Gion's hand, holding a black long sword, tightened its grip.
Stained with so much blood, the black long sword, in the sunlight, emitted a red hue.
Gion walked along the White Flower Path, which stretched from the gate of White Dragon Castle to White Hall.
It was all white.
Without a single speck of dirt, it was perfectly white.
So bright that it's hard to keep his eyes open.
Looking at this scenery, Gion felt the blood in his body chillingly cool.
Despite being built on the sacrifices and blood of the people, White Dragon Castle's grace was, hatefully, majestic.
For what reason did so many people have to die in 'Biryu'?
They willingly headed to the battlefield only for the glory of White Flower Kingdom.
They firmly believed that this path would lead to the glory of White Flower Kingdom and staked their lives on it.
But that is far from the truth. It was for the selfish desires of the corrupted royalty.
Those who nobly gave their lives died without closing their eyes, while the royalty enjoyed prosperity in the comfortable White Dragon Castle.
Because the returning national heroes knew their true faces, members of the royalty falsely accused them of treason. They threw them into the demon-infested 'Valley of Snow'.
How should I console their souls?
Gion's black eyes, as though they had devoured all the darkness, radiated a profound emptiness.
His hair, of the same color, was frozen stiff from the unmelting snow. The general's uniform, once a regal gift from the king, now hung in tattered shreds from his gaunt frame.
The body that returned alive from the 'Valley of Snow' was so battered it scarcely seemed human.
Once a sword moved to protect White Flower Kingdom, Gion's long black sword was damaged and nearing its end.
Clutched in his other hand, opposing the weary blade, was a fistful of hair belonging to a woman.
She was none other than the queen of White Flower Kingdom.
"Please, save me..."
Gion did not respond to her desperate voice. His steps resolute-one after the other.
Dragging the long sword, he advanced towards where the king stood. Because of the blood dripping from the long sword, a red line stretched along White Flower Path.
The warriors guarding White Dragon Castle just paced anxiously in place.
They could do nothing but exhale heavy sighs, their gazes fixed on the queen, who was being dragged helplessly in Gion's iron grasp, and the ominous streak of blood painting White Flower Path.
At last, Gion arrived at White Hall, where the king stood awaiting his approach. Witnessing Gion's advance, the king, quaking with fear, bellowed orders to the warriors of White Dragon Castle.
"Do not attack! I told you not to approach! The queen comes first!"
The queen, paralyzed with fear, scratched Gion's hand with her fingernails. Even as her skin tore, Gion remained motionless, gazing at the signboard of White Hall.
[When the black qi of the demons spreads over the land, the beloved white dragon of the heavens will descend. Only then will the darkness lift and the white flowers fully bloom. - From Chapter 1 of White Flower Kingdom Folklore]
"The darkness lifts..."
Yes, in the central White Dragon Castle, there is no darkness. Only light.
And that light was manifested by throwing the people into the darkness.
For the light of White Dragon Castle, not of White Flower Kingdom.
Gion swung his sword through the air.
The signboard inscribed with White Flower Kingdom's folklore shattered helplessly.
The warriors trembled at the sight.
"The... the White Flower tree... the signboard of White Hall..."
It was said that the White Flower tree could not be broken by any force. That's why all the wood used in White Dragon Castle was from the White Flower tree.
Moreover, the signboard, inscribed with folklore, underwent countless jade treatments, making it indestructible.
Yet, it was shattered by Gion's badly damaged sword.
Gion looked at the retreating warriors.
The young warriors, still showing their naivety, wore clothes that did not fit their bodies.
Their footwear was so deteriorated that the soles hung in tatters, and their hands, marred with untreated wounds, bore the harsh testament of neglect. Yet, their swords, designated to defend White Dragon Castle, were crafted from exquisite white stone.
Despite this, they turned away from the king, directing their blades towards Gion instead.
A tremulous young warrior managed to voice his confusion:
"General... why are you doing this... why..."
Another warrior beside him shouted at the young one,
"General? Silence if you value your life. Though once a general, he now stands accused of treachery! Even at this moment—"
Gion looked at them.
The warrior discussing treason was silenced by fear. Just his gaze was enough to freeze them.
Gion, the hero of White Flower Kingdom. The general who had always brought victory in wars.
"Step back. I do not wish to harm you."
The warriors froze at Gion's dignified voice, unsure of what to do as he approached the king.
But Gion didn't care and approached the king.
"You seem well."
Gion's gaze rested on the king, who had turned pale with fright.
Then, on the king's gold crown, his glossy silk clothes, and his luxurious ornaments.
The grip on the queen's hair tightened, making her veins bulge.
The queen screamed in pain as her head involuntarily tilted back.
Overwhelmed by desperation, the king collapsed to his knees.
"Forgive me! I beseech you, show mercy just this once. The queen is innocent!" he implored.
He cast his gaze downwards, scrutinizing the queen's head, a lavish display adorned with extravagant ornaments. The wealth spent on her adornments alone could sustain a family of six in opulence for no less than five years. And this was in an era where the widows of war struggled to subsist on mere gruel.
"How can you say that the queen, closest to the king of a nation, was really unaware of White Flower Kingdom's situation?"
"Her sin is knowing all your misdeeds yet standing by. Her sin is indulging in luxury because of her silence."
The king, hearing this, only looked at Gion's hand holding the queen, not responding to his words. Gion clenched his teeth.
"Are you afraid of losing your beloved?"
"Is the king, favored by the White Dragon, so consumed by fear that he prostrates himself at the first sign of adversity?"
Gion looked up to the sky as if searching for someone, then gazed down at the ground.
"For the sake of White Flower Kingdom alone, for you, the people and their families joined the battlefield."
"Every day, every moment, they endured for White Flower Kingdom, bearing the same fear you feel."
Watching Gion recite like a madman, the king trembled in fear.
"I'll kneel anytime. I'll bow down. Please-"
With the sound of something being cut, the king's words stopped.
The queen's decapitated body fell to the ground.
The king wailed at the sight of the queen's lifeless body.
"What you're feeling now is the emotion of seeing a loved one die before your eyes."
"Does it wrench your heart?"
Casting aside the queen's head with a dismissive gesture, Gion then seized the king by the scruff of his neck.
"This is what I felt when you annihilated my family."
That day is still vivid in his memory.
The day he found his beloved parents and siblings hanging dead at the gates of White Dragon Castle.
The day he was slandered, labeled a demon kin and traitor, bereft of a moment's respite to grieve.
The day he was cast into the 'Valley of Snow' with his comrades, denied the chance to grant his family a dignified repose. The day he emerged as the sole survivor, his comrades having fallen prey to the demons' savage onslaught.
Murderous intent flickered in Gion's eyes.
"When the royal family, capable of defeating demons with the White Qi, feared the demons, I and the people went to the battlefield risking our lives. And yet, you called us the demon clan?"
"That, that was a misunderstanding-"
"Were you so afraid that I would covet the throne?"
Gion knew. He knew the king feared him.
He knew it was because the White Qi's power was gradually fading from the king.
Yet, he still served the king. Willingly went to the battlefield, fought off invasions, and slayed demons.
All for the glory of White Flower Kingdom.
But now, he couldn't feel even a trace of the White Qi's power from the king. Instead of the White Qi, he could only sense the king's vile greed.
Seeing Gion's pitch-black eyes, the king trembled in fear, then lost his reason.
"Aren't you afraid of the White Dragon's wrath! The White Dragon chosen by the supreme heavens chose me-"
Gion's sword pierced the king's shoulder.
A black light glimmered on Gion's black long sword.
"The White Dragon chose you, but why can't I see the White Qi's light in you anymore?"
"That, that's because..."
"I haven't received the White Dragon's grace, nor do I possess the energy of the five guardians, yet why can't you even block my sword?"
The king had used the power of the White Qi to extend his life.
While the White Qi was supposed to shield the populace, it served only to fortify the walls of White Dragon Castle.
Gion's grip tightened. Dark energy flickered on the long black sword, piercing the king's shoulder.
"Do you know? The sword you bestowed upon me used to radiate a white glow."
"It turned black as I sealed the demons you feared so much."
Gion's sword plunged deeper, this time finding the king's ankle. A mocking sneer escaped Gion's lips.
"Little did I know that I would be accused of being a demon kin because of this."
Terrified, the king crawled towards the inside of White Hall.
In the White Hall, where meetings with ministers are held,
towards the luxurious throne placed on the dais at the end of the fine silk path.
Even on the brink of death, the king crawled towards the throne.
Gion grabbed the king by the back of his neck and flung him to the ground.
In desperation, the king began to scream.
"Where are the five guardian families! Hoyeong! Sihwan! Juya! What are all of you doing..."
Gion observed him in silence, a silence so profound that it seemed to swallow the king's desperate pleas. Confusion and terror flickered across the king's face as he stared back at Gion.
Now it's visible. The scars etched on Gion's body.
Scars from saw-like swords, wounds from whips and maces, burned skin, flesh rotting from poison, misshapen limbs from broken bones forcibly realigned...
"Even after throwing them into Biryu, now you desperately seek them."
"This can't be. The five guardian families... they!"
"The White Dragon has abandoned you."
Gion's sword pierced the king's chest.
Yet, the king gasped for breath.
Unable to thrash in extreme pain, he could only spew blood.
Gion, looking at the king, said,
"You won't die instantly. You'll breathe in pain several times, hold onto hope, and then die in despair, unable to close your eyes."
Gion, with lifeless eyes, stared into the void and said, "Just like they did."
Gion pierced a spot where the king wouldn't die instantly. The demonic energy sealed in the black long sword began to consume the king's body. The king, sensing this instinctively, groaned in terror.
"Back then, I shouldn't have... accepted Rohwa's request..."
The king's gaze was not on Gion, but on the empty air.
"Rohwa... Just once more for Rohwa..."
Perhaps it was because the king had never known true suffering within the sheltered walls of White Dragon Castle that he faltered, his final words unspoken, before succumbing swiftly.
In that solemn moment, a frantic cry pierced the air.
"Princess! You mustn't! Please...!"
The voice was laced with desperation, yet the footsteps that followed it drew steadily closer to Gion. The cadence was distinct, markedly different from the times they had walked side by side.
Gion stood with his back to the approaching sound, shielding the lifeless king.
'How could she hasten so with those delicate steps?'
Without turning, Gion knew who was coming.
How could he not know?
It was the voice he longed for and remembered every day.
A voice as if containing all the beautiful melodies of the world.
The crisp and elegant voice trembled faintly.
Hearing his name called with such a voice, Gion couldn't help but turn around.
His words were a plea not to witness this scene.
He faced the face he longed to see.
Glossy white hair and lively, ruddy skin.
Her blue eyes were not just clear; they shone like brilliant jewels.
If the white flowers became human, surely they would look like this.
The 17th and only royal descendant of White Flower Kingdom, the king's noble only daughter.
It was Princess Rohwa.