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    Clang!

    A sharp sound pierced his ears. Cheon Ryubeom kept his head bowed, merely gazing at the fragments of pottery rolling beside him. A fierce rebuke thundered from above.

    “You disgrace! Returning to the family in such a state, aren’t you ashamed?”

    “Not even able to hunt a single fox, tsk tsk.”

    These harsh words were hurled at him as soon as he stepped into the large tiled house. Unluckily, he encountered the elders while heading straight to his room after entering through the back gate.

    The elders of the Tiger Clan were extremely strict and demanding. They also viewed Ryubeom with great disapproval. Their faces immediately twisted with displeasure upon seeing his disheveled appearance, clicking their tongues in disapproval.

    Judging by their reprimands, it seemed they had already heard the news from Cheon Yeongdo. Ryubeom stood silently with his head bowed. At dawn, his cousins had left for the mansion without him, so he had to come separately. He had cleaned the dirt off at a stream, but there was nothing he could do about his torn clothes.

    “Just imagine how much those fox bastards must have laughed at this sight. They are very cunning, so they surely watched you stumble around pathetically from their hiding spots.”

    The criticism continued unrelentingly. Ryubeom was accustomed to letting it go in one ear and out the other. When one hears too many words, there comes a point where they stop registering them. It was more like an unconscious blocking than ignoring.

    He knew well the difference between whether the action was truly such a grave mistake or if they were using it as an excuse to criticize him.

    Cousins passing through the hallway cast disgusted glances upon noticing the commotion. Eyes that seemed to say, “I knew it,” and irritated looks that blamed him for today’s uproar in the mansion. Their murmuring reached his ears.

    However, the torrent of reproaches suddenly came to an abrupt halt.

    “What is this ruckus so early in the morning?”

    The presence that had silently approached uttered this single phrase, bringing about a sudden silence. The atmosphere shifted instantly, and all attention focused on him.

    Clad in a deep red robe, his hair was snowy white, and his face was full of wrinkles. However, his white eyes, nestled within his deeply lined face, were sharp and intense, showing no signs of age.

    The figure exuded a sharp and noble aura, like an old pine tree standing on a sheer cliff. This was Cheon Gun, the head of the Tiger Clan. A guardian who had protected and elevated the clan’s prestige for centuries. A being close to a divine beast.

    “L-Lord…”

    Everyone gathered in the hallway respectfully greeted the clan leader. Ryubeom also bowed deeply, but he could keenly feel the cold gaze piercing him. It was almost painful.

    Tsk, a short click of the tongue followed.

    “Pathetic.”

    …Despite being infinitely shorter than the elders’ previous scoldings, this single word pierced Cheon Ryubeom’s heart deeply. He bowed his head even lower.

    Soon, the clan leader lost interest in Ryubeom and moved on. The tigers in the hallway followed him in a natural flow.

    The clan leader rolled up his sleeve and massaged his right arm. A long, ugly scar ran down it, as if it had been forcibly reattached after being severed.

    “Maybe it’s because of the rain, but my right arm aches. I must catch that wretched Maegu bastard this time for the pain to stop.”

    “Yes. Everything will be as you wish, Father.”

    “How goes the tracking? Still wandering overseas?”

    “We are still…”

    Their voices gradually faded as they headed towards the opposite corridor. Ryubeom only lifted his head once he was sure everyone had left. His neck was stiff from keeping it bowed since entering the mansion.

    He hurried towards the attic.

    The mansion used by the Tiger Clan was a sprawling tiled house with 600 years of history. Renovations over the years had added several two-story annexes. Ryubeom used the attic room in the furthest annex from the main house.

    Though it was no better than a storage room, Ryubeom liked it here. Being detached from the main house meant he rarely encountered other family members if he stayed in his room. Although he had to attend family meals and traverse the long distance every time, the rarity of having a private space outweighed this inconvenience.

    Upon entering the narrow attic, Ryubeom immediately began washing himself. He scrubbed meticulously for a long time, as if to wash away all the words and gazes he had endured over the past two days.

    When he finally emerged, feeling much refreshed, he was about to flop onto his bed when he noticed something fall from the pants draped over the chair.

    A leaf.

    Slowly, Ryubeom’s mouth fell open. He had completely forgotten about it. The leaf he had received from the fox last night, he had hastily stuffed it into his pocket in the midst of the urgent situation and blacked it out of his memory. He still couldn’t understand why the fox had given him the leaf in the first place.

    There were holes scattered all over the leaf he vaguely remembered seeing from afar. Carefully, he took it out, wondering if it had been torn while in his pocket. What…

    “…A phone number?”

    Confusion clouded Ryubeom’s eyes. Beyond just a simple string of numbers, the addition of hyphens seemed to confirm that it was indeed a phone number.

    Engraving a phone number on a leaf and giving it to someone. It was a fusion of tradition and modernity. Ryubeom felt unfamiliar yet couldn’t tear his gaze away from the leaf. The droplet of water falling from his hair landed on the leaf, bursting like an illusion, vividly recalling the moment from last night.

    It had been a thoroughly impulsive act. If he had hunted down those foxes then, no, even if he hadn’t harmed them but had brought them here… He wouldn’t have heard the same harsh words just now, nor faced the same disdain.

    Even in that moment, he was well aware of this fact. The consequences were clear to him if he didn’t bring those foxes. Yet, he couldn’t bring himself to reach out to them.

    The trembling baby fox, the fragile appearance of a child. The reaction of cowering in fear, unable to hide its ears and tail, and the adult fox guarding them while cautiously eyeing him.

    In that moment, a memory from some point flashed in his mind.

    “Mom, Dad…”

    Ryubeom shut his eyes tightly, forcibly cutting off the sentiment. A bitter laugh escaped him. They had been saved, yet he hadn’t.

    It seemed like an inappropriate act of mercy. Did he want the admiring gaze of those weaker than him? They must have seen him being ignored as well, found his appearance ridiculous… His mind continued to follow cynical thoughts out of habit, trying to kill off the confused emotions. Once again, Ryubeom lowered his head.

    He had just finished washing up, and he didn’t want to sink back into that mood. Even though he had failed the regular exam yesterday and hadn’t properly followed the order to hunt down the fox, receiving pitiful glances for tumbling down a mountain.

    “…I won’t be kicked out of the clan just yet.”

    Since he had said nothing, Ryubeom thought everything would be fine, so he flopped onto his bed. He still held the leaf in his hand.

    To carve a number like this, one must have quite delicate control over their energy… If he could handle energy to this extent, it wouldn’t have been difficult to escape from the mountain. Was it because of his injuries, coupled with carrying the little foxes, that made it hard? His injuries must have been quite severe. It was too dark to properly assess his condition.

    “Oh, I keep thinking about it.”

    Ryubeom lifted his head. The elders’ words about nothing good coming from being involved with the fox echoed in his ears. He needed to quickly get rid of the leaf before anyone else saw it.

    But as he tried to set it down on the side table, the leaf tore apart.

    “…!”

    It didn’t just tear, it shattered completely. Startled, Ryubeom didn’t try to piece it back together. Instead, reflexively, he entered the number engraved on the leaf into his phone. It was an action born out of the thought that he should record it before forgetting.

    Staring at the list of numbers on the screen, Ryubeom blinked blankly.

    The Tiger Clan and the Fox Clan had a terrible relationship. Tigers were the top predators reigning over all animals in the ecosystem, but the Fox Clan often instigated fights. The elders despised them, claiming they dared challenge those who knew nothing of their domain.

    Even Lord had warned against getting involved with foxes. The injury on his arm was from the leader of the Fox Clan.

    So he should delete this number immediately, but Ryubeom couldn’t bring himself to move his hand. The baby foxes he had seen last night flashed before his eyes.

    Should he send a text, at least? When he found them, their guardian was injured, so it wouldn’t hurt to check if they made it safely until the end. He knew none of his cousins who went to Mount Gwanak for fox hunting were successful, but he was curious if they were unharmed.

    Ryubeom moved his hand. His thumb, which had been heading towards the message button, impulsively shifted towards the call button. The reason was quite absurd.

    “I’ll definitely repay this kindness.”

    The voice he heard yesterday, it sounded oddly pleasant.

    As the dial tone continued, Ryubeom’s tension grew. His heart raced with a strange mix of guilt, as if he were about to commit a grave mistake, and anticipation. Even the absurd thought crossed his mind that if they were safe, he might be able to brush off today’s scolding.

    The call connected.

    Ryubeom unconsciously held his breath. The time displayed on the screen seemed to pass slowly, but there was no sound from the other end. There wasn’t even the usual “hello,” so Ryubeom hesitated before speaking.

    But just before he could say anything, the voice of the other person came through.

    “Hello? Who’s this?”

    It was a very bright voice. Just from the voice alone, Ryubeom could tell the person was a child. Startled, Ryubeom blinked, then managed to ask.

    Usually at times like this, you would ask for the caller’s name to confirm who was on the line, but unfortunately, he didn’t know the person’s name.

    “Is… this your phone?”

    “Huh? Mine’s broken.”

    “Huh? This voice! You’re the tiger from yesterday!”

    “Yeah, that’s right! The nice tiger who helped us!”

    The voices of the three children came through eagerly. Ryubeom breathed a sigh of relief inwardly, confirming that they were the little foxes he had rescued yesterday. Thankfully, all three of them were fine.

    “Yes, I’m that tiger from yesterday. Where’s the owner of this phone?”

    “Yeohi’s hurt right now.”

    “…Yeohi?”

    “Yeah, Yeohi.”

    Was the fox’s name Yeohi? Though the child’s pronunciation seemed a bit off, Ryubeom nodded in response.

    “Is he in a lot of pain?”

    “Yeah, that’s why he went to the heaven.”

    “…What?”

    Ryubeom was momentarily surprised, but since the child’s tone was cheerful, it didn’t seem like a serious situation. Perhaps they meant Yeohi went out for a bit? Of course, going to the sky would be a big deal, but Ryubeom decided to ask another question.

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