a mental note to take a vacation sometime in the future. If I left now, my sudden departure would raise eyebrows, particularly those of Namgoong Su, as I had to help facilitate the Azure Dragon Academy entrance exams. Most importantly, my current martial arts skills were nowhere near enough to face the Blood Cult.

I’m no righteous hero, I just want to eradicate the Blood Cult. It’s okay if I take my time, I reassured myself.

“Demonic Strategist, if you still draw breath… This time, I’ll finish you off once and for all.”

I squeezed the hilt of my sword.

Fortunately, the brisk air of dawn tempered my fervent resolve.

sep

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“Hoo…” After finishing his morning exercises, Gongson Su slowly opened his eyes.

The first rays of sunlight tickled the earth, but the White Dragon Manor still slumbered, shrouded in the hush of early morning. The only people awake at this hour were himself and his bodyguard, Shadow.

“Elder, don’t you think you should sleep a little longer?” Shadow complained, her voice carrying a hint of morning grouchiness.

“Hohoho, it’s hard to sleep much at my age. Aren’t you the one who wants to sleep in?” Gongson Su smirked playfully.

“It’s okay, it’s not like I’m waking up early for the first time…” Shadow pouted.

It’s only been a few days since I forced her to take a day off, and already she’s much more expressive. All this is thanks to Mr. Baek, Gongson Su thought. He told her everything that I, the person concerned, cannot.

Standing up, Gongson Su declared, “Today is a very important day, so I’m going to take a warm bath to purify myself.

“I suspected as much, so I prepared some warm water beforehand,” Shadow replied.

“Hohoho, I’m going to be very sad when you get married.”

“What? Why are you talking about marriage all of a sudden…”

“Don’t you want to get married?”

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“I’ve never thought about it.”

Gongson Su smiled wryly. “From now on, you need to start looking for a partner. You’re a capable lady with a good personality, so there should be plenty of good men lining up to date you. Well, if you really can’t find anyone, how about I do the matchmaking for you?”

“S-Stop teasing me! Go get washed up!”

“Hohoho!” Grinning cheekily, Gongson Su let himself be pushed into the bathroom.

SPLASH!

While he cleaned himself, Shadow kept watch outside, the minutes ticking by in companionable silence.

“How time flies. The promised month has already passed,” Gongson Su suddenly remarked from within the steam-filled room.

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“…Yes,” Shadow replied quietly.

Today was the day Gongson Su would tackle the Azure Dragon Academy entrance exam. Originally, he had dismissed it as a ludicrous dream, but now he was brimming with confidence, all thanks to the guidance of one man.

“Has Mr. Baek returned yet?”

“No, I haven’t seen him since he left last night.”

“Hmm…” Gongson Su mused aloud, “He’s a decent guy, but there’s something shady about him. I wonder what kept him out all night?”

“Should I investigate him?”

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“No, forget it, I have no reason to pry into a grown man’s affairs. You, on the other hand, aren’t you curious?”

“W-What…?”

“Oho!” A veteran of the art of speech and politics, Gongson Su couldn’t help but notice the subtle restlessness in Shadow’s tone. “No way~ Are you…?”

“Absolutely not,” Shadow said firmly.

“Hoho, I haven’t even finished asking my question…”

“…It’s not what you think!”

“HOHOHO!”

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“I already said it’s a misunderstanding!”

Gongson Su chuckled. He had a feeling that if he hadn’t been in the bath, Shadow might have smacked him out of embarrassment.

“Ugh… Think what you want. You’re going to make fun of me no matter what I say,” Shadow groaned.

Gongson Su smiled wryly. “Hohoho, it really is the springtime of youth!” he laughed, but suddenly, his tone darkened as he said, “By the way, the secret missive has arrived.”

Shadow narrowed her eyes. “Have you read it?”

“Yes. Fortunately, it seems I can leave as soon as the exam ends.”

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“I’ll make the arrangements,” Shadow acknowledged.

Gongson Su emerged from his refreshing bath, dressed in fresh new clothing. Today, instead of his usual gray training outfit, he sported a pristine white martial arts uniform, topped off with a matching headband. As a final touch, he fastened a sword to his waist, then stole a moment to study his reflection in the mirror.

“Yawn… Grandpa, you’re up early.”

“Gooood morninggggg…”

Wiji Cheon and Hyonwon Kang staggered dazedly past Gongson Su on their way to the bathroom. Instead of following them, Gongson Su remained in the corridor, staring at the main gates of the White Dragon Manor.

Soon, Baek Suryong, returning from his nighttime adventure, swung open the gate and stepped inside.

“Mr. Baek, are you just now coming home?”

“…Elder. You’re up early.”

A cursory glance was all Gongson Su needed to discern that Baek Suryong was not only unusually tired, but also bore the unmistakable metallic scent of blood on his clothes. I’m curious, but I’ve already decided not to poke my nose into his affairs, he thought as he asked worriedly, “You don’t look well. Is something bothering you?”

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“Is it that obvious?”

“Not really. At least, a normal person wouldn’t notice it.”

“I see,” Baek Suryong replied. So he noticed it because he’s not an ordinary person. He may not be a martial arts master, but his intuition and insight are equal to, if not greater than, most masters. I should be honest with him as much as I can.

“If you have a problem, tell me. I’ll see what I can do to help,” Gongson Su offered.

Baek Suryong shrugged his shoulders and gave a weak smile, “I’m sorry, but this is not something that I can tell anyone about.”

“Okay, if you don’t want to talk about it, I won’t pry. Instead…” Gongson Su rose from his seat and approached Baek Suryong. This young man, who had always seemed so calm and unflappable, was now clearly in distress, and it was both surprising and heartening to realize that Baek Suryong was, after all, a vulnerable human being just like any other.

10,000 taels? That’s too little. What Baek Suryong did for me is worth so much more. Gongson Su marveled at his unexpected windfall. This was his chance to repay Baek Suryong.

“I will grant you one favor with no strings attached. You can ask me for anything you want, and I won’t say no as long as it’s within my means. This is a promise I will keep until my last breath,” he said.

“Eh?” Baek Suryong’s eyes widened in surprise.

“Elder!” Shadow, who was standing nearby, immediately exclaimed in surprise, but quickly followed up with a heavy sigh and a resigned shake of her head.

“Listen, Elder,” Baek Suryong began hesitantly, “ Have you thought about what would happen if I asked you for a very difficult or troublesome favor?”

Giving Baek Suryong a reassuring pat on the shoulder, Gongson Su replied with a hint of amusement, “Hoho, you may not know this, but there aren’t many things that could trouble me. You’ll see.”

With a grin, Gongson Su then turned to Hyonwon Kang and Wiji Cheon, who had just emerged from their morning bath. “Shall we have breakfast? I’ve been up since dawn and my stomach is rumbling like thunder, hohoho!” he suggested eagerly.

Just like that, the five of them enjoyed a hearty breakfast, then departed from the White Dragon Manor. Unbeknownst to them, this was the last meal they would ever share as a group.

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