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    The image of a human mauled to death by a tiger was thrust before Ryubeom’s eyes.

    “Please, stop…!”

    Ryubeom ran swiftly, but there was no way to escape the shadow. The alley had turned into a labyrinth. Was he caught in an illusion spell, or was his mind not functioning properly? Whatever the case, it seemed to be a result of his own weakness.

    Ryubeom had often been tormented by Changgui in the past. At first, he tried to seek help from his family but was met with disdainful looks. A tiger afraid of Changgui? It was as if he was surrendering his neck to those he should dominate.

    After being scolded for expressing his distress, he couldn’t tell anyone anymore. His cousins knew he was sometimes chased by Changgui but didn’t help. So Ryubeom had to keep running alone until the Changgui wore out. Moving to a brighter place would at least lessen their ferocity.

    But today, the Changgui chasing him were fiercer than usual. Why? Getting scolded by the elders, mocked by his cousins, and being hindered by collateral relatives was routine. Was it because he recalled his mother’s words for the first time in a while? Because he had become a more enticing prey after reaching adulthood?

    Or was it because he now had memories to compare? Even though that moment was fleeting, had his reality expanded the gap compared to that time?

    “Your fleeing looks so ridiculous!”

    “We should bite his leg…”

    “I’ll go for his neck, or rather, his head!”

    The cries of the Changgui stabbed at his ears chaotically. It sounded like dozens of people shouting, resonating in his mind. Ryubeom’s anxiety amplified even more.

    Then, up ahead, he saw a streetlamp.

    He needed to get to the light. Desperate to escape the dark alley, Ryubeom quickened his pace, but as he reached out, his balance faltered, and he began to fall.

    “Got you.”

    Suddenly, a hand grabbed him, pulling him forward. Falling into someone’s arms, Ryubeom froze.

    A familiar scent brushed his nose. The scent of a deep winter night. Cold yet refreshing, it was the scent he had smelled earlier that day. Although the distance wasn’t close, the moment was vividly remembered, and the scent lingered in his mind.

    And when his gentle voice echoed in Ryubeom’s mind, all his thoughts stopped. As if aware of Ryubeom’s frozen state, ‘he’ pulled Ryubeom deeper into his embrace and extended an arm.

    “Annihilate.”

    “Kyaaaaa!”

    “Aaah, aaah…!”

    The screams of the Changgui resounded behind him. He heard the sounds of them struggling to escape, but then everything suddenly stopped.

    The noise surrounding him vanished in an instant.

    “……”

    Ryubeom turned his head belatedly to check behind him. Black ashes, like embers, scattered in the air. It was as if the entire space had been incinerated.

    Dozens of Changgui had vanished in a moment.

    Slowly, Ryubeom looked at the man in front of him. The moment was so shocking that his thoughts were slow. The scent from the embrace and the familiar voice in his ears—yet it was so unbelievable that he had to see for himself to be sure.

    In the faintly lit space, he met eyes that were like twilight. Eyes that held the horizon of a setting sun, now tinged more intensely red, likely from using his spiritual power.

    Yeohwi.

    Ryubeom shivered. The sight of a black robe over a white shirt fluttering in the air like night was surreal. The slanted light from the streetlamp cast shadows from his lush eyelashes onto his cheeks.

    Yeohwi’s eyes curved as he confirmed Ryubeom’s face, which was half-open in surprise.

    “I was just thinking I wanted to see you, young master, and here we meet.”

    Yeohwi smiled beautifully, like red plum blossoms in full bloom. His gentle, spring-like whisper resonated in Ryubeom’s ears.

    “It must be fate.”

    Ryubeom blinked slowly. Everything that had happened so far was beyond his comprehension, causing a processing issue in his mind. Finally grasping the situation, Ryubeom quickly took two steps back.

    “Did you… get rid of those things?”

    “Yeohwi.”

    “…?”

    “I’m sure I told you my name, so why don’t you use it?”

    Yeohwi’s eyes drooped as if he was genuinely upset. Seeing his face made Ryubeom feel reflexively sorry, but he held his resolve. The confusion he felt wasn’t just due to the shock of the current situation.

    “With that level of spiritual power, why were you… at Yeongokbong like that?”

    If he had the power to eliminate so many evil spirits at once, there would have been no reason to run away from Yeongokbong last night. Even with many children around, he could have easily concealed himself with spiritual power and descended the mountain. The residual effect of the spiritual power that swept through the area still made Ryubeom’s skin tingle. As he looked around in confusion, he muttered to himself.

    “Or is this perhaps due to Yeongyehwa…?”

    He had recently heard that a fox had stolen a flower brimming with spiritual energy. Had he perhaps consumed that flower? Maybe he had already stolen it when they encountered each other last night. However, if Yeongyehwa could boost spiritual power to this extent, his clan would have managed it more strictly…

    Lost in deep thought, Yeohwi smiled enigmatically.

    “Well, you could say I received a bit of help from Guil.”

    He rolled up his sleeve to reveal a wooden bracelet on his wrist. Several small rectangular wooden pieces were strung together like prayer beads, each inscribed with black Chinese characters. Yeohwi extended his hand as if to allow Ryubeom to touch it.

    “Considering the disturbance at Yeongokbong and it being my first time in Seoul with the children, they must have been worried. They said Seoul is a dangerous place and gave it to me.”

    “…Ah.”

    Finally understanding, Ryubeom sighed briefly as he examined the bracelet. He could faintly sense spiritual power emanating from it. The unfamiliar characters suggested it was ancient. If so, it was a very old object, possibly with spiritual power embedded in each piece.

    Even though there was active exchange between the clans, they naturally did not share information about their treasures or secret techniques. Moreover, the tiger and fox clans did not get along, so there was no way for him to know. Still, it was clear this was no ordinary item at a glance, making him wonder if Gu-il held a high position within the fox clan.

    Ryubeom suddenly remembered that foxes were particularly attuned to the spiritual power of “Gu.”

    “I initially refused such a precious item, but I’m glad I accepted since it allowed me to help my benefactor. I made the right choice.”

    Yeohwi smiled again, a clear and beautiful smile that left Ryubeom speechless. He felt ashamed for having doubted him just moments ago. Despite saving him, Ryubeom had immediately been suspicious.

    “…Thank you.”

    Feeling embarrassed, he expressed his gratitude while staring at the ground.

    Yeohwi must be curious why he was being chased by Changgui. Should he say it was because he was momentarily weakened? However, mentioning this seemed like a silly and embarrassing excuse, making him hesitate.

    But Yeohwi asked an entirely different question.

    “By the way, what brings you here at this hour, young master?”

    “Well… Ah, right!”

    Ryubeom was startled as he raised his head. A digital clock visible in the shopping district behind him indicated it was past 8 o’clock.

    He had wasted too much time.

    It wasn’t yet the end of dinner, but if he returned late, he didn’t know what the collateral family members might say. If his cousins found out he had been away for so long, it would be even worse.

    Ryubeom hastily turned around.

    “I just came down for a quick errand, but I need to hurry back now.”

    “Young master, you’re always so busy…”

    Yeohwi mumbled as if he were disappointed but didn’t force him to stay. Ryubeom felt grateful for this yet also felt a heavier heart.

    “You’ll spend time with me later, won’t you?”

    Ryubeom impulsively nodded at Yeohwi’s question. He hadn’t properly expressed his thanks or apologies, and leaving it like this would bother him. Seeing Ryubeom’s reaction, Yeohwi smiled again, a sweet and beautiful smile, and took a step back.

    Yeohwi waved his hand as if urging Ryubeom to hurry back. Ryubeom took one last look at Yeohwi’s beautiful hand before turning away. Yeohwi never asked why he had been chased by the Changgui. This left Ryubeom feeling uneasy.

    As he made his way up the mountain, Ryubeom felt his heart pounding. The anxiety of having been away for so long, the shock of being chased by the Changgui, and the encounter with Yeohwi—all these feelings swirled inside him. Meeting Yeohwi, in particular, had a profound impact on him.

    Why had Yeohwi been there at that time? Did he have some errand nearby as well? What business did he have to be out and about?

    It felt strange, as if his thoughts were being pulled in one direction. Perhaps it was simply the astonishment of witnessing the simultaneous vanishing of the Changgui. Ryubeom tried to calm the turmoil in his heart, attributing it to just that.

    With these thoughts, he bought some snacks, changed his clothes, and headed to the restaurant. As he approached, he sensed something was wrong.

    The area was noisy. Several cars were speeding away, and the surroundings of the restaurant were chaotic.

    Upon arriving at the restaurant, Ryubeom noticed that the direct members of his family had gathered earlier than expected, and the atmosphere was tense.

    “How could security be so lax!”

    “What are we going to do about the ruined gathering today!”

    Before the shouting elders, all the security guards were kneeling. Behind them, he saw a broken wall, the restaurant in disarray, and the overwhelming presence of malicious energy.

    It was the scene of an attack by a group of malevolent spirits.

    Ryubeom’s face hardened. The same malevolent energy he had felt from the ghost he initially caught now permeated this space. These weren’t ordinary ghosts but “evil spirits.” Had they signaled their group somehow? This was the first time a gathering had been ruined like this, causing his heart to race with anxiety. This was… it seemed… almost an instinctive sense that he might end up bearing all the blame.

    “Well… Young Master Cheon Ryubeom suddenly left his seat, creating a gap in the security arrangement.”

    The word Annihilate (滅) more accurately implies to die or perish.

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