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    It was a night when torrential rain lashed sharply.

    Cheon Ryubeom wiped his face with his arm as he walked through the mountain, where he couldn’t see an inch ahead. However, his clothes were already soaked through, making the action meaningless.

    The rain pouring down on the boundary between winter and spring was terribly cold.

    “How am I supposed to find anything in a place like this…?”

    His muttering was drowned out by the thunder that rumbled just in time. Now there’s even thunder, Ryubeom thought with frustration, looking up at the sky before lowering his head again, beaten by the fierce rain.

    His movements were sluggish. His thick hoodie was drenched, making his body feel heavy, and his feet sank deeply into the muddy path. Struggling up the mountain, Ryubeom looked around.

    In the pitch-black night devoid of moonlight, a faint golden hue flickered in his eyes. Though the eyes of a beast allowed him to see in the dark, it was impossible to see clearly through the pouring rain.

    He desperately wanted to return home, but there was a loud voice ringing in his ears. A voice louder and more lingering than the thunder crashing down now.

    “Hunt down those insolent foxes!”

    The mountain Ryubeom was climbing was Gwanak Mountain. Not just any path, but Yeonggok Peak, a path that ordinary humans did not tread. The peak with a sacred valley. Here, there was a waterfall that replenished the spiritual energy of the beast-people, and on the trees near the valley, fruits with healing properties grew.

    The master of Yeonggok Peak was a tiger.

    The tiger clan had generously allowed other species of beast-people to ascend Yeonggok Peak. During the day, various beast-people came to replenish their spiritual energy, and after sunset, the tigers managed the peak. For a long time, other clans gladly followed this rule and were grateful for the tiger clan’s generosity.

    However, a problem had recently arisen in this once peaceful place. The fox clan had begun to frequent Yeonggok Peak even at night. The fewer people there are in the mountains, the purer the spiritual energy becomes, and the fox clan coveted the water and fruits that were more potent at night than during the day.

    Naturally, the tiger clan was furious. Despite their broad-mindedness and patience for a few days, the foxes eventually targeted the sacred flowers of Yeonggok Peak, which were personally nurtured by the tiger clan.

    The Eongyahwa. The Eongyahwa, which bloomed once every three months, was a mystical flower visible only at night, filled with spiritual and healing energy. The elders, having discovered that the foxes had invaded the flowerbed meticulously tended by the clan, finally issued the order to ‘hunt down the foxes.’

    And that moment was now, during the torrential rain. The reasoning was that the foxes would act even more recklessly, believing that the tigers wouldn’t come out in such severe weather.

    Rumble, boom!

    His vision flashed white and then returned to a chilling darkness. In the fierce and violent weather, Ryubeom glanced down the path but quickly shook his head vigorously.

    “…If I fail at this too, I might really be expelled.”

    Today, Ryubeom had failed the clan’s regular test. While all his other cousins passed, Ryubeom received the lowest score and failed.

    The cold stares of the elders and the sneers of his cousins were still vivid in his mind.

    His hand stung from the wounds he received during the test. Unable to treat them, he had come straight here, and the rain-soaked wounds throbbed, but Ryubeom paid no mind and reached out to push through the underbrush. The heavily rain-soaked foliage pushed back sluggishly.

    All his cousins had come here together. He had to find the foxes before them to earn the adults’ recognition. This was his first time hunting, so it felt unfamiliar…

    ‘Do you really think you can catch a fox?’

    A sudden memory of a taunt came to mind. A voice full of mockery, eyes looking down on him with disdain. At the time, Ryubeom thought the remark was a caution about the foxes’ agility in escaping, but that wasn’t the intended meaning.

    ‘You might end up being hunted by a fox instead.’

    ‘You’re the disgrace of the tiger clan.’

    Another cousin’s mocking laughter echoed in his ears. Ryubeom bit his lip hard. The reason his body was trembling was simply because he had been drenched by the rain for too long. That was all.

    The elders had said that if the foxes resisted, it was acceptable to bring them back half-dead. Even though this was his first hunt, there was no way a fox could match a tiger. Moreover, since there was no condition to bring them back unharmed, there was even less to worry about.

    I have to find them first, no matter what.

    Resolving this inwardly, Ryubeom quickened his pace. Amid the sound of the rain, he could clearly hear his other cousins running around. This realization made him even more anxious. Ryubeom focused his hearing and sight more intently.

    Foxes have small bodies, so they might use narrow paths. Also, since they are sensitive to signs, they might have noticed the tigers’ approach and hidden somewhere.

    If the foxes were aiming for the mountain’s Eongyahwa today, it would be wise to check the escape route from that location. Since there are few places to hide near where the Eongyahwa blooms, it would be better to check a bit lower down. Animals instinctively seek dark and narrow places when they sense danger…

    Ryubeom moved, following his own reasoning. The tiger clan and the fox clan had a notoriously bad relationship, and talking about foxes was almost taboo, but he knew a few things about them.

    However, finding a fox was not as easy as Ryubeom had hoped. The rain made it impossible to track footprints, and it was difficult to catch the foxes’ scent.

    He sniffed the air, but all he could smell was the rain.

    “This isn’t good…”

    Ryubeom, anxiously running around, slipped in the muddy ground. Rolling down, thud! He barely managed to grab the ground to avoid falling off the cliff, but he couldn’t help but groan in pain.

    The wound on his hand had reopened.

    Covered in mud and in a mess, the pain was just as severe. Ryubeom kneeled on the ground, staring blankly at his hand.

    He needed to clean his hand and keep moving, but the rain was relentless. His body kept feeling heavier.

    “…”

    He shook his head, trying to shake off the cold, sticky thoughts creeping in like mud. Then, just as Ryubeom sighed and tried to get up.

    “Hic.”

    A terrified sound came from somewhere.

    Ryubeom’s eyes instantly sharpened. His human-like eyes transformed into tiger-like pupils, and his amber eyes took on a faint golden hue. With the eyes of a predator, Ryubeom scanned his surroundings. His heart pounded fiercely. Expectation, excitement, exhilaration.

    And perhaps a hint of anxiety.

    Whack!

    Ryubeom pushed aside the underbrush and froze in place. When a predator hears the sound of its prey, locating the source is not a difficult task. Especially not for a tiger longing for a hunt.

    “Ah!”

    “Eeek…”

    “No, don’t…!”

    Three small children with fox ears and tails emerged, startled. They seemed instinctively cowed by the sharp aura of the tiger that had spread in an instant.

    They looked to be about six or seven years old. Their pale cheeks were smeared with dirt, and their hair was a tangled mess. The three clung to each other tightly, trembling.

    And then, hugging those three little ones, there was an adult looking up at him.

    “….”

    The adult had jet-black hair that hung limply, soaked by the rain. There were scratches on their pale face, and their dark red eyes trembled. Their hands were covered in small cuts, likely from tree branches, and the sleeves of their black robe were torn and tattered.

    Despite this condition, the adult looked at him warily, or perhaps fearfully, as they shielded the children in their arms.

    Rumble, boom!

    Lightning struck behind them at that moment. It was so close that his ears rang. The scene from a moment ago lingered like an afterimage on his temporarily white-washed vision.

    His heartbeat echoed like a drum.

    Thump, thump, thump, thump…

    Cheon Ryubeom’s breathing slowed. Despite the noisy surroundings, the moment felt eerily silent. Ryubeom’s hand tightened on the underbrush he had pushed aside.

    Four foxes. Three little foxes and one adult fox.

    With this, he could return to the clan proudly…

    “Where the hell are those fox brats hiding?”

    At that moment, he heard his cousin’s shout nearby. Feeling them approaching, Ryubeom moved his hand. He needed to handle this before his cousin arrived.

    Finally, Cheon Ryubeom spoke.

    “Get into the cave behind you and hide immediately.”

    His hand gripping the underbrush no longer trembled. He pointed his chin in the direction of the cave, urging them to move quickly. When the foxes only blinked, frozen in place, he lightly stomped the ground. Even this small gesture startled the little foxes, making their ears twitch.

    “If my brothers find you, I won’t be able to help. So hurry, now.”

    He whispered urgently. The little ones still seemed to not understand, just looking at each other. As Ryubeom grew frustrated, a hand suddenly grabbed his.

    With utmost care and gentleness, the adult fox held his hand and spoke.

    “I will repay this kindness.”

    For a moment, Ryubeom doubted his ears. The soft voice was so pleasant that his heart skipped a beat. He couldn’t dismiss it as mere surprise, for the fox’s charm had crossed his mind, leaving no room for excuses.

    He realized the fox’s gender through the delicate yet low voice. The prominent Adam’s apple confirmed it.

    A male.

    While Ryubeom stared at him, the fox picked up a leaf from the ground and wrapped it tightly in his hand. A faint red light spread around his hand, and then he handed the leaf to Ryubeom.

    However, before Ryubeom could examine it, a sound came from behind. He hurriedly stuffed the object into his pants pocket and released his grip on the underbrush.

    While the foxes moved, Ryubeom stomped on the ground to erase their tracks.

    “What the… Cheon Ryubeom, you were here?”

    Soon, his cousin approached. It was Cheon Yeongdo, the oldest among the cousins. His movements were swift and stealthy, befitting a tiger renowned even within the clan. Ryubeom suppressed his surprise and awkwardly bowed in greeting.

    But Yeongdo didn’t even look at him, sniffing around as he scanned the area.

    “I sense fox energy nearby. I think I can smell them too.”

    “It seems they’ve been deliberately spreading their scent around.”

    “Cunning creatures. They commit crimes and then have a knack for escaping.”

    Yeongdo twisted his lips into a sneer. Then, noticing Ryubeom’s condition, his expression instantly soured. His hoodie was smeared with mud, and his pants were torn at the hem.

    “What the hell happened to you?”

    “Uh, I slipped on the wet ground…”

    “A tiger slipping on the mountain. You bring shame to the clan.”

    “…I’m sorry.”

    “You don’t plan to return to the main house looking like that, do you? Either catch a fox or don’t even think about coming back tonight. Tsk.”

    Yeongdo clicked his tongue and turned away.

    “How did such a useless one get in?”

    Though it seemed like a mutter to himself, he didn’t lower his voice, and Ryubeom heard it clearly. Ryubeom didn’t react, just stared at the ground with a face that showed he was all too familiar with such comments.

    The rain continued to drizzle, soaking the ground and falling on the fox tracks he hadn’t completely erased. Ryubeom subtly moved his foot to cover them.

    Soon, Cheon Yeongdo left the area. He muttered about how unlucky it was to be around Ryubeom and decided not to waste any more time there, moving on to another path.

    Ryubeom glanced towards the cave behind him. It was too dark and obscured by underbrush to see inside, but its silence reassured him.

    “….”

    The vivid memory of the fox’s eyes lingered in his mind.

    The cold rain continued to beat against his body.

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