The path to Aldrich’s Keep was rather straightforward. Since the roads had been recently built, there were hardly any obstructions caused by wear and tear. Bandits that hijack and raid convoys were common in the Empire, but when it came to the paths built by the military, no marauder in their right minds would hope to challenge convoys travelling there. Not only were there regular checkpoints that were armed to the teeth, but also the caravans were typically escorted by an extremely powerful Spirit User. For the convoy that Shin was travelling in, including the members of the expedition sent by the Frie Clan, there were six Spirit Lords, one Spirit King, one Spirit Emperor and one Tier 8 Spirit Beast.
With enough firepower to decimate a bandit base ten times over, there was no way any bandit leader who is worth his salt would order an attack on that convoy, making the journey rather smooth. Shin, who was frantically speed-reading through the thick encyclopedia handed to him by his Master, felt the car jerk violently, breaking him out of his concentration.
Shin was not the only person affected by the sudden stop. Initially, Ariel wanted to chat with her childhood friend to create the illusion that time was going faster. However, after seeing Shin so engrossed in his work and the two seniors at her side merrily hitting it off, the scarlet-haired girl rested her head on the cushioned walls and let herself be dragged into the Garden of Hypnos. Unfortunately, it served to be her undoing. Without control over her body, the sudden jerk lunged her forward, banging her head against the black-haired boy sitting right in front of her.
When the two heads collided, Shin felt his world turn as stars begun to appear around him. Ariel, on the other hand, felt a thud on her forehead, similar to getting lightly hit by a pair of chopsticks.
“We’ve arrived… But something’s off…”
Seated in the driver’s seat, Lymark glanced over his shoulders and reported the situation. Rubbing his head to quell the pain, Shin gingerly looked out of the window.
It took him a second but soon, he gaped in awe. The barren desert had changed into a vast field that spanned for kilometres, filled with lush greenery. With wheat and rice partures on each side of the aether cars, if not for the colossal edifice towering over him, Shin would have thought that he entered a farmland. Standing over two hundred metres tall, a stone wall barricade that blocked the only path from the Uncharted Wilderness to the Himmel Empire, forced the convoy to come to a halt.
Free from the greenish moss that plagued every ancient building, the Keep walls seem to glisten in a silvery light as the luminous sun focused its glare on the impregnable barrier. From the interior, open windows with fully loaded cannons pointed down on the open fields to deter any intruders from ever thinking of setting foot in the fortification and ravage any wild beasts that somehow managed to escape through the heavily armed fortress.
At the very top of the walls, sentinels walked the pavements while being on full alert, lest something egregious happens. Smoke and soot flowing out from the chimneys indicated that the Keep was bustling with life and at the highest peak, there was an imposing flag, fluttering with the cold wind. Bearing the colours of the royal family, it was an ensign of authority that only government bodies could wear. Although the emblem looked simplistic in nature, Shin could not help but stare with trepidation.
As the convoy edged closer to the humongous fort, the steel gate, which should have been hoisted up for them to pass, remained firmly shut. Unsure of what had happened, Lymark said:
“That’s strange… We have reached exactly on time! There should be someone here to receive us. Did something happen?”
A day before the convoy left Chilyoja Waypoint, Lymark had sent a message to the Keep, informing them of the expected arrival time. Usually, when someone of Lady Seph’s stature enters Aldrich’s Keep, there would be procession waiting to welcome her. However, even though the convoy had arrived precisely on the dot, there was not even a single soul at the steel gate.
“Lady Seph, please excuse me.”
Giving the blonde elderly woman an apologetic bow, Lymark hastily got out of the aether car. Closing his eyes, the middle-aged man released massive amounts of dense mana as his feet started to levitate up from the ground. If he were not someone whom the sentinels were familiar with, flying up the walls of Aldrich’s Keep would typically be a death sentence as an order to gun down the intruder would be passed down. Fortunately, the guards on duty immediately recognised their head of human resources.
“Shin looks like this might be your lucky day…”
“Huh? What do you mean?”
Lady Seph looked over at her disciple with a wry smile.
“Your first day in the Keep and you get to see a beast horde firsthand. If that’s not luck, I don’t know what is.”
“Beast horde?! Aldrich’s Keep is under attack?!”
The primary reason why Lady Seph was sent here was so that she could assist the soldiers of the fortification to manage the threat of savage beasts from overrunning the Keep. To think that her task had begun so quickly.
“Just wait and see…”
Accurately determining the cause of the disturbance, Lady Seph reclined back in her chair while stroking Bingbing’s fur. When the Shrine Maiden heard Lady Seph’s words, she closed her eyes and maximised her sensory skills to the limit. Only then could she feel that on the other side of the Keep, there was a weak disturbance. Countless hooves and footsteps shook the ground floor creating a light reverberation.
‘How did she find out so fast?!’
Being trained as an auxiliary Spirit User from young, the Shrine Maiden prided herself on her sensory abilities. However, only after Lady Seph mentioned it did she realise that a beast horde was imminent. And it took the elderly woman just a few seconds to deduce that fact. Finding another reason to respect her idol, the beautiful woman tried her best to hide her fangirl self.
As expected, when Lymark returned from the top of the Keep walls his face had turned as white as a sheet, and he made his way to the black aether car with hurried steps.
“L-lady Seph… There has been an unexpected beast horde! Our soldiers are fighting it off at the other side as we speak!”
“I know. Don’t worry about our accommodation for now. Bring us in.”
“Yes! At once!”
The moment Lymark replied to Lady Seph, the gigantic steel gate that had barred their paths was lifted, allowing Shin and the others to get a good look at the insides of the famed fort. Fully armoured warriors, each equipped with a deadly weapon, marched in unity across the bustling fields.
Rows upon rows of military tents, lined up, providing sufficient housing for the thousands of men and women living in the Keep. Horses pulled carriages of supplies around the enclosed encampment and currently, every single soul in the Keep was heading towards the other end, where the beast horde was.
“Lymark, could you bring us to a tall vantage point? I want to show my disciple how the beast horde looks like.”
Unfazed by the hustle and bustle, Lady Seph nonchalantly remarked. After being in the military for so long, the adrenaline rush that came whenever the army was in peril had all but diminished in her aged body.
“B-but, Lady Seph. Aren’t you going to be helping us this time around?”
The whole purpose of Lymark going to Chilyoja Waypoint was to bring Lady Seph back to act as a healer, not a spectator. However, there was no way the middle-aged man could force the temperamental elderly woman to do his bidding.
“I said I’ll help you during the purge. This is just some minor beast horde. If the warriors in Aldrich’s Keep can’t do this much by themselves, they can’t be called the very best, am I right?”
Unsure of the best reply to give her, Lymark turned silent. Of course, Lady Seph was not heartless. Through her estimates, the number of beasts that were currently threatening the Keep was definitely something that they could manage by themselves. Otherwise, as a healer, she would be the first to volunteer her services.
“Alright then, follow me…”
Torn between his worry for the safety of his fellow brothers-in-arms and his pride as a warrior of Aldrich’s Keep, Lymark decided to trust the capabilities of the soldiers that he had put so much faith in. Bringing the group of people he had brought from Chilyoja Waypoint to the wall facing the Uncharted Wilderness, Lymark desperately prayed for the safety of his friends.
“What the hell!”
Leaving the convoy of aether cars parked in a remote corner, Shin and Ariel regrouped with Ines, Marric and the twins while Leon and Linus stayed with the others sent from the Second Elder’s division. The Shrine Maiden stuck tightly to her esteemed idol as they made their way up the steep steps of the wall.
Shin felt his blood boil as his hearing blurred. For the first time ever, he was about to witness a battlefield. Ariel was in a similar situation. However, instead of fear, her Amazonian blood was anticipating the adrenaline that could only be brought by fighting on the front lines.
And as expected, the theatre of war was as gruesome as they thought. Vicious beasts of all shapes and sizes decimated the land with their elemental abilities while the valiant troopers held their ground. Forming a line of shields, the warriors of Aldrich’s Keep barred the path to the fort while spearmen and bowmen cleared the waves of beasts from the rear. With the vanguard holding strong, gallons of blood flowed out from the mountain of dead monsters making the battlefield reek of death and destruction.
However, even though the soldiers were performing splendidly, they were not the focal point of attention. Standing solitarily in front of the vanguard, there was a prim and proper blonde haired man. Donned in full body armour, the man resembled a shining knight that came straight out of a fairy tale. Undaunted by the hundreds of beasts in his path, the sole knight wielded his claymore sword, awaiting the next wave of enemies.
Shin wanted to shout out to the knight but was stopped by a wrinkled old hand. Lady Seph gave her disciple a bitter smile and shook her head lightly. The next instant, everyone watching the battle, felt a warm heat wave hit their faces.
“Fall back! Commander Alwig is going to use his ability!”
The soldiers on the battlefield retreated in an orderly manner once they heard the order. Once he determined that his men had made enough space for him, the clean-cut man, who was coated in a thick red spiritual aura, smiled in delight. Bending his knees down, the knight leapt high in the air, leaving a significant dent on where he was before. The silver claymore sword in his hands started to burn with a white-hot fire as he transferred his mana over to his Spirit.
“Death from above!”
Pointing his Claymore down at the centre of the beast horde, Commander Alwig turned into a beam of light and crashed down at a speed that no one could follow.
The instant he touched the floor, a huge explosion obliterated those beasts who were unfortunate enough to take the full brunt of the attack. The residue fire that resulted from the blast burned any of the remaining beasts within a fifty-metre radius. Ariel, who also possessed a pure strength fire elemental Spirit, shivered in excitement as she saw the attack. It was the ability of her dreams. However, the knight was not done.
With his claymore stabbed securely into the muddied ground, Commander Alwig’s body shone in a blinding red light as he transferred a tremendous amount of mana into the earth. The moisture from the soil surrounding him almost instantaneously evaporated as flames that could easily melt metal formed. Like a wildfire, the flames spread quickly and burnt down any enemies that were in their path.
“A domain ability?!”
Ines exclaimed in shock as her eyes nearly popped out from her sockets. A domain ability was one of the hardest to learn and therefore, one of the rarest abilities out there. As its name suggests, a domain ability forms a mana field that enhances the user’s other abilities while also greatly impairing his opponent’s. To learn such an ability, one had to be close to elements and have tremendous comprehension ability thus, possibly only 0.1% of all Spirit Users had a domain ability in their midst.
With his flaming claymore and Scorched Earth domain, Commander Alwig mauled down the beasts like a knife cutting through butter. Most of the time, the beasts would have already taken substantial damage due to the flames on the ground and all the knight needed to do was clean up. Repeatedly swinging his sword, melted limbs of beasts flew in all directions as Commander Alwig annihilated anything in his path.
“Assist the Commander!”
Seeing that the beast horde was finally beginning to thin, one of the vanguard officers ordered a full-on assault to finally clear out the threat. Putting down their shields, the fearless warriors of the Keep charged straight ahead, careful to avoid the domain that their commander had created. With the beasts in disarray, it was a simple task for them.
Soon, after fifteen minutes of fighting, the beast horde had been eliminated. Dead carcasses of beasts piled up to form a mountain while a river of blood flowed out of it. The stench of charred meat could be smelt even from the upper levels of the walls, where Shin and the other children of the Frie Clan were. Unable to hold back their disgust, the majority of the teens hurled the contents of their lunch out of their stomachs and into the nearby drainage. And none of the older members blamed them. In the face of such death and destruction, even they felt sick.
While the morale was low and their bodies fatigued, many soldiers dropped to the floor to catch a well-deserved breath. At that moment, a well-groomed blonde man stood at the precipice of the mountain of carcasses and waved the majestic flag in his hands.
“For the Empire!”
Like a desperate wail, Commander Alwig shouted out a battle-cry.
“For the Empire!”
“For the Empire!!!”
“FOR THE EMPIRE!!!”
One voice became two. Two became four. Until eventually, every single warrior on the battlefield was shouting out at the top of their lungs. They had lived to see another day.