Episode 77. Challenger (1)

At first, Seon-Hyeok thought it was an optical illusion caused by the distance. However, this was not the case.

“Why did you shrink so much?”

The brilliantly shining scales and proud appearance remained the same, but the intimidating size was nowhere to be found.

[The huge size was a desperate measure in case I lost my sense of self and became a monster.]

Seon-Hyeok had wondered whether the sea dragon had completely forgotten human language, but the serpent spoke to him.

[In addition, maintaining that form requires significant water attribute energy, so it would only be a burden at this time.]

“Ah…”

Whether or not the sea dragon could expand and shrink his body at will, Seon-Hyeok felt discouraged by the current smaller size. Of course, it was true that the sea dragon in his current state was still large enough to tear through most monsters without problem, but he no longer had his originally overwhelming presence.

[Take me with you. Our relationship has not been solidified yet, so it could revert at any moment.]

Seon-Hyeok had been planning to in the first place. It might’ve been different if the sea dragon was his original monstrous size, but it was possible to take him in his current, smaller state. It would just require some time and money to bring him back to Rheinperle.

“Okay. Let’s go.”

Bluegon seemed somewhat taken aback at Seon-Hyeok’s blatant disappointment, but those reservations didn’t last long. The sea dragon soon forgot language once again and began to roar.

“Ugh, they’re all tiring.”

It was clear that exchanging conversations with dragons or their subspecies was an exhausting task.

“We’ll have to get a wagon and horses since this big guy wants to come with us.”

Jonasson and Jackson turned their horses back towards Rugenburg.

Though the sea dragon had shrunk, he was still almost 10 meters long from head to tail. It wouldn’t be an easy task to haul such a monster back to Rheinperle. They would need to commission a giant wooden frame to hold him and cover the accommodations in cloth while paying special attention so that it didn’t leak or dry out on their journey. Moreover, the party had to spend a significant amount of time acquiring oxen and horses to carry the heavy cargo.

However, thanks to their efforts, the group was able to reach the tributary of the Rheinperle River safely.

“Pull!”

The party lacked the strength to pull the sea dragon out of the wooden frame, so Seon-Hyeok drove the entire cart into the riverbank.

Flop. Flop.

Bluegon burst out of the wooden tank before flopping in and out of the water. He soon dove deep into the river and out of sight.

While Seon-Hyeok waited there to allow Bluegon to recover his strength, Jackson and Jonasson stopped by the nearest village to sell the cows and horses used to pull the cart.

“Ugh. It’s still a loss for us. That cart was so expensive.”

Of course, Bluegon’s value was such that Seon-Hyeok couldn’t truly lament the cost of a mere cart, but it was nonetheless heartbreaking to see the money equivalent to paying two soldiers’ salaries for a year disappear into nothing.

“Let’s get going. We’ve wasted too much time.”

Seon-Hyeok pushed back his feelings and urged his party on. His plan was to make up the time lost while moving the sea dragon up to this point. Bluegon poked his head out of the water before chasing after the galloping horses.

The party had left prior to the harvest, and after spending two months on their journey, they returned to see the territory beginning to show its bare skin once again. Seon-Hyeok was deeply moved at the sight, having returned after a long time away.

“We’re finally back.”

When they arrived at the entrance of the village, the 1st squad, led by Adol, was patrolling the area. Noticing the group, the squad captain’s eyes grew wide before he hurriedly gathered the troops.

“M, my lord? Salute!”

It seemed as though the soldiers hadn’t been lax with their training while he was away. Seon-Hyeok entered the village while receiving the salutes of his now more dignified soldiers.

“You’re doing well.”

“Inform the mansion! T, the lord has returned!”

Seon-Hyeok was fascinated by the sight of Adol and the soldiers making a fuss, as well as that of the villagers looking at their lord curiously. He looked on fondly.

“It’s home! Home!”

Seon-Hyeok finally felt he was home when he saw the old scholar, Antoine Montaigne, waiting for him at the entrance of his mansion.

***

“That’s all I have to report. I’ve kept a meticulous record of the daily events and ledgers for your return. If you take a look when you get a chance, I am sure it will be beneficial in managing the territory.”

Antoine Montaigne had flawlessly managed the land while his lord was away, and he calmly reported on the main points. Seon-Hyeok had always left the territory’s management to Julian while he was present anyways, so all he could do was offer his thanks.

“So I get the sense that operations within the territory have been smooth, but has there been anything else of note?”

“Ah. I was going to say that you had visitors while you were away.”

Seon-Hyeok looked puzzled, wondering why guests would come seek him in this remote location.

“First and foremost, Knight Laylark visited towards the end of last month. He left as soon as he heard that you were away, but it didn’t seem to be particularly pleasant business.”

“Ugh.”

It was obvious why Raiden Laylark visited, even if he hadn’t disclosed the reason. He must have stopped by to avenge his loss in their previous duel. It was understandable – the loss itself must have been frustrating, but he must have been even angrier and more upset to see the Gradus of his enemy rise due to his own successes.

“He said he would return, so I believe we’ll hear from him soon. There have been several other knights who visited besides Knight Laylark.”

Antoine Montaigne expressed his admiration, saying that while he knew Seon-Hyeok had a high reputation, he didn’t realize it was at the level where knights would repeatedly come to seek him out.

However, contrary to the beliefs of the old scholar ignorant about swordsmanship, the knights hadn’t come to this remote place out of respect for Seon-Hyeok’s reputation.

“That damned Gradus.”

They would have come because Seon-Hyeok was the knight with Gradus 89, and defeating him in combat would mean immediately becoming included in the ranks of the kingdom’s 100 most powerful individuals. Knights had few opportunities to increase their reputation by participating in wars, so they would have been fired up by this chance.

“I explained your absence to them and sent them away. Was that disrespectful of me?”

“No. You did well. Please continue to do so in the future. I have no desire to play along in their quest for fame.”

Antoine Montaigne’s eyes grew wide at Seon-Hyeok’s cynical response. The administrator didn’t think it was something a reputable person, like the Drake Knight, would say.

However, there was another reason why Seon-Hyeok expressed his disgust. It was plainly evident why those knights came all the way to this remote location, rather than the capital, where Gradus owners were plentiful.

“They’re looking down on me.”

Seon-Hyeok had defeated the Sword of Lightning, but he was still a foreigner, and few recognized him as a true knight. Moreover, the Drake Knight was unable to use his most powerful weapon, his drake, in a duel, further suggesting his weakness in such environments. Those jackal-like men had come to Rheinperle because they felt the Drake Knight would be the easiest pickings out of the knights with Gradus.

“Is that so? I’m sorry to say that two of the visiting knights still haven’t left. They found accommodations in the village, so it’s possible they heard about your return by now.”

“My lord. You have a guest.”

A servant came to inform him of a visitor the moment the scholar finished speaking. When Seon-Hyeok frowned, Antoine Montaigne stepped up in his place.

“The lord is very tired from his long journey. He went to his quarters right away, so ask the knight for his understanding and let him know the lord will see him at a later date.”

The servant bowed his head in admiration at the scholar’s refined manner of speaking, which was subtly reprimanding the guest for his rudeness.

“I hope I wasn’t being presumptuous just now.”

“No, not at all. To be honest, I never asked for this Gradus, and I find this pretty unpleasant.”

Seon-Hyeok sighed, feeling as these bothersome incidents would continue to occur.

***

Bad feelings always became reality. The two knights that stayed in Rheinperle visited the mansion every day.

At first, they were turned away under the pretext of needing to recover from the fatigue of travel. Afterward, they were refused, saying that the lord needed to catch up on the work that had been delayed while he was away. However, the knights were more persistent than imagined, and they didn’t hesitate to lose face in their blatant attempt to improve their reputation.

“Ah, damn it. Why are you refusing me a single meeting with the lord? Aren’t you being too unreasonable?”

“The Drake Knight’s a busy man. He’s not someone you can have an audience with at a moment’s notice.”

At first, she sent them back courteously, but Julian lost her patience as the same events repeated themselves over and over again, and her tone now was sharp. Instead of being embarrassed, the knights pushed on.

“And we’re not busy? I’m telling you I just want to see him once.”

Among them, the knight currently throwing a tantrum was the worst. The attitude of this barely-average knight -- disrespectful because he was blinded by the prospect of fame -- wasn’t pleasant to see.

“Go back. If you leave the name and place of your accommodations, my lord will send you a message later.”

The second knight who stayed at Rheinperle joined in after seeing the first’s obnoxious behavior. To make matters worse, other knights who later visited the territory likewise came and bothered Julian, already weak from her previous bout with poisoning. Eventually, Seon-Hyeok couldn’t take it anymore and summoned Julian to demand the names of the disrespectful knights.

“Who are those stubborn bastards? Do they think I’m their friend? Do they think I’m someone who’ll come out and play whenever they call?”

“They’re Ainol Reynold and Hark Robinson. Both are rank-and-file knights, and they’re nobles from the east and the north, respectively.”

“Sigh. They aren’t even senior knights? They really are looking down on me.”

“Don’t pay them any attention. There are people blinded by fame everywhere. It would be demeaning to even deal with them, so it’s best to just ignore them.”

Julian’s face was pale and lacking any color as she tried to console him. Seon-Hyeok still felt responsible for their previous incident with the sea dragon, and he grew furious as she supported him without showing any feelings of resentment.

“Summon them all.”

“Huh?”

Julian opened her eyes wide and reflexively spoke back upon hearing his command.

“Not just the two of them. Gather all the damned knights currently in my territory and acting like there is some queue to duel me.”

“What are you…”

“Isn’t it obvious?” 

Seon-Hyeok angrily clenched his teeth and shot back as he saw her concerned expression.

“I’ll make sure they can’t ever crawl back here again.”

***

As always, Ainol Reynold prepared his equipment after eating at his accommodations. The disdainful lord continued to refuse him an audience, but the knight calculated that Seon-Hyeok would eventually fold out of frustration.

“The lord has granted you an audience.”

Just as he was about to step outside, a soldier came to deliver him a message. The knight had been in the area since before the lord returned, so it had been almost two months before he was allowed a meeting.

“He commanded that you come properly armed.”

The lord was granting him everything that he had desperately asked for. This was beyond Ainol Reynold’s expectations. He could instantly become a knight with Gradus if he defeated the Drake Knight, and he thought he had a good chance of winning. After all, Raiden Laylark, the only knight who had dueled Seon-Hyeok, had openly disparaged his opponent’s abilities.

‘I lost because of bad luck and carelessness, not because of my abilities. If I get another chance, I’m confident I will defeat him.’

The Judge of House Laylark didn’t hesitate to denigrate the Drake Knight, claiming that he wasn’t a real knight and was nothing more than a coward who managed to trick him with his unusual spear. If those words were true, the Drake Knight wasn’t anyone to be afraid of despite his successes and reputation. Ainol Reynold couldn’t hide his excitement.

“Then I will be on my way.”

The soldier looked at him strangely before disappearing. Ainol Reynold inwardly criticized the soldier for not guiding him personally to the lord’s mansion, but he was already familiar with the directions after his repeated visits. There wouldn’t be a problem.

“Hey. Knight Reynold.”

But on the way to the lord’s mansion, he unexpectedly encountered Hark Robinson.

“You must have heard from the lord.”

“You too, Knight Robinson?”

It seemed that he wasn’t the only one granted an audience. Suddenly impatient, Ainol Reynold picked up his pace, but Hark Robinson followed without falling behind.

“Knight Kyleson?”

“There’s Knight Chicks, too.”

But strangely, they saw a lot of knights at Rheinperle that day. They were all heading towards the lord’s mansion.

“Hm.”

The knights, after greeting each other briefly, glanced at each other before rushing towards the mansion. It was an attitude suggesting they all believed that the first to the lord’s residence would be the one to take the Drake Knight’s Gradus.

***

Seon-Hyeok looked bewildered as he saw the knights rushing towards the mansion from afar.

“What the hell? Who told them it was first come, first served?”

“No, that’s not it. I told them exactly what you said.”

“Then why are they all in such a hurry?”

After tilting his head in confusion, Seon-Hyeok belatedly realized why they were running so desperately. His expression crumpled.

“So they think the first one here will take my Gradus?”

How much of a pushover do they think I am?

Seon-Hyeok grew even more furious, seeing these knights acting so cocky despite being cowards who didn’t dare challenge the capital’s knights.

“It’s an honor to meet the famous Viscount Drachen, and I humbly ask for an opportunity to face off against your renowned spearmanship…”

“I’m Knight Ainol, second son of House Reynold, and I request a duel with the Drake Knight…”

Seon-Hyeok completely lost his temper as he saw the knights hurriedly requesting a duel without even properly greeting him.

“I’m Knight Kyleson from the east. It…”

“Shut up.”

The knights were silenced by the icy voice as they scrambled to introduce themselves.

“Shut up and catch your breath. I don’t want to hear any bullshit later about how you only lost because you fought while out of breath.”

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