“Ugh!” Jin Mu-Won groaned as he regained consciousness. He blinked and realized that his arms had been tied.
He was in a small, dark room with no windows. The feel and construction of the room was familiar, so Jin Mu-Won deduced that he was in one of the Northern Army Fortress’s underground bunkers.
“Hmph! It took you quite a while to wake up!”
Suddenly, a torch was lit and a man shouted right into his ear. He was temporarily blinded by the sudden bright light, but Jin Mu-Won recognized the speaker’s voice. It was Jang Pae-San, the mercenary captain who had arrived at the fortress not long ago.
Jang Pae-San was currently sitting in front of Jin Mu-Won. Behind him stood several members of the Third Company, including Seo Mu-Sang, Won Jeok-Sim and Yoo Gyung-Chun.
Jin Mu-Won immediately understood what had happened.
“I was kidnapped right in my front yard.”
“That’s right! It seems you’re a smart kid.”
“And you’re Jang Pae-San.”
Jin Mu-Won glared at Jang Pae-San. Jang Pae-San grinned, revealing his ugly yellow teeth.
“You got that one right too.”
“Why did you kidnap me?”
“You already know the answer, don’t you?”
“I want to hear it directly from your mouth. What gave you the audacity to kidnap me and throw me into a prison inside my own house?”
“Hah! As I expected, you’re just a harmless, naïve little boy, even though you look like a venomous snake.”
Jang Pae-San stood up and approached Jin Mu-Won. Jin Mu-Won felt like a giant, angry wild boar was closing in on him; Jang Pae-San was just that big and fierce at six-feet tall.
Jang Pae-San grabbed Jin Mu-Won’s chin clumsily and pulled his face close, forcing the boy to meet his gaze.
“Because of a good-for-nothing like you, we have to spend three years rotting away. So, you have to compensate us.”
“You want compensation?”
“What kind of compensation are you talking about? I don’t remember hiring you. Don’t you work for Heaven’s Summit?”
“Kid, I really don’t like the way you’re looking at me now. It makes me want to dig your eyes out and boil them.”
Jang Pae-san nodded to a man behind him. The man’s name was Noh Ji-Kwang, who was the Third Company’s most skilled person at torture. He was also one of Jang Pae-San’s lackeys, so Jang Pae-san trusted that he would do whatever he told him to.
“Okay kid, let’s start with the milder techniques.”
Noh Ji-Kwang took out a scalpel with a blue-coloured blade.
Noh Ji-Kwang lightly brushed the scalpel across the back of Jin Mu-Won’s hand. Jin Mu-won’s skin split open, and blood began to flow out one drop at a time. The scalpel blade was so sharp that Jin Mu-won didn’t even feel any pain until he saw the blood-covered wound.
“Guh!” groaned Jin Mu-Won. The pain was worse than he’d imagined, as if a nerve had been cut.
“I don’t want to hurt you, but in my line of work, you learn to do a lot of things whether you want to or not. How to torture someone is one of them. I’ve never done it to a kid before, but it shouldn’t be too hard to make you talk.”
Noh Ji-Kwang placed the scalpel next to one of Jin Mu-Won’s fingertips. The feeling of cold metal against his sensitive skin made Jin Mu-Won shudder, but the determination in his eyes remained undiminished.
“You sure you want to do this?”
“What do you mean, kid?”
“Do you honestly think you can get away with this?”
“Kukuku! I don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re an orphan, and no one will care about you even if you die here.”
“If you really think that way, then you’re a fool.”
Noh Ji-Kwang’s eyes widened at Jin Mu-Won’s insult. He felt like he had been humiliated by the brat.
Noh Ji-Kwang’s hand quivered, causing the scalpel to stab into the delicate flesh right under Jin Mu-Won’s fingernail.
“AHHHHHHHHHH!” screamed Jin Mu-Won, his entire body twitching and jerking like a fish out of water. His eyes turned red and swollen, and his teeth clenched together forcefully from the unbearable pain.
“What did you just call me? Dare to repeat yourself, kid?”
“You. Are. An. Idiot.”
Furious, Noh Ji-Kwang twisted the scalpel causing Jin Mu-Won’s fingernail to snap in half. The pain from both the broken fingernail and the scalpel digging further into his flesh was so intense that Jin Mu-Won couldn’t even scream, only widen his eyes in shock.
Seo Mu-Sang and the others watching fervently shook their heads.
“I’ll give you one last chance. Did you call me an idiot?”
“Yes! You moron!”
“You motherfucking cocky sonovabitch…”
Noh Ji-Kwang grinned evilly. Still trembling, Jin Mu-Won glared at Noh Ji-Kwang with bloodshot eyes.
“Tsk… I’ll tell you why you’re a total dumbass. It’s cause you don’t even realize that you’ve taken a step closer to hell.”
“Why you little…”
“Do you know why Heaven’s Summit is keeping me alive?”
Noh Ji-Kwang and Jang Pae-San hesitated for a moment. They realized that they had been so blinded by the prospect of treasure and secret martial arts that they hadn’t even thought about the consequences of harming Jin Mu-Won.
“Do you think that you’re smarter than the group before you? Do you honestly think that they haven’t tried doing the exact same thing you’re doing now?” said Jin Mu-Won in a grave tone, blood flowing from his cut lips. He had bitten down on his own lip really hard in order to endure the excruciating pain. Despite that, he did not forget to stare daggers at Noh Ji-Kwang. The look in his eyes was so cold and frightening that even Noh Ji-Kwang was taken aback.
Jang Pae-San was unmoved, though. He stepped forward.
“Are you trying to threaten me, brat? Don’t bother, your threats don’t work on me. If you don’t want to suffer more, hurry up and tell us where you hid the treasure. The longer you resist, the more painful this is going to be.”
“Do I sound like I’m threatening you?”
“Like I said, your threats mean nothing to me.”
Boiling with rage, Jang Pae-San nodded at Noh Ji-Kwang again. That was the signal to continue with the torture.
Noh Ji-Kwang nodded back in acknowledgement and put the scalpel under another one of Jin Mu-Won’s fingernails. However, before he could do anything, Seo Mu-Sang stepped forward and said, “Captain, aren’t you going a bit too far?”
“What, have you been affected by the brat’s nonsense? He’s just making up stuff so that he can get away from being tortured.”
Jang Pae-San waved him away dismissively, but Jin Mu-Won turned to face Seo Mu-Sang, saying, “Do you think so too? That I’m merely making up stuff so that I can get away from being tortured?”
Seo Mu-Sang met Jin Mu-Won’s gaze.
It was obvious that Jin Mu-Won was in great pain. He tried to pretend that it didn’t hurt, but his shaking, shivering body betrayed him. If Seo Mu-Sang chose to turn a blind eye to his suffering now, the boy would probably die. In the end, though, he couldn’t bring himself to do that.
The reason was Jin Mu-Won’s eyes.
Although Jin Mu-Won’s eyes were filled with pain, there was no fear in them. His resolve had not wavered in the least despite the torture. Seo Mu-Sang had never seen another child Jin Mu-Won’s age with such eyes.
Seo Mu-Sang turned to look at Jang Pae-San.
Jang Pae-San repeated his orders for Noh Ji-Kwang to proceed, but Seo Mu-Sang interrupted him, saying, “Captain, why don’t we try talking to the boy first? We can torture him again anytime if he doesn’t say anything meaningful.”
“We can’t be sure if he has any motives, but it wouldn’t hurt to be careful, right?” said Won Jeok-Sim.
“I agree with them, Captain,” added Yoo Gyung-Chun.
Jang Pae-San looked like he still wanted to continue, but the other men seemed to share Seo Mu-Sang’s opinion, so he had no choice but to give up for now.
He crouched in front of Jin Mu-Won.
“Brat, you better answer our questions properly, or I will cut you up into tiny pieces and scatter them on the plains for the wolf cubs to eat. I’m sure they’ll love you for it.”
“You’re threatening me again.”
“Why do you think Heaven’s Summit is keeping me alive? Why did they not kill me after my father’s death, even though they literally had hundreds of opportunities to do so? What makes you think you’re smarter than the Devilish Genius of the Nine Skies, who made the decision to let me live? Even though my life isn’t worth a fucking cent!”
“Urk!” Jang Pae-San made an ugly face when Jin Mu-Won brought up Seo-Moon Hwa.
Seo-Moon Hwa, a member of the Nine Skies, the rulers of Heaven’s Summit.
It was a name that Jang Pae-San dared not mention. An existence far above his station.
“You little rascal!”
“What I meant was, that I’m a hostage. A very valuable hostage,” said Jin Mu-Won, smiling.
The smiling face of a child covered in blood was more disturbing than pitiful. As Jin Mu-Won’s eyes scanned across the crowd, each full-grown man who met his gaze couldn’t stop themselves from shuddering as shivers ran down their spines.
“What do you mean, you’re a hostage?”
“Think about it. What value would I have as a hostage?”
Jin Mu-Won’s voice possessed a strange charisma that made people listen closely to what he said. Even Seo Mu-Sang had been drawn in without realizing and started to seriously consider the meaning of his words. Jin Mu-Won’s value as a hostage.
“Just who would value this kid?”
After the disappearance of the Silent Night, the power balance in the world had shifted. Heaven’s Summit stood at the very top, while the large sects and clans were still fighting for dominance. But, none of those factions would value Jin Mu-Won.
“If there was someone, they would have to be related to the Northern Army…… Wait, the Northern Army?”
Suddenly, Jang Pae-San and his men remembered something.
“The warriors of the Northern Army.”
After the fall of the Northern Army, the Four Pillars set up base in the Central Plains. In exchange for their betrayal, all of the murim factions had previously agreed that they would be given land.
Most of the warriors of the former Northern Army had joined the Four Pillars’ new factions. However, there were some who had not. Although these people had lost their roots, they were still not a force to be underestimated.
Should they decide to rebel against Heaven’s Summit, the entire Central Plains would descend into chaos. Even those who had joined the Four Pillars would get involved in the rebellion alongside their former comrades.
On the surface, no one dared to challenge Heaven’s Summit. That did not mean that the possibility didn’t exist. The world’s powers existed in a very delicate balance that could be shattered easily.
What will happen if Jin Mu-Won dies?
Will his death enrage the former Northern Army warriors who have become wanderers?
If that happens, the warriors who follow the Four Pillars will rebel too. The Four Pillars would never allow that to happen. And neither would Heaven’s Summit.
Jang Pae-San bit his lip and groaned, “Urgh.”
“Now think about what will happen to you guys.”
“Would Heaven’s Summit let you guys off if they found out that you obtained the Northern Army’s treasure or martial arts? No way. Even if they spared your lives, they’d still expel you. To make things worse, you tortured a hostage like me. If that gets out, the Four Pillars will move, and you guys are all as good as dead.”
“What!?” The other men’s faces turned pale as the realization finally hit them. In particular, Noh Ji-Kwang, who had been the one directly torturing Jin Mu-Won, was utterly horrified.
“You guys should understand the situation you’re in now, right?”
“We could just kill you secretly!”
“How long do you think you could hide my death? If you think you can hide it forever, then go ahead and kill me.”
Jin Mu-Won stuck his tongue out at Jang Pae-San, but Jang Pae-San hesitated to retaliate.
Everything was just as Jin Mu-Won had said. Even if he killed Jin Mu-Won and ran back to the Central Plains, Heaven’s Summit would definitely find him, because Heaven’s Summit was the world itself.
“Now, untie me and treat my wounds. After that, I will start considering what you can do to compensate me.”
“Grr!” Jang Pae-San clenched his fist. Deep down, he knew that Jin Mu-Won was right. However, his egotism was preventing him from accepting the truth.
Seo Mu-Sang walked up to Jang Pae-San and whispered in his ear, “Even if he’s lying, we have to let him go.”
“We’ve already searched this place, right? And we didn’t find any treasure or hidden martial arts manuals. The only thing here is the kid. We could easily kill the brat, but on the off chance that what he says is correct, then we’ll all be executed along with our families.”
Jang Pae-San’s face trembled with rage, but in the end, he had no choice but to agree with Seo Mu-Sang.
“Untie him and send him back to his room!” ordered Jang Pae-San. The men obeyed and freed Jin Mu-Won from his restraints.
Jin Mu-Won forced himself to his feet and grabbed his shaking, throbbing finger. The fragments of his broken fingernail fell to the ground.
Jin Mu-Won stared daggers at Jang Pae-San and declared, “I will never forgive you.”
“I’m letting you live for now, but if I ever find out that you were lying, I’ll personally break all your bones.”
“It seems that I didn’t make myself clear enough.”
“What do you mean?”
“This is my home, and you are an unwanted guest. From now on, I want you to behave like a proper guest should. That means you’re not allowed to search my room for no reason. You already know that the stuff in my room is mostly trash anyway, so stop wasting your time and efforts. If you can do this, I will pretend that the events of today never happened.”
“Fine, but if you ever piss me off, I will kill you regardless of the consequences, and to hell with Heaven’s Summit or the Northern Army. Remember that.”
Jin Mu-Won walked toward the exit, grinning smugly. Jang Pae-San watched him go with a terrifying look in his eyes.
Suddenly, Jin Mu-Won stopped in front of Seo Mu-Sang. Their eyes met for a moment, but shortly after, Jin Mu-Won said nothing and left.
“Puhaaaa!” Jin Mu-Won let out the breath he had been holding. The pain he had been trying so hard to ignore finally hit him. Although he had only lost one fingernail, the pain was beyond imagination.
Jin Mu-Won was now absolutely certain of one fact: The human body was much weaker than one would expect. Even what appeared to be a minor wound could hurt like hell. If he hadn’t possessed inhuman resolve, it wouldn’t have been possible for him to bargain with Jang Pae-San.
My value as a hostage? Why would anyone believe that shit? No one actually thinks the remnants of the Northern Army are a threat.
The Four Pillars probably didn’t care if Jin Mu-Won was alive or dead. On the other hand, that meant that he could use their name for his own benefit without problems.
Jin Mu-Won knew that his life was in his own hands. He would have to use every tool at his disposal if he wanted to survive inside his own home.
Past and future, that was what he did, and what he would need to keep doing.
Drenched in blood, Jin Mu-Won walked back toward his mansion, the setting sun casting a long shadow behind his lonely back.