Dae Na-chal sits with the aura of someone sitting up high instead of being just a leader of a small Unorthodox Faction. He then looks at me and extends his hand.
As I think about the recently-deceased Jeok Sa, I greet Dae Na-chal.
“Master, how is your back these days?”
Dae Na-chal nods.
“Do you feel any discomfort on your leg?”
“It is uncomfortable, but you must live with it as you age. I’m okay during fights, so there’s nothing to worry about.”
“I see. How about your sleep? Living in Kangho is draining, so getting enough sleep is important.”
Dae Na-chal nods in agreement.
“My sleep gets shorter as I grow old. You don’t have to worry too much. I’ll be asleep long enough when I die. Who else did you kill along the way?”
Dae Na-chal is treating me as if I am Red Snake.
“I have beaten some of the guys running helplessly to their deaths.”
Dae Na-chal then sighs shortly and says.
“Now that my beloved disciples are dead, I must avenge them.”
“Of course, you should.”
“What were Red Snake’s last moments?”
“I threw him against the wall, and his head cracked open. He’s probably lining up somewhere at hell’s entrance.”
“How unfortunate. He was my favorite disciple.”
I ask Dae Na-chal about something I have been curious about.
“There’s something I’ve always wondered about. Please enlighten me.”
“Why are we wearing these masks? It looks like Red Snake was also curious about this until the moment he died.”
Dae Na-chal smiles widely as he shows his teeth.
“Oh, how fascinating.”
“Not once has anyone specifically asked me that in detail, even though I had many disciples. It’s simple. Hiding behind a mask makes doing bad things more natural. The fine line separating your true self from the mask when you commit evil becomes vague.”
From his sitting position, Dae Na-chal thrusts his face forward.
“Only those who are chosen by me can wear a mask. If we throw in a ranking system, they will resort to anything just to compete against each other. This is the nature of the benighted.”
Baring his large teeth, Dae Na-chal then laughs.
“Also, this is an old tradition. My master’s master also used masks. Only with a mask on can I continue to live. But he got kicked out because he couldn’t get used to the art of changing masks instantly. It was my master who was kicked out.”
The anger of the weak spreads like an infectious disease bothering an unspecified number of people and was also the root cause for creating such a man.
Dae Na-chal smiles and says.
“Now that I have told you the secret of the mask, show me your face. One of us is going to die anyway. This much is fine, isn’t it?”
“Ah… my face.”
I give him a retort while smoothing Jeok-sa’s mask.
“I’m going to do bad things, so I can’t do that now.”
My laughter mixes with Dae Na-chal’s laughter.
The rhinoceros beetle laughs, the dead Red Snake laughs from somewhere, and I laugh too. We laugh while thinking about each other’s demise.
Dae Na-chal stands up.
“A man like you should’ve been my disciple.”
“Even if I was, I would’ve escaped and become an errand boy.”
“Why take such a crude job?”
“The job doesn’t matter. I’m sure I will keep thinking of my foolish master while mopping. Eventually, I would have somehow mastered the martial arts and come back to kill you. And like today, I would’ve asked you why you made me wear a mask.”
Dae Na-chal nods.
“Good. That’s how a man should live.”
While Dae Na-chal descends the stairs, his sleeves flutter in the wind.
As I am looking closely at his sleeves, Dae Na-chal approaches me.
He can close the distance because he is confident.
This is also a psychological game.
The moment I stepped back to widen the distance, Dae Na-chal would have launched an attack from his forward position.
Dae Na-chal is shorter than me.
And he is ugly.
I know guys who look as hideous as Dae Na-chal. But I also know that the face is not everything to a person’s charm.
It’s just like how I wasn’t popular with normal, attractive women, even though I’m on the handsome side.
All of a sudden, anger…
Dae Na-chal grins.
“What would you like to compete with, disciple? Palms, fists, blade, sword, internal Qi. You name it. As a senior who has trained in martial arts longer, I will let you choose.”
“What are you confident in?”
“Of course, it’s internal Qi for the elderly. This will be a fight against you, so choose another one.”
Dae Na-chal smiles as if he is playing another one of his mind games.
I nod my head.
“Then let’s go with internal Qi for now.”
My heart flutters at the thought of a battle using internal Qi.
Dae Na-chal lets out a hearty laugh and slowly holds out his left hand.
“If you won’t regret this, then hold out your hand.”
A battle of internal Qi is typically done by high-ranking nutjobs.
No soldier or man in any nation will resort to this kind of fight.
Only crazy monkeys will risk their lives, blindly believing in their internal Qi despite their incompetence.
While observing Dae Na-chal’s expression, I slowly move my right hand. Since we are close together, it wouldn’t be strange if one of us broke the agreement and initiated a surprise attack.
But Dae Na-chal and I put our palms together without making a sneak attack.
Dae Na-chal’s palm is as hard as a rhinoceros beetle’s carapace.
Both of us say nothing.
As if we have determined the rules of this internal Qi battle on the spot, the amount of Qi injected into our palms gradually increases.
If two adult men stand with hands held together, they will look like morons to ordinary people who do not know martial arts.
But if you look closely, they are worse than just being mere idiots.
Because they’re risking their lives.
Concurrently, I am also wary of Dae Na-chal’s right arm.
He could have attached a sharp awl on his severed forearm and attempted to stab me right away.
Our two hands that are in contact begin to tremble. Dae Na-chal’s smiling face begins to shake like the water’s surface (水面).
Red Snake’s mask, which I am wearing, is also shaking.
His eyes shift to my left hand as I look at his empty sleeves.
The intensity of the force in our palms spikes slightly.
I am preparing for a long battle with the power of the Wood Chicken, and then I switch to the Fire Chicken’s Energy. As my palm slowly becomes stained with red, Dae Na-chal turns his eyes toward our contending hands.
All the tendons on his left hand are becoming swollen as if it is going to explode.
Dae Na-chal naturally moves his right arm.
If you swing one arm like this during a battle, it means you still have the strength to spare.
Of course, I have plenty of strength left.
Dodging my head to the right, I grab Dae Na-chal’s forearm. A silver blade stretches closely beside my neck, leaving a narrow gap.
Looks like the blade is attached to the severed forearm.
I hold onto Dae Na-chal’s hand and forearm and inject my internal Qi.
Dae Na-chal sneers, but sneering doesn’t make one win every fight.
Anyhow, the person with more Qi wins an internal Qi battle.
When I inject the Fire Chicken’s force into my left hand that is holding his forearm, his sleeves burn as if they are slowly roasting on a fire.
Only then did I check the shape of his forearm.
Something like an iron cover is attached to the severed stump of his hand, and a blade is attached above it.
A blitz blade specially crafted for Dae Na-chal to use for ambushes.
As I glance at Dae Na-chal, I unfold the Fire Chicken palm force on my left and the Great Absorption technique on my right.
Just a basic multi-tasking technique (分心功) that dimwits can’t even start to hone.
Dae Na-chal’s internal Qi flows through my left side, and the Fire Chicken is burning Dae Na-chal’s arm on my right.
My regret towards the incomplete Ice Technique flashes briefly.
Deciding to use Dae Na-chal to prolong my training, I unfurl the Great Absorption Method in my right hand and the Fire Chicken palm force on my left.
His decapitated forearm is defenseless, and the right hem of Dae Na-chal’s outerwear gradually burns away.
‘This is right.’
Dae Na-chal’s internal Qi level isn’t inferior to mine. Still, he is visibly overwhelmed when I multi-tasked using the uncommon Great Absorption Method. Furthermore, he is clearly at a disadvantage with his disability.
He would have often won with that blade in a battle of internal Qi.
Meanwhile, Dae Na-chal is holding out with his Qi that has been amassed for decades.
At this time, a clicking sound resonates from inside Dae Na-chal’s mouth.
‘It’s either poison or a poisoned needle.’
Often, there are people who hide poison pills around their gums.
As soon as Dae Na-chal breathes in and out…
I tug both his hands and smash my head into Dae Na-chal’s mouth.
Red Snake’s mask cracks.
This time, White Rat’s mask broke.
This time, my forehead crushes Dae Na-chal’s nose.
Only then do I check Dae Na-chal’s blood-ridden face that I’ve bludgeoned using my face. His front teeth are all broken, and his nose is shattered.
I’ve never killed a person with a head butt, so I unfurl the Great Absorption Method on both of my hands.
Losing his composure as his blood pressure is beginning to destabilize, Dae Na-chal’s amassed Qi begins to flow out like a collapsed dam.
I adhere to my own personal rule when using this Great Absorption Technique that I obtained through coincidence and necessity.
Never use this to take a life.
After throwing exactly half the energy Dae Na-chal has as feed to the Heavenly Pearl, I let go of my hands.
As soon as I let go, Dae Na-chal collapses on the floor.
He is still breathing.
Dae Na-chal’s eyes are running across my face as if his curiosity has finally been solved.
Looking down at Dae Na-chal, I speak in a serious voice.
“Pleased to meet you. I am Lee Zaha of the Low-Down Sect.”
Dae Na-chal murmurs as if he has never heard my name before.
“If we have fought like this from the beginning, you could’ve saved a few more of your ignorant disciples.”
Spitting out a lot of blood from his mouth, Dae Na-chal then asks.
“And who is your Master?”
Perhaps my brief question came off too strong for him to understand. I squat down and make eye contact with Dae Na-chal.
“I don’t have any.”
“Now, I’ll take over everything you’ve managed, including the Twelve Generals. You didn’t deserve to be the leader of those fools. Though everything will come under the Low-Down Sect, even if you say no, say something to your disciples as the sect leader.”
“You killed them all. Where else would they be?”
Amongst the crowd of the Black Rabbit Union subordinates, Red Monkey and Gold Boar appear with a complicated look.
Around the same time, the surviving White Tiger, Blue Dragon, and White Rooster appear on the wall. They have no intention of interrupting the duel. Still, they seem to be listening in from over the wall because they are curious about the outcome.
Dae Na-chal exclaims, looking around his still-alive disciples, and speaks frankly.
“You have spared quite a number of them, formidable indeed.”
I confirm that Dae Na-chal’s eyes are brightening again like before.
This is the phenomenon of Terminal Lucidity (回光返照).
Dae Na-chal straightens his back in his position and tells his remaining disciples.
“…You have worked hard in taking care of your incompetent master. From now on, devote yourselves to serving the leader of the Low-Down Sect. From now on, you may live without your masks. More than me…”
Dae Na-chal does not finish his sentence.
He dies with his eyes open.
I stare at the formerly-alive Dae Na-chal for a long time. Peace finally appears on his wicked face. Still, thinking that at least he’d said words of kindness to his disciples at his last moment, I reach out and close Dae Na-chal’s eyes that are looking at the world.
Dae Na-chal’s eyes close.
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