Murim Login (Novel) Chapter 327

Chapter 327

"Now, we're left with only one issue to resolve, aren't we?"

With her sword at ease, Ju Hwa-Ran stood while exuding a chilling beauty.

Her intense aura targeted a single figure.

"Chief Escort Song."

Following Ju Hwa-Ran's gaze, the crowd's heads turned.

A man in his early thirties, handsome but marred by fiercely arched eyebrows.

Song Il-Seom’s lips curled, his voice icy as he spoke.

"Are you addressing me now?"

The reactions of those remaining in Dengwang Tower were of two kinds.

Stoicism from the escorts of the Dragon Pheonix Escort Agency, and confusion from the others gathered in the teahouse.

Chief Escort Heo Jun, stepping forward, his expression tinged with subtle ire.

"You are before the Young Leader of the Agency. Can't you show some respect?"

"I have shown enough respect. But you've been sorely lacking in it for the past ten years."

"How dare this man...!"

"Then, daringly, I ask why Chief Escort Heo would often use Young Leader’s name so casually instead of her proper title?"

"That, that is..."

"No need to answer. It doesn't concern me how Chief Escort Heo addresses the Young Leader. Just don't lecture me about manners."

Despite his abrasive demeanor, Song Il-Seom’s remarks weren’t entirely baseless.

Observing Heo Jun, momentarily speechless, Wolhwa leaned in to whisper.

"My dear Young Master Jin, do you know that man well?"

"Who, Heo Jun? Or..."

"Obviously, I meant the young and handsome one. I already know about the Chief Escort of the Dragon Pheonix Escort Agency."

"But why ask me? You're not just anyone, but the branch leader of the Lower District Sect in Shaanxi."

"It’s nice to be held in high esteem, but what can a branch leader, barely half a year in position, know? Unless he's a disciple of a renowned major sect, it's hard for me to know every escort."

"Every escort... Do you know who he is then?"

"Hmm. Perhaps one of the young, ill-tempered escorts of Dragon Pheonix Escort Agency?"

Song Il-Seom. He is an escort in the Agency. That's all I know about him.

Yet, I harbored one additional insight into Song Il-Seom, unknown to Wolhwa – his level.

'A formidable martial artist. At least on par with the Ten Dragons and Pheonixes.'

As I navigated between Murim and modern times, I realized one thing: high levels do not always equate to strength.

Even those with high levels can be fools, and the strongest people can be hidden by unassuming appearances.

In this respect, Song Il-Seom was a genuine force. His stride and the subtle flexing of his fingers spoke volumes. Here was a swordsman seasoned in real combat, possessing exceptional martial prowess.

'How many of his age have such skills?'

Lack of affiliation with a renowned sect notwithstanding, a talent like his should have been a legend in the martial arts realm by now.

He was an awl in a pocket. [Note: 'awl in your pocket' is a Korean idiom for not being able to hide something obvious.]

'But no one had seen the awl for as long as ten years.'

There could be only one explanation.

He deliberately cloaked his talents, even from those within the Dragon Phoenix Escort Agency who had known him for years.

'Look at this...'

Suddenly, a thought crossed my mind. I can't be sure yet, but he's definitely someone to keep a close eye on.

'I'd like to step in right now if I could.'

But this is a knot that Ju Hwa-Ran must untie herself.

Ready to intercede at a moment's notice, I watched as Heo Jun, recovering from his brief stumble, confronted Song Il-Seom with renewed vigor.

"Chief Escort Song. No... Song Il-Seom! Stop your nonsense and confess the truth!"

"I don't understand what you're saying."

"If you're going to dodge the question, I'll ask directly. Where have you hidden the Thousand-Year Snow Ginseng?"

"I know nothing about it."

"It's not too late. If you admit your guilt now and reveal the whereabouts of the Thousand-Year Snow Ginseng..."

"I said I don't know anything about it."

At Song Il-Seom's rebuff, Heo Jun fixed him with a weighty stare.

"Is this really how you want to play it?"

"I return that question to you."

"I offered you one final opportunity, in light of our history... but it seems futile."

With a gesture from Heo Jun, about twenty escorts swiftly encircled them, sealing the exit.

Two middle-aged Chief Escorts, likely the other members of Dragon Phoenix Escorts Three, flanked Heo Jun, encircling Song Il-Seom in a tight formation.

In the thick air, taut with anticipation, it was Ju Hwa-Ran who shattered the silence.

"Stand down, everyone."

"Hwa-Ran, he's not the type to admit his guilt easily. We should subdue him first..."

"Wait, Uncle Heo. I have something to ask him."

Shiiiing!

With a deft flick, Ju Hwa-Ran sent a bamboo slip whirling towards Song Il-Seom like a serpent.

"What is this?"

"There are many interesting records here."

Song Il-Seom murmured, scrutinizing the slip's contents.

"This is..."

"Yes. It's a record of the escort missions you've been in charge of for the past two years."

"Only the failures have been gathered here."

"Why do you think the Lower District Sect and the Beggar Sect collected this information?"

"They must have suspected a connection with the Southern Edge Sect."

"In the past two years, Chief Escort Song undertook fifteen missions. Ten of them failed, and each time, our Dragon Pheonix Escort Agency had to pay a substantial penalty."

A mere thirty-three percent success rate.

Even a parent would doubt their child's competence with such figures.

Ju Hwa-Ran spoke with measured calm.

"That's not all. Looking at the missions you led, there are many questionable points."

"I did my best every time but still failed. That's the only answer I can give to the Young Leader."

"That's not enough."

Shriick!

Her sword danced, its breeze scattering around twenty bamboo slips at Song Il-Seom's feet.

"Are all these records related to me? There are so many."

He clucked his tongue, set his sword aside, and delved into the slips.

"That guy..."

Chief Escort Heo Jun looked poised to confront the betrayer, but Ju Hwa-Ran's glance held him back, his sword hesitantly lowering.

The revelation was swift.

"Ah, I understand."

Song Il-Seom, having perused the final slip, looked up, his brows knitting fiercely.

"How did you uncover this?"

"It was cleverly done. Almost enough to overlook as mistakes."

"To figure it out from just this, you're more astute than I thought. I only saw you as a child... I underestimated you."

"What a pity."

"What are you saying?"

"Though not related by blood, I thought of you as family."

"Family. Such a fragile word. Time changes rivers and mountains. People are no exception."

Song Il-Seom's tone morphed from deference to unmasked contempt, as fluid as a river's course.

Now unburdened, Song Il-Seom inquired openly.

"So, what will you do now?"

"We must punish the guilty."

"Children tend to resemble their parents. Can you, a child of the Gentleman Sword, do what needs to be done?"

Ju Hwa-Ran's response was icy.

"It's what needs to be done, so I will do it."

Tsssssss!

Her sword, charged with Qi, stood defiantly. Ju Hwa-Ran's determined visage mirrored in its crystalline edge.

From her lips, a whisper emerged.

"No matter who the guilty may be."

Swoooosh!

Her speed eclipsed all from Dragon Phoenix Escort Agency.

Ju Hwa-Ran, though nascent in her mastery, was undeniably a Peak Master. Her swordplay and agility were the very embodiment of swiftness.

Shhhk-squish!

The sword, slashing through the air like a beam of light, precisely pierced its target.

The sound of flesh being punctured was followed by a gush of blood and a cry of agony.

"Aaargh!"

Ju Hwa-Ran's eyelids fluttered as she watched the man crumble, spraying blood on his way down.

Her voice rose, questioning and condemning the one man she trusted above all others.

"Why did you make such a choice, Uncle Heo?"

"Hwa, Hwa-Ran..."

Chief Escort Heo Jun lifted his pale face towards his beloved niece.

* * *

Swoooosh!

A shiver ran through him, hairs on end, as the soft hiss of cleaving air reached him. But realization dawned too late.

Shhhk-squish!

The blade's entry, icy as a winter's chill, was succeeded by a fiery, searing agony.

Chief Escort Heo Jun's scream echoed as he crumbled to his knees.

In the ensuing turmoil, a single thought, laced with disbelief, spiraled in his mind.

'Things have gone awry.'

The unforeseen arrival of Jin Tae-Kyung had altered the plan, yet it wasn't entirely disadvantageous for him.

For two years, he had covertly amassed a fortune in silver nyang, feigning blunders.

With the Dragon Phoenix Escort Agency now flourishing thanks to today's events, his influence as Chief Escort would only solidify.

Moreover, he could avoid the guilt of betraying those he trusted, killing two birds with one stone.

But now...

'Why now!'

It should have ended with Song Il-Seom’s death.

Labeled a traitor and conspirator with the Southern Edge Sect, his demise was meant to close the chapter discreetly.

'Even the Southern Edge Sect didn't know my true identity. How was I exposed?'

Beyond the physical pain, a deeper shock immobilized Heo Jun as a gentle voice permeated his consciousness.

"Why did you make such a choice, Uncle Heo?"

Heo Jun quivered, head bowed in shame.

That voice was unmistakable, belonging to the child he'd nurtured from infancy.

Ju Hwa-Ran, the treasured daughter of his sworn brother, once as dear to him as his own daughter.

But now she had impaled him.

"Hwa, Hwa-Ran..."

Slowly, Heo Jun raised his gaze to meet Ju Hwa-Ran's, who stood above him.

Her eyes, though steady, flickered with a tumult of emotions, awakening in Heo Jun a feeling he'd nearly forgotten.

Hope.

'I might survive.'

He saw the conflict within Ju Hwa-Ran – torn between familial love and the sting of betrayal.

This was his lifeline.

"I was wrong. It's all my fault!"

"Uncle."

"Please spare me. I beg of you!"

His plea was fervent, oblivious to the stunned onlookers and the escorts who had once revered him. His sole focus was self-preservation.

His own dignity? The contempt of others? Such concerns are irrelevant to the deceased.

Should he endure and witness another dawn, Heo Jun was prepared to stoop to any depths.

"Ugh. Hwa-Ran..."

Pain wracked him as the Flower-Shrouded Blade penetrated his right shoulder with surgical precision. Ju Hwa-Ran's hand on the hilt quivered ever so slightly.

"Defend your actions. Why did you do it? Why did you have to do this?"

Heo Jun would have eagerly fabricated any tale to enhance his chances of survival.

Yet, he understood Ju Hwa-Ran too intimately. Her unsheathed sword signified her conviction of his guilt. Inept excuses would only expedite his demise.

His plea for mercy had to be tactful.

"It's all the fault of your incompetent uncle. I have no defense."

Head bowed, Heo Jun feigned tearful remorse. He sensed the sword's pressure relenting and continued.

"I shamefully accepted bribes. After my sworn brother suddenly fell ill, the Southern Edge Sect approached me, using that as leverage... I was afraid of losing my place with the agency. I didn't want to leave the Escort Agency I devoted my life to and believed their promise not to hurt you."

"..."

"I decided to comply just once, but I was already trapped in a quagmire from which I couldn't escape."

"Is this the whole truth?"

"How could I lie at this point?"

Despite his words, there was only one truth in Heo Jun's confession.

He had indeed accepted bribes.

It was he who approached the Southern Edge Sect, concealing his identity after the Gentleman Sword fell. This secret relationship had continued for two years.

'I just need to get through this moment. Only this moment!'

Tears cascaded, not from remorse, but from the dread of death and a fervent desire to live.

"Please forgive me...!"

His heartfelt plea elicited disbelief among the onlookers. Many escorts averted their eyes, unable to stomach the scene.

But Ju Hwa-Ran was unmoved. Biting her lip, she fixated on Heo Jun, then pressed.

"How did you manage to steal the Thousand-Year Snow Ginseng? I never left it unattended."

"That, that was..."

"Speak truthfully."

"...I mixed Monghonje into the food. Everyone was exhausted, so a small amount was enough."

Monghonje, a potent sedative, clouded the mind and induced deep slumber.

Even Ju Hwa-Ran, a Peak Master, had succumbed to its effects, mistaking it for exhaustion.

"So that's why you were outside my room that day."

"I had to be careful not to make any noise when leaving. That guy, I mean, Chief Escort Song, had ingested Monghonje but managed to stay awake until dawn."

Song Il-Seom, nonchalantly leaning against the wall, commented with an impassive expression.

"So that was Monghonje. No wonder I felt unusually tired that day. Try using something better next time, though I’m not sure if you’ll have a next time."

What an infuriating man.

Heo Jun, restraining the urge to curse, turned towards Ju Hwa-Ran.

"Hwang Bo-Eom, that old man, threatened me. He said if I didn’t switch the Thousand-Year Snow Ginseng, he would kill me and my family and destroy the Dragon Pheonix Escort Agency. I just wanted to protect you!"

"Then you made the wrong decision."

"You’re right. I even went to my sworn brother’s bedside, crying and confessing. But, but I couldn’t reverse the mistake."

"Mistake?"

Ju Hwa-Ran's eyes flickered momentarily at the mention of her father.

Then she shook her head slightly.

"No. That wasn’t a mistake, Uncle. It was a choice."

"Hwa-Ran..."

"My father often told me that every choice comes with its responsibility. Although he failed to flourish the family business, he never regretted his choices."

Heo Jun sensed a shift. The hesitancy in Ju Hwa-Ran’s eyes was dissipating.

'Could it be?'

No, it couldn't be. This couldn't be the end!

Tears mingled with sweat on Heo Jun’s face.

In desperation, he raised his voice.

"Just once, give me one last chance! I am your father’s only sworn brother and your uncle. Hwa-Ran, for the sake of our relationship, please!"

"Relationship, you say."

"Yes, thirty years of joy and sorrow with your father. He wouldn’t have taken my life so easily!"

"Uncle Heo. No, Chief Escort Heo Jun."

Heo Jun, his forehead pressed to the floor, looked up blankly.

There were Ju Hwa-Ran's eyes, devoid of any previous warmth, utterly resolute.

"You’re right. My father might have forgiven you."

Her voice, soft yet unwavering, addressed the petrified Heo Jun.

"But I am not the Gentleman Sword, Ju Ho-Gun. I am the Flower-Shrouded Blade Ju Hwa-Ran."

In that instant, a gleaming blade's arc filled Heo Jun’s vision.

Swoosh, swish!

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