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    Thud…

    Ryubeom slowly lifted his head at the sound coming from the window. He had been curled up by his bedside, lost in thought for so long that he had lost track of time. The branches, swayed by the cold early spring wind, intermittently tapped against the attic window.

    The barren branches extending beyond the window seemed like cracks in the sky. The sky was entirely overcast, suggesting rain was imminent. Ryubeom stared blankly at the fragmented sky.

    Although it had been a while since he thought about it, the past was so vivid and deep that it quickly dragged him down. While the surface shimmered with a beautiful blue light, each step he took sank him deeper into a dark abyss. His body, weighed down by deep memories, felt heavy.

    Four days had already passed.

    The meeting at the Daeho Hall still hadn’t concluded. Ryubeom couldn’t tell if the unusually prolonged meeting was a good omen or a bad one. Was it because it was rare for the Tiger Clan to expel a member that the meeting was taking so long?

    Ryubeom’s mother, Cheon Eunhwa, wasn’t an exiled member. She was merely a member who had fled the clan, and Ryubeom had entered the clan one day as her child.

    Even though he had lived here for over ten years since that day, he still couldn’t shake off the feeling of being an outsider.

    “I can’t be kicked out…”

    Ryubeom carefully unfolded the photo he was holding. It was a picture taken at his first remembered home in his childhood. Against a snowy background, his parents held him as a baby, smiling brightly. Ryubeom’s finger slowly traced over them.

    Where was his father now?

    He hoped that his inherently kind father might have safely crossed the Samdocheon even if he was taken by the evil spirit. However, he wasn’t confident that his father had escaped from the evil spirit powerful enough to kill his mother, who was once the next in line to lead the Tiger Clan.

    He wanted to find his father’s spirit and bring it to the clan, at least in the form of a memorial tablet…

    Sometimes, he felt ridiculous clinging to a mere memorial tablet, but whenever he did, his mother’s words vividly came to mind.

    ‘Once everything is settled… then let’s go to the clan together.’

    Ryubeom couldn’t let go of the desire to bring his family to the place his mother had longed for and loved. He didn’t want to. Without that hope, he felt he would find no meaning in having survived alone. Sometimes he resented the clan, but he still wanted to love it as his mother had…

    However, Cheon Ryubeom hadn’t merely waited for the clan’s mercy all those years. At twenty, if he could be recognized as a clan member and prove himself capable enough to be a ‘next clan leader candidate,’ he could enter the Daeho Hall.

    The Daeho Hall was a place where the clan’s 600-year history and countless books were stored. The clan’s strategies, secrets, and more. He thought perhaps there would be records about the entity that had attacked their car that day. Whether it was an evil spirit, a monster, or merely a hallucination conjured by a frightened child, he wanted to find out.

    Additionally, there might be a spell to restore his erased memories. His parents probably erased his memories out of kindness, but Ryubeom wanted to know at least the end of it.

    Whoosh…

    The branches beyond the window shook violently as if they might break. When they tapped closer to the window, the room seemed to grow darker. The sound of the strong wind, the branches hitting the window, and the ticking of the clock all mixed, creating a chaotic noise in the room.

    Despite this, Ryubeom felt an eerie sense of detachment from all the noise, blinking blankly until…

    “Cheon Ryubeom. The elders are calling you.”

    Startled by Cheon Yeongdo’s call from beyond the door, Ryubeom felt a chill from the mockery in his voice but tried hard to suppress his anxiety.

    Boom…

    Thunder roared just as they arrived at the Daeho Hall. Though the rain hadn’t yet started, the ominous intensity of the thunder suggested a downpour was imminent.

    The distinctively heavy, oppressive air before the rain weighed down on Ryubeom’s shoulders. That weight seemed to reprimand him, telling him that he didn’t belong in this place.

    Currently, Ryubeom was inside the Daeho Hall. The hall, facing a vast bamboo forest, was as grand as a palace. Except for the time he had accidentally wandered in as a very young child, he had never been able to set foot in this place. He had always dreamed of entering it…

    But today, the place he stepped into felt endlessly cold.

    “…”

    Ryubeom tried his best not to show his nerves. The elders sat around a semi-circular table in the center, staring down at him intently.

    The clan leader was not present. Saying he was tired and that it looked like it might rain, he had left, and Ryubeom still couldn’t determine if that was a good or bad sign. Was it a good sign because it meant the matter wasn’t serious enough to warrant the leader’s attention, or a bad sign because Ryubeom wasn’t worth his time?

    Cheon Hoyun, who was seated in the center in place of the clan leader, spoke.

    “Cheon Ryubeom. Have you reflected on your mistakes during this time?”

    “Yes. I have reflected deeply. Everything is entirely my fault. If you would just give me one more chance…”

    “I didn’t ask to hear your plea, so spare us the details.”

    “…”

    “And don’t bother kneeling. What do you think your knees are worth?”

    Ryubeom flinched and corrected his posture. Just as he was about to resort to kneeling, Cheon Hoyun’s slight frown seemed to show she had seen right through him. She looked at him with disdain, as if she found him pathetic for failing to display the dignity of a tiger.

    “I’ve reviewed your regular test records from the past few years. You’ve failed to meet the minimum standards more than five times, and even then, you barely scraped by. On your first test at twenty, you even failed.”

    “…”

    “Moreover, this time, there was an issue during a meeting with humans due to your carelessness. Even considering that you are of mixed blood, it’s clear that your inadequacies are severe. We’ve tried to keep you for twenty years, but your failures disgrace the family name…”

    Her cold voice carried no warmth, and despite the shocking content, her tone remained steady. Ryubeom’s eyes trembled. The continuation of her words sounded unmistakably like a declaration of his expulsion.

    And as Ryubeom feared, Cheon Hoyun delivered the verdict dispassionately.

    “The decision is to expel you from the clan.”

    “Please, anything but that…”

    “However, the year of adulthood has not yet ended.”

    Just as Ryubeom was about to kneel and beg, Cheon Hoyun’s voice cut through. She slowly lifted her gaze from the documents and looked directly at him.

    The year of adulthood: one year at twenty.

    “So, I will give you one last chance. You must prove yourself within this year.”

    “I-I can do it! Anything…!”

    Ryubeom immediately lifted his head and straightened his posture. As he clenched his hands tightly, Cheon Hoyun’s eyes narrowed. Around that time, Ryubeom heard mocking laughter from the surrounding elders. Some even openly laughed at him.

    As confusion and anxiety mixed, Cheon Hoyun explained.

    “There are strange occurrences happening all over the country. The reports from humans are unending, and although some of our kind have gone to investigate, they couldn’t easily handle it and it remains unresolved. If you can solve all these issues, we will acknowledge you and accept you as a member of the clan.”

    “…”

    “We will grant you what you’ve long desired and also the right to take the honorable test.”

    Ryubeom’s eyes trembled.

    The thing Ryubeom longed for most was to find his father’s spirit. And the mention of the honorable test implied granting him the qualifications to become the next clan leader candidate. Ryubeom didn’t dare wish to become the clan leader; he merely wanted to belong to the clan. This would give him the chance to enter the Daeho Hall.

    These strange occurrences across the country were suspected to be related to evil spirits or monsters, with such strong malevolent energy that it was hard to investigate or approach them. That was all Ryubeom knew, but his determination surged.

    “I will do it.”

    “Investigating this issue could lead to your death. Will you still do it? If you’re afraid, you can leave the family and live on your own. If you choose that, the family has agreed to provide you with a certain level of support.”

    “No, I will gratefully accept this opportunity.”

    Ryubeom answered resolutely. The elders sneered as they saw his face light up with hope.

    “He’s blinded by the reward and doesn’t even realize the danger he’s in.”

    “He doesn’t even know if he’s being sent to his death…”

    The mockery was sharper than usual. Previously, they had held back somewhat because he was “Cheon Eunhwa’s child,” but now that even the family head had agreed to let him go, there was no need to restrain themselves.

    However, Cheon Ryubeom’s eyes did not waver. This task might be too difficult for someone like him, who hadn’t even passed the family’s regular exams, and it could indeed be a path where he would have to face death as the elders suggested. But Ryubeom couldn’t give up.

    “Don’t think of returning to the family until you’ve resolved everything.”

    “I will keep that in mind.”

    At Cheon Hoyeon’s final words, Ryubeom bowed deeply and accepted the map she handed him with both hands. His fingertips trembled slightly, but he gripped the map tightly.

    The elders were mistaken about one thing.

    Cheon Ryubeom had never done anything simply because he could.

    He had only endured because he had to succeed.

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