Book 3: Aldrich’s Keep || Chapter 1: Three Years Later… (1)

A cold wind blew through the lush, verdant woodlands gently shifting the vaporous mist that enveloped the thick shrubbery. Coiling around the towering oak trees, the dense fog made the thicket seem illusory and mystical. The sweet perfume of damp, earthen soil cleansed the lungs of any who stepped foot in the magical land and those who lived in civilisation all their lives would be taken back millenniums back into the primordial era.

“*Crunch* *Crunch*.”

The serenity of the empty forest was broken by a peculiar sound, not often found in the uninhabited woods. Fallen dried leaves on the floor, which were usually untouched, cracked out in agony as a pair of heavy boots made their way through the land. The footsteps were unhurried and calm as if the eeriness of the timberlands was unable to faze the person plodding through it.

“Where is that bloody herb?”

A youthful voice echoed in the misty woods as the person brought his right hand over his eyes and squinted them intensely. His black hair shuffled with the wind as his azure blue eyes dilated. Donned in a brown, full-bodied, trekking robe, Shin was performing his weekly routine of collecting medicine herbs for Yakkyoku Clinic.

Three years had passed since the Gawil Jefferson incident, and now, Shin had grown from a ten-year-old, who was subject to numerous pinchings from the ladies of the Mushinkei due to his rosy cheeks, to a thirteen-year-old, who was still subject to numerous pinchings from the ladies of the Mushinkei.

Growing at a slower rate than others his age, Shin remained half a head shorter than those his same age and was even similar in height to Ariel. His body remained perfectly lean and symmetrical, possibly due to the rigorous morning exercises that Junius had enforced on him in the absence of the Instructor. However, although he had matured significantly, one thing remained constant. Shin retained his adorable appearance and captivating cheeks that had followed him since he was born. Perhaps in a few years, the young adolescent might morph into a heartthrob that struck down the hearts of innocent girls, but currently, he was just the target for pinches.

“Hah… It’s been nearly two hours… If I can’t find the Crimson Marlberry, Master will kill me!”

Being the disciple of the illustrious Lady Seph did not exempt Shin from doing the dirty work. Collecting herbs had become a weekly routine for the youth. Lady Seph claimed that sending the boy into the nearby forest to collect medicine materials was an effective training method as it developed Shin’s identification skills. However, truth to be told, she just did not want to waste any more money buying herbs from the local pharmacy as money was getting tight.

Carrying a bamboo-weaved bag, filled to the brim with precious herbs and mushrooms, Shin wearily trudged through the forest floor, in search of the elusive Crimson Marlberry. He had collected every other material that his master ordered him to find, so there was nothing else for him to do.

Combing through the dense woods, uncovering every corner and leaving no stones unturned, Shin desperately searched, hoping to complete his assignment before sundown. However, his effort did not come to fruition. No matter how hard he looked, the Crimson Marlberry just did not want to show itself.

“Arghhh!!! Whatever, I’ll just head back… Damn it, I’m not looking forward to tasting Master’s ‘Holy Light’ again…”

Whenever Shin pissed off the elderly woman, who had went through menopause years ago, Lady Seph would summon the Iofiel Angel and send a shining ray of light his way, paralysing him for a few minutes. Apparently, it was her favourite way of destressing and unfortunately for Shin, he was the only one nearby that she could vent her frustrations on.

Just as the black-haired youth gave up all hope of surviving, a pungent stench, that reeked of rotting flesh and decayed fish, filled the air forcing Shin to cover his nose. Typically, an average person would try his best to leave the area as soon as possible, however, as an apprentice healer, Shin’s eyes lit up in excitement.

“Could it be?! Hahaha! This smell in this area can only mean that the Crimson Marlberry is near!”

Pivoting his feet, Shin pounced in the direction of the stench, tracing the elusive herb. A thick cerulean aura enveloped the youth, strengthening every cell his body. In the three years under Lady Seph, Shin’s cultivation had leapt from Rank 2 to Rank 9, averaging a cultivation speed of three levels every year. In fact, the young boy was extremely close to reaching the peak of Rank 9 and triggering his breakthrough into the Spirit Apostle realm.

Shin progress was staggering to everyone who heard of it. Junius only managed to reach the Spirit Apostle realm at age fourteen, and that was considered extremely quick by the Frie Clan’s standards. However, even before Shin celebrated his thirteenth birthday, he was already preparing to become a Spirit Apostle. When questioned by Junius on how he managed to increase his cultivation so quickly, Shin replied that he followed everything that Lady Seph planned for him, which includes a daily task of cleaning the latrines.

Tempted by the proposition, Junius cleaned the toilets for a week, in hopes of expediting his cultivation speed. Regrettably, all he got was a bucket full of laughs and wheezes. The reason why Shin was training at such a monstrous speed was due to a variety of factors.

Firstly, The Sovereign Koi was a legendary Spirit that even had its own cultivation technique that was passed down from the Celestial Water Dragon itself. Additionally, Shin had triggered a natural phenomenon that baptised his Spirit, essentially making him a favoured entity of the water elemental spirits.

The second factor was Lady Seph’s wealth of knowledge. As a physician and former high ranking member of the Himmel Empire, the elderly woman was privy to a vast array of information kept in the libraries of the capital. Even books that were only suited for the eyes of royalty were not spared from her thirst for knowledge. Hence, Lady Seph knew precisely how to train the exiled youth and fully optimise his capabilities.

The final factor was Shin’s hardcore training regiment. Every single day, Shin was subjected to morning exercises, led by the Instructor version two, Junius. In the afternoon, Lady Seph would force him to use his spiritual abilities endlessly to perform daily tasks. For instance, cleaning the toilets, brewing her a pot of tea and other mundane work. At the end of the day, when Shin was leaving Yakkyoku Clinic, he would always feel himself drained of mana, and he regularly cursed his master on making him do those tasks. However, unbeknownst to him, Lady Seph was actually employing a training method that she had learnt from the royal library.

By making Shin spend all his mana on his spiritual abilities, Lady Seph could make him more accustomed to his skills. When his mana pool was drained, she would let Shin drink a recovery tea, brewed with the very best ingredients, that helps to stimulate spirit gathering, essentially filling the youth up with mana the very same night. The process of draining and recovering mana in the long run drastically increased the amount of spiritual energy that Shin could absorb and use as mana. Hence, in the evening when he was cultivating the Celestial Water Mantra, the black-haired youth would feel his cultivation improve by leaps and bounds.

Rushing towards the suspected location of the Crimson Marlberry, Shin felt the wind flow past his face at a speed that was previously unattainable for him. Although he felt fatigued and indignant at the Spartan training that he had been put through over the years, the young boy had to admit that the training was showing its results. When the stench of rotting flesh was at its strongest, Shin halted his steps and turned his neck while darting his eyes wildly, hoping to catch a glimpse of his target.

“Where is it?”

“Oooooaaaaoooaaaaa!!!”

At that moment a low growling reverberated through the trees and caught the attention of the youth. A pair of glowing lights, resembling blood red rubies emerged from the shrubbery revealing its ghastly figure. With tusks that reached for the heavens, an onyx furred wild boar bared its fangs and threatened the intruder that dared to step foot in its territory. Unlike regular wild boars, the one in front of Shin was at least twice the size of its peers.

“Why is this thing here…”

As he was questioning the existence of the wild boar, from the bushes, Shin could see a shiny red ball surrounded by countless black ones of similar shape. Space seemed to distort as the stench of the plant released an acrid odour that stung the eyes of any who were near it. Filling the surroundings with an abundance of spiritual energy, the Crimson Marlberry shone with a dim red glow.

“I found it!”

Growing in the midst of a bunch of wild marlberries, the Crimson Marlberry hides from sight and releases a putrid smell to deter predators from looking at it as an evening snack. Being one of the few herbs near the waypoint that collects spiritual energy and retains it, the Crimson Marlberry was a rare and precious herb that could go as high as one gold ingot on a good day.

However, every piece of treasure has its dragon. Due to it emitting a significant amount of spiritual energy, the Crimson Marlberry attracts savage animals that are looking to evolve into spiritual beasts. With enough exposure in a mana-rich environment, even a harmless insect can morph into a beast that threatens thousands. The wild boar was precisely one of those creatures.

It had noticed the numerous benefits of staying near the peculiar plant and had seen itself grow stronger every day. In return, the boar guarded the small red object with its life, fighting off any predators or gatherers that sought to pluck the Crimson Marlberry. If it was given a few more years, it was highly likely that the boar would evolve into a spiritual beast that could generate its own mana. Still, with its muscles strengthened and skin hardened through years of mana exposure, the animal was no mere pushover.

“Hah… Why must things always be so hard?”

Annoyed that he had to enter battle once again, Shin gently dropped the basket of herbs onto the floor and lightly removed his jacket. On his belt, there were two pearly-white, identical ceramic gourds with the only difference being the labels on them. Tapping on the gourd labelled ‘Two,’ Shin congregated his mana on his hand.

Uncorking the gourd, a green fluid started to flow out from the ceramic flask. Directed by Shin’s mana, the liquid encircled the youth like a serpent, protecting him from any threats that came close. Like a conductor leading a musical orchestra, Shin moved his fingers erratically to control the movements of the green fluid that surrounded him in the air.

“Sorry, but I can’t afford to lose the Crimson Marlberry… Sleep for me, will you?”

Pointing at the unfortunate savage beast, Shin directed a large portion of the green fluid at the wild boar. Like a coiled up snake, the string of water stuck at a blinding speed. However, as if anticipating the strike, the wild boar rushed to the side and evaded the bizarre liquid.

After his first attack failed, Shin raised his eyebrows, slightly taken aback that his opponent was more skilled than he thought; but his troubled state did not last longer than a millisecond as he began to take things a little more seriously. From the gourd, Shin brought out more of the green fluid and sent forth an additional four strings towards the wild boar. However, it was for nought as the creature effortlessly sidestepped all the attacks.

“What the hell?! How can a fat pig be that agile?!”

Seeing that his attacks were useless against the wild boar, Shin quickly became annoyed. It was at this moment that the creature found an opening in the youth’s defences and charged headfirst at the unarmoured boy. Pointing its head down, the wild boar attempted to use its tusks to maul the intruder and cripple him. Its plan was perfect, unfortunately…

“Gotcha…”

A playful grin appeared on the initially frantic face of Shin’s as the wild boar came near. From the earthen ground, a small green whirlpool, the size of a watermelon, began to spin violently. Unaware that it was heading to its doom, the wild boar’s eyes gleamed in anticipation as its tusks grew every closer to the savoury flesh of the adolescent. The next instant, when the animal was right above the whirlpool, a green fluid shot upwards like a fountain, covering every single part of the wild boar.

Almost at the exact moment, the strange liquid touched its flesh, the wild boar felt the world slow down as its muscles began to relax. Collapsing onto the floor, the whites of its eyes started to show as drool flowed out from its mouth like a river. In that single instant, Shin had managed to take down a half-step beast without even laying a finger on it.

“Phew, that was harder than I thought!”

Twitching his fingers twice, Shin collected every single drop of green fluid, that was scattered about in the air, back into the gourd. Careful not to touch the liquid that he constructed, Shin corked the ceramic gourd tightly. The green fluid was a potent drug that once exposed to the skin, its chemicals would seep into the body, sending the target into a state of paralysis. Even a single drop could incapacitate a fully-grown man and send him to Lalaland.

Wiping the sweat off his forehead, Shin uncorked the ceramic gourd labelled ‘One’ and summoned out the liquid inside the flask. This time, it was just clear water that Shin himself had created using his first spiritual ability. Over the past three years, after undergoing Lady Seph’s rigorous training, Shin could now comfortably control liquids that he created with ease. He didn’t even need to summon out The Sovereign Koi when it came to manipulating water he created.

Moving his fingers, Shin carefully directed the string of water to the sole Crimson Marlberry hidden in the bushes. Once the liquid had wholly enveloped the herb, the boy made a clenched fist, cutting the stem of the Crimson Marlberry and bringing the red fruit into his basket.

“I’m finally done! Damn it, next time I should just ignore that old grandma, let her collect this bloody thing by herself!”

Shouting out curses at Lady Seph, who had no way of hearing him, Shin picked up the bamboo-weaved bag and slowly made his way out of the forest.

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