As the day turned into night, the orphans retreated back into their designated rooms to get their deserved rest. The one time a year where they visit Shin and Junius is also the only time where they could really kick back and relax from the constant hounding of the Instructor. Much to Lily’s displeasure, Riko and the upper management of the Mushinkei divided the orphans into different rooms according to their genders and forbade them from visiting each other.
The pale-haired hormonal teenager wanted to spend more time with her lover, but unfortunately, rules were rules. Last year, when she attempted to sneak out of her room for a late night rendezvous, she experienced the full might of Riko’s muscled thighs. Hence, as much as she wished to be with Junius, all she could do was endure.
Although the Mushinkei had built plenty of rooms, at this time of year, many Frie Clan operatives were staying over at the hub, causing the orphans to bunk together like they did back on the mountain. For the girls, Lily, Ella and Fionn stayed in one room while Ariel, Lia, Emma and Elyse stayed in the other. For the boys, Ryner, Max and Jacob took over Shin’s room while the vacated tenant stayed over at Junius’ room.
Ariel could have easily stayed over at her grandfather’s room if she so desired, but she opted to have her sleepover with her fellow friends so that they could chat the night away.
“Shin, are you awake?”
While Junius stayed in the comfort of his bed, Shin was all tucked in on a mattress that Junius had laid out. Just before he entered dreamland, his elder brother’s husky voice pulled him out from his trance.
“Now I am… What do you want?”
“Nothing… I just wanted to chat. After you leave, it would take a long while for you to return. Who knows when would be the next time we meet?”
Rubbing his eyes, Shin pulled off his cosy blanket and drowsily stared at the viridian-haired youth. His chest moved up and down as the tired boy took deep breaths to try and wash away his sleepiness.
“Shin, when you are at Aldrich’s Keep you have to be wary about your surroundings. Especially with the cell that the Second Elder is sending. Perhaps there might be a repeat of that incident.”
“Junius, you worry too much… When I’m at the Keep, I’ll be with Master. Furthermore, with that many soldiers around, do you think they would be able to do anything?”
“I get your point, but…”
Whenever Junius thought about how vicious the Second Elder was, he could not help but feel a shiver run down his spine. Back then, Shin was only ten, and the old bastard had instructed some of his henchmen to take down the unfortunate youth. Now that Shin had proven that his talents were not to be underestimated, who knew what that maniacal elder would do.
“Whatever then. Perhaps they really won’t be able to do anything to you. Either way, you must be extra careful.”
“Alright, alright. You’re such a worrywart…”
“Hmph! If I don’t worry about you, who will? Remember Shin, I am your guardian, father, brother, best friend, trainer…”
“Shut up! Goddamnit, you and Lily are made for each other! Your nagging is almost identical!”
“You think so?”
Junius scratched his nose in delight after he heard Shin’s words. Even though the teen was not trying to praise him, Junius took it as a compliment.
“I’m going back to sleep! Don’t bother me anymore!”
In one single motion, Shin covered his entire body with his favourite blanket and rested his head on the cotton pillow that he had purchased from the best fabric maker in the waypoint. The young teenager was somewhat frugal when it came to his stipends but matters regarding his sleep, he wouldn’t mind if he had to splurge all of his money. Collecting all three parts of the hibernation trinity, the best blanket, pillow and bolster that the town had to offer, Shin snoozed off, leaving Junius to ponder on matters alone.
The loving smile that Junius wore slowly turned into a grim frown.
‘Shin leaving the waypoint, for the time being, should be for the best… I still have to investigate the leads that I have regarding the Awter Clan…’
During the past three years, Junius had collected valuable data regarding the mysterious clan that disappeared thirteen years ago. The more he learnt, the less he really understood about the clan. For some reason, his curiosity about the Awter Clan had only grown over the years. He had his suspicions, but since they were outlandish, to say the least, Junius did not want to jump to conclusions.
Looking at the peaceful face of the junior that he had taken care of his entire life, Junius could not help but feel his heart warm up. Faces of the other orphans begun to surface in his mind, from the love of his life to the adorable clingy Elyse. Every single one of the children was like part of his flesh. Should something untoward happen to them, he would risk everything to save their skins.
‘I will protect them!!!’
Taking one last glance at Shin, Junius relaxed his facial muscles as he dived deep into the comfort of his bed.
Fun times never last long. During the next three days, the orphans spent as much time as possible together, reminiscing on the good old days while discussing current affairs in the clan. Forcing Junius to spend all of his annual leave days, Lily dragged her lover through the romantic streets of the town in hopes of deepening their relationship. Additionally, she had to make a statement to the single maidens who were gunning for the talented constable that he was long taken. Well, it was not like Junius disliked it either.
Ariel similarly dragged Shin around the town with so that she could have a mule when shopping. Since she was leaving with Shin, the young girl had to buy some necessities for her stay at Aldrich’s Keep.
When the day of reckoning arrived, the orphans and Ariel all gathered in front of the Western Gate. Lady Seph, who had been slaving Lymark to do her bidding, was happily seated in a pure black aether car that Lymark had prepared. She had ‘requested’ that the middle-aged man provided the best transportation that he could find and luxurious amenities for the near four hundred kilometre trip. Of course, the seasoned warrior of Aldrich’s Keep did everything in his power to keep the temperamental elderly woman as satisfied as possible.
“Lady Seph, we will be ready to depart in an hour’s time.”
“Whatever, don’t bother me unless we reached the bloody place.”
“Of course, of course.”
Rubbing his hands like a eunuch, Lymark gave Lady Seph a deep bow before slowly retreating. Looking around, his eyes caught the sight of five Frie Clan aether cars, already parked and ready to go. Initially, he was apprehensive about bringing members of a family clan into the Keep. However, the more he interacted with Ines and the other adults that shared their plan with him, the more he felt that bringing them was the right move.
Aldrich’s Keep was experiencing a time of crisis. No matter the source, some additional extra hands to help them weather the storm was much desired. Hearing that four Spirit Lords and an auxiliary Spirit King would be joining their ranks, Lymark felt that it was a deal too good to be true.
Now, not only did he acquire the help of the illustrious Lady Seph and her disciple, but also a force that could equal a third-rate family clan. Fantasising about how the general of the Keep would praise him, Lymark glanced around, hoping to find the youth that had helped him convince Lady Seph to join the purge.
It was not long when he saw a large group of teenagers, all with varying ages, standing at the bottom of the gate, staring each other down.
“To think that they sent you, Linus…”
Shin, who was right smack in the middle of the orphans, addressed the bright-red haired teenager that was wearing the widest smile that he had ever seen. Alongside Shin and Ariel, Linus was one of the great talents of the Frie Clan. Although his Spirit was not baptised in a natural phenomenon, Linus had still advanced through the ranks quickly due to the Second Elder’s endless pushings. Currently, he was a Rank 9 Spirit Practitioner, which was quite a feat for someone of his age.
“Shin… It’s been a while…”
Using his signature speech patterns, Linus happily greeted the boy that had fought him to a draw, many moons ago. Over the years, Linus had retained his androgynous appearance and seemed to be untouched by puberty. His textured fringe had stretched all the way down to his eyebrows, and his bubbly pale white face made his bright red hair all the more prominent. Unlike the others in his group, Linus was genuinely delighted that he could meet Shin once more.
Amongst everyone his age, the only people that could match him were Shin and Ariel. Back then, when Linus claimed that he wanted Shin as a training partner, he was not jesting at all. He had truly desired to train with the black-haired youth. Thus, when he heard that Shin was sent into exile, Linus sulked for days, and it took him a while to get back on his feet.
“I see that you are here as well, Leon…”
Junius menacing stared at the older boy that was accompanying the prestigious Second Elder’s grandson. When they were still living on the mountain, the detestable face that pops whenever the orphans thought of the Second Elder’s youth division, was Leon’s. Constantly harassing them whenever they met, the orphans, especially Junius, had a horrible impression on the tall bloke.
“Hi! Long time no see!”
As expected, Leon was commissioned by the Second Elder to chaperone his grandson. Being the only one from the cell in the Spirit Apostle realm, Leon’s primary mission during this trip was to ensure that Linus did not fall into any harm.
“What are you guys planning, huh?”
Junius, unquestionably miffed that the Second Elder had sent Leon, venomously spat out his thoughts.
“Relax, we are not here to cause trouble. If Aldrich’s Keep falls, all our lives will be affected. Furthermore, all of us that were sent are on the brink of breaking through to the next realm!”
Currently, Leon was Rank 19 while Linus was Rank 9. The other two Spirit Practitioners that the Second Elder sent were also both at Rank 9. At that level, the best way to advance was for the Spirit User to claim some real-world fighting experience.
“Shin… I’ve heard to promoted to become a Spirit Apostle…”
While Leon and Junius were having a spat, Linus came over to Shin and asked him if the rumours of him advancing were true.
“Ah, as expected… Congratulations… But don’t worry, I’ll catch up with you soon!”
Turning his back towards the black-haired youth, Linus promptly retreated into his aether car. His two followers, who were also at Rank 9, jogged rapidly to keep up with the teen, leaving Leon behind with the rest of the orphans.
“Haha, he’s as free-spirited as ever!”
Leon glanced over his shoulder to look at the boy he was meant to be guarding. Desperately trying to quell his shivering hand, Linus quickly hid in the back seat of the car. Of all the younger members in the clan, the only two that Linus would consider his rivals were Shin and Ariel. Now that both of them had promoted into the Spirit Apostle realm, the young teen could not help but feel that he had been left behind.
“Shin, I hope you understand that we really have no intentions of bothering you during this trip. I know that we have some bad blood between us, but Linus truly sees you as an equal and a rival. Please don’t think bad of him, alright?”
Giving Shin a cheeky wink, Leon left the orphans alone and returned back to the side of his Elder’s grandson. The orphans were stumped by the sudden change in attitude by Leon. Was he really the same guy that had terrorised them since young?
“Did he knock his head against a wall or something?”
Lily, who was wide-eyed after that encounter, gasped in confusion.
“I don’t buy it… Shin, Ella, Emma… You guys must be careful when you reach the Keep. People from the Second Elder’s division can’t be trusted…”
Junius had the most experience when it came to dealing with those from the Second Elder’s division. The majority of them loathed the orphans’ existence and would rather they be thrown out of the clan.