Gaksi MaskA masked hero who protects the weak.A martial arts master who fights alone for those of his people who are oppressed. His pure hope to protect the weak does not desire any sort of honor or payment, and thus his face is always hidden behind a mask that carries solitude and sadness. Gyeongseong. Summer in Gyeongseong was sweltering. ‘They say the imperial capital, Tokyo, is hot as well, but how should I describe this place?’ ‘Should I call it an annoying heat?’ Because of this, Kim Kang-seok (Kaneda) wasn’t happy. -Rustle Kaneda ducked into a random restaurant to avoid the heat and relax a little. As he was about to walk in, he realized they had a beaded curtain. The feeling of the beads sticking to and falling off his face when he was already dripping with sweat made him angry. “Ugh.” He swore under his breath as he walked in, and the guests inside the restaurant turned to look at him. They most likely turned around instinctively at the noise they heard. Their gazes whipped from Kaneda to the opposite side so fast it was almost unnatural. This was probably because of what Kaneda was wearing. Or because of the sword on his hip. Kanda was born to a humble family but quickly aligned with the Japanese imperial government, so he was quite successful. ‘Yeah, this is the life.’ Kaneda felt better thanks to their scared reactions, and he headed to the best-looking seat instead of an empty one. There was a customer sitting there already, but it didn't really matter. “Move.” “Um… Okay.” Taking it was the end of the story. Wasn’t the law of the jungle truly a truth that lived on during the times? “Hey, lady!” He dropped into a chair and threw up a hand. The barmaid ran over. As he called her over, he realized he didn’t have money on him. But this was fine. Since he could put it on credit. To pay it later? No. The barmaid was probably hoping he would just leave quietly. “Yes, yes.” ‘Just look at her trembling hands.’ This seemed to be the reason why he’d lived. The temperature here and the temperature outside most likely were similar, but somehow he felt cooler. “Get me what’s most popular. And get me a cup of coffee, with ice.” “Yes, sir.” “Hurry!” “Yes, sir!” Kaneda watched the barmaid’s backside as she walked away before feeling someone’s gaze on him. For a moment, he tensed up, trying to suss out whether the onlooker was Japanese. In all honesty, who would like watching such a rude human being? He felt nervous. However, Kaneda soon relaxed after seeing the man’s neat, but dilapidated, suit. He was from Joseon. “What are you looking at?” “Are you talking about me?” “Yeah, you.” “I was looking at the painting behind you.” “I know you weren’t! You looked at me!” With this, there was nothing stopping him. He didn’t come here to eat something anyway. Since he came in to feel better, he started to make a scene. He stood up and walked towards the man. He did so as he put a hand to the sword on his hip—the one he didn’t really unsheathe much. “You misunderstood. It’s a misunderstanding. You’re quite impatient, aren’t you?” The man had to look scared. But the man in front of him was a little odd. He was saying all the things that were right to say. “What? Impatient?” “Don’t you think so? Even if I looked at you, what is the problem with that? If you’re confident of your actions, then isn’t there nothing for you to be this angry about?” No, he didn’t stop there; he even criticized him. ‘This little…’ Looking around, the focus was already on them. And of those, there was a significant number of people who were savoring it. It was a face-off between a bastard of an officer and a Joseon man of mettle, so it was only natural. He felt something pour out of his heart all of a sudden. He couldn’t know exactly if it was embarrassment or anger. “Just looking at you I can tell you’re from Joseon, so stop acting like you’re Japanese. Just go and drink your coffee.” said the officer, as he stood there, his body shaking from something as the other man patted him on the shoulder. Just then, he realized. It was embarrassment. And it was fury to cover up the embarrassment. There were freedom fighters who were born in Joseon and were fighting to reclaim the land stolen from them with their lives on the line, but as pro-Japanese who sucked up to imperial Japan, Kaneda drew his sword without even realizing. - Creak The blade was totally neglected, so it didn’t feel sharp at all. It just felt dull. “My goodness.” “You scumbag!” Abuse flew in from all sides. When he looked around, it became quiet. They just looked scared. ‘Yeah, this was how it should be…’ was what he thought as he looked at the man, but he was actually the only one who was different. “Now that I look at you, you are Japanese. Look at how you’ve dragged it to this point when we could have figured this out with words.” He completely ridiculed him. “You bastard!” “Fine, try striking me. Will you be able to be happy even after you cut down an innocent person?” “And you think I won’t be able to cut you down?” “I don’t think you’ll be able to cut me properly.” “Argh!” Kaneda couldn’t hold himself back and swung his sword. - Clang No, he tried to swing his sword. He would have if something didn’t come flying at him and hit him. “Which bastard did that!” “It was me.” “Who… Are… You?” He asked because he thought some rat of a man would have thrown a rock or something. He was sure no one would step forward. Joseon people were always like that. Even if they tried to do something behind someone else, they were never able to step out and act outright. But unlike what he’d expected, there was a man striding up to him. “The gaksital…” The most wanted man in Gyeongseong. How many officers had died by his hand? Trying to keep his eye on the chopsticks in the gaksital’s hand made him shiver. “I was trying to stay silent… But you drew your sword.” ‘What am I supposed to do?’ The other man had chopsticks and he had a sword, but he didn’t feel that there was any way he could win. “Why are you afraid of the man with chopsticks and not the man with bare hands?” The gaksital smirked at Kaneda like he could read his mind. Then, a laugh of awe slipped out of Kaneda. He wanted to kill them all. But his body wouldn’t move. “You should go now, sir.” “Thank you.” “Don’t make a fuss elsewhere, okay? You’re a man who’s destined for greatness, but you nearly died a pointless death today.” “I’ll keep that in mind.” Then, the gaksital sent the puffed up Joseon man out. Kaneda’s eyes instinctively shifted towards him, but the gaksital blocked him. “He’s not someone you can just harm.” “Ugh…” Simultaeneously, the gaksital shoved the chopstick into Kaneda’s neck. Kaneda fell onto his side. ‘Guarding him all the way to Harbin Station will not be easy.’ The gaksital followed the Joseon man who left before him without giving Kaneda a second glance. ‘They said he was a man who was high-spirited, but isn’t this a bit much?’ He had already taken off the mask and put it away into his jacket pocket. He knew walking around with his bare face where there was a lot of people would be less eye-catching. ------- “I thought you were dead.” Ahn Joong-geun wasn’t the only one he went out to follow. There were many freedom fighters in Joseon who were high-spirited, and the gaksital protected them as much as his time allowed. Then, he was shot. He had no fear about death. If he did, then would he have taken on the bridal mask? But he did have regrets. Because his homeland still wasn’t free. ‘I have too many regrets… Maybe that’s why I became an evil spirit?’ He heard a strange sound as he was thinking that, and he was soon brought to an unfamiliar place. ‘Or maybe this is what the Sanzu River looks like?’ There was a being who seemed to be a boatman. “Welcome, Gaksital.” “Well, the land of the dead has quite the grand greeting.” Whatever it was, it was better than what he’d steeled himself for. It was a relief he died with one hit, without any torture. But to think that the land of the living was a place that was so polite and clean... For a land of the dead for a descendant of a ruined people, it was much too nice. “You are not dead.” “What?” “This place is a platform.” “A train platform?” “It’s a type of train platform. In this place, you are free. You can choose to do whatever you wish. However, each choice shall have a price.” He felt more confused than when he thought it was the land of the dead, but that was obvious. As he was staring, wondering what kind of crap this was, the guide spoke up again. “You can think of this as a chance. There will be people here that will be worthy of your help.” “Um… My dream is independence for my country, so are you saying I can help that, too?” “There aren’t many people who know what their dream is accurately.” “You think I dream of something other than independence for my country?” “Who knows? Perhaps you may give independence not to your country, but to something more important.” He had no idea what that meant, but he found the odd feeling he got from the being quite concerning. It was a sort of sense of purpose that he most often felt while he guarded multitudes of freedom fighters and the heroes of Joseon. When in reality, the space that his own sense of purpose should have taken up was empty, so for a long time he protected those high-spirited men and helped others with his humble strength fill that space. But he still felt unsure about the path he himself had to take. Then he was dropped into a strange place and made to listen to some confusing talk from an unknown being, but from that being he felt that sense of purpose he had long been looking for. “Fine then. I’ll do whatever I can.” “Then I wish you a good fight.” The guide disappeared and the gaksital, now alone, fidgeted with the bridal mask. His surroundings were still unfamiliar. He had no idea where to go, either. But looking back, his life didn’t change much after he put on the mask. He faced an empire that was much too large and powerful, so the gaksital wasn’t just a singular person. All choices were up in the air and confusing, but at the same time, he felt a sense of dread. ‘I guess there won’t be much that’s different.’ And so, the gaksital, like any freedom fighter would, tried to put away the dread and walked forward. If there was independence at the end of all this, there was nothing he couldn’t do.