Book 3: Aldrich’s Keep || Chapter 21: Arriving at Aldrich’s Keep (2)

“Who’s that?”

After the mighty display by the soldiers of Aldrich’s Keep, Ines could not help but marvel in the overall camaraderie of the fighters. Many of them were broken and lacked the strength to even walk in a straight line. However, they all remained to help clear the area and bring back the fallen. Thankfully, the casualty count this time was significantly lower even though they were hit by a surprise attack but nonetheless, one dead was still one too many. With a heavy heart, the warriors hoisted the dead bodies of their comrades and solemnly marched back into the Keep.

Amongst all of them, the most prominent figure was the blonde haired knight that decimated a good portion of the beast horde. Instead of leaving the clean-up to his subordinates, Commander Alwig personally stayed back to ensure that none of his men was left behind although he was the one who expanded the most mana. With his entire faced drenched with sweat, it looked like he had just run through a torrential downpour. His body wrenched violently when he carried an injured comrade, but his eyes were resolute. That gesture really touched Ines, and she could not help but ask Lymark about the man’s identity.

“He’s our second-in-command, Commander Alwig! As a Rank 63 Spirit King, he is one of the strongest beings in Aldrich’s Keep. In fact, he is a descendant of General Aldrich himself! His family has been guarding the Keep for generations. It’s highly likely that one day, he would inherit the guardian position from General Anmac!”

Lymark’s face started to beam in glee as he proudly introduced the pride of the impregnable fortress. Whenever the opportunity for him to gloat about his compatriots arose, it was as if the middle-aged man would turn into a different person. Spouting praises after praises about the heir of the Keep, Lymark’s mouth never seemed to pause for breaks.

“Hmmm, Shin. You go down there and assist in the healing.”

Stroking her wrinkled chin, Lady Seph pointed to a sick bay at the foot of the wall and directed her disciple to go over.

“Me? But I don’t have any experience yet!”

Stumped by her words, Shin cried out in horror. After learning ‘Healing Water,’ the young black-haired teen barely got any chances to execute his new ability. Asking him to assist in the healing of war-torn veterans was like telling him to run before he could walk. He was not even confident to heal a wounded animal not to mention a fully-grown human being.

“Just do it. You know that I don’t like to repeat myself…”

The whole reason why Lady Seph even agreed to come to the Keep in the first place was so that Shin could advance his healing abilities. Shooting him the standard death glare, the blonde elderly woman tapped her fingers with her arms in akimbo.

“Fine…”

“Wait, Bingbing. Accompany him. Lymark, escort him back to my lodging when he’s done. For now, take me to meet Anmac.”

Simultaneously ordering her Spirit Beast companion and her slave, no guide in the waypoint, Lady Seph turned away from the battlefield. Now that the battle was over, she should pay a visit to the decrepit old friend of hers that had called her here.

“*Yip!* *Yip!*.”

Happily obliging Lady Seph’s words, Bingbing jumped off from her shoulders and landed on Shin’s. Using her little snout to poke the boy’s cheeks, Bingbing wiggled her tail frantically as she got to spend some quality time with Shin. When the Shrine Maiden saw how attached the snowy white gerbil was to Shin, her mind wavered in disbelief. Just imagine, a Spirit Beast that was as strong as the High Elders and Clan Master of the Frie Clan was acting like an adorable pet to a mere Spirit Apostle.

“I’ll come with you!”

Ariel raised her hand and darted to the side of the black-haired youth. The main reason why she even volunteered to come to Aldrich’s Keep was to ensure her childhood friend’s safety. Knowing that he lacked the combat attributes to defend himself, the fiery little girl felt uneasy about letting him roam the dangerous fort by himself.

“Okay then…”

Locking arms with Shin, Ariel dragged the boy down to the sick bay without his permission. Bingbing, annoyed that a pest had been attached to her second favourite person, bared her fangs at the scarlet-haired girl but ultimately did not do anything. Nestling herself closer on Shin’s neck, the snowy white gerbil put on a triumphant smirk while glancing down at Ariel. The fiery little girl felt insulted that a beast was showing an imposing attitude towards her, but she eventually let that thought go once she recalled that Bingbing was as powerful as her grandfather. However, she was not willing to back down without a fight. Tightening her grip on Shin’s arms, Ariel similarly stared straight at the snowy white gerbil. Thus, a queer rivalry between a Tier 8 Spirit Beast and an Amazonian Spirit Apostle began.

~~~

Himmel Empire. Aldrich’s Keep. General Quarters.

After Shin, Ariel and Bingbing headed towards the sick bay, the remainder of the Frie Clan members were led by Lymark’s men to their respective lodgings. Since it was a military base, the rooms being provided were somewhat simplistic even though they were given the best places the Keep could provide. Lady Seph, on the other hand, followed the middle-aged man, meandering through heaps of soldiers rushing back and forth the walls to reach their final destination.

At the precipice of the walls facing the Uncharted Wilderness, there was a stone castle rested atop a pure black meteorite. As the elderly woman edged closer to the big chunky rock, she felt a foreign mana source, one strong enough to make her quiver, hit her body. The hairs on her wrinkled body stood upright as her sensory abilities went haywire whenever she attempted to probe the insides of the majestic rock.

“This damned rock is still standing huh?”

It was not the first time Lady Seph had an encounter with the meteorite that lay in front of her. With a gaze that was mixed with awe and annoyance, the blonde elderly woman took a deep breath and recollected her previous experience with the boulder.

“Of course! The Guardian Rock is the lifeblood of Aldrich’s Keep! If it were to fall, the walls would be nowhere near as effective!”

A long, long time ago, when Aldrich’s Keep was first constructed, the Spirit Saint guarding the Himmel Empire had bestowed upon the fort a mystical black meteorite. Unlike regular boulders, once the Guardian Rock was connected to the specially built fort, its defensive powers would be transferred over to the walls forming a barrier coating that effortlessly deflects any oncoming attacks. It was one of the main reasons why Aldrich’s Keep has remained impregnable to this day.

“Yeah, yeah. Let’s go…”

Climbing up the concrete staircase, the two individuals made their way to the castle sitting atop the Guardian Rock. Being the highest point in the entire Keep, there was only one person qualified to stay up in the regal mansion.

“*Eeeeee*.”

The aged wooden doors of the entrance creaked creepily as Lymark gradually pushed them open. Covered in cold marble and nothing else, the castle seemed relatively empty and abandoned in contrast to what Lady Seph thought a noble’s home would look like. At the very end of the hall, there was a carpeted staircase that spilt into two, and on the furthermost wall, an august flag bearing the colours of the royal family displayed itself for all visitors to gawk in its grandeur.

Desperately holding back her barf, Lady Seph snorted and looked away from the detestable banner in contempt. Her brows furrowed and eyes glazed over, the elderly woman said to her guide:

“Quickly lead me to Anmac.”

“O-of course! Right, this way!”

Unsure of what had soured Lady Seph’s mood, Lymark immediately led the elderly woman to a simplistic looking door on the first floor of the castle. Knocking on the door, Lymark reported their arrival.

“Your Excellency, Lady Seph requests an audience!”

“…”

However, there was no reply from the other side. Lymark was puzzled. At this time of the day, there was no way that the general would not be in his quarters.

“Lady Seph, please give me a second… *Knock!* *Knock!* Your Excellency! Are you in?”

This time, instead of light tapping the door with his knuckles, Lymark used his fists to loudly bang on the door. At that moment, as if by magic, the wooden doors swung wide open, causing the middle-aged man to lose his balance. Peering into the room, the first thing that Lady Seph noticed was the gigantic glass wall on the other side of the office. Instead of having windows, the general had opted for a fully transparent wall, so that he could monitor the entire Keep from his premises.

“Seraphim, you’re here.”

With a silver cane in hand, the wizened, bronzed old man turned towards his visitors. Unlike before, his hairline had begun to recede revealing patched of wrinkled skin on the top of his head. His long silvery beard could not hide the years that have piled up in his life. Trudging forward using his lavish cane as a support, the elderly man greeted his visitor.

“You’ve aged horribly, Anmac…”

After seeing her old friend after all these years, Lady Seph could not help but sigh. The yesteryears where they roamed the world thinking that they were untouchable had long past. When the world first heard of their names, they were budding legends that held the future of the entire world in their hands. Now, they were just ancient dinosaurs in the new age.

“That’s what leading an army does to you. There is no time for me to rest.”

While talking to his dear friend, he gestured to his subordinate to leave them alone. Bowing down to the two legendary figures, Lymark hastily retreated backwards, leaving them to talk it out by themselves.

“If my memory serves me right, you enjoy the Oolong tea from the Wongkyo Province. Fortunately, I still have one bag of tea leaves in my storage. Please, take a seat.”

Walking over to the nearby teapot, the elderly man, who seemed to have one foot in the grave, began to brew the special tea for his guest.

“Cut the crap Anmac, you know I dislike pleasantries the most. Just tell me what really happened.”

“Oh, I do know that. That’s why I’m pouring you this cup. We’re going to be here for a while.”

“Fine…”

Finally resting her bottom on the cushioned chair that the general had pointed to, Lady Seph folded her arms and waited for her friend to begin business. Although General Anmac was quite a number of years older than the blonde woman, Lady Seph could not be bothered when it came to manners. Seeing his impatient friend, General Anmac let slow a silent giggle. Even after all these years, Lady Seph still retained the same disposition that she had when they were younger.

“Before we begin, could you tell me what do you know?”

Placing down the perfectly brewed cup of tea, the decrepit old man sat down on his office chair.

“Huh?! Have you knocked your head?! Your subordinate told me that the Kori Federation was behind the sabotage!”

“Oh, if it were only that simple…”

“What?!”

Closing his eyes, the esteemed general of the Empire, guardian of the famed Aldrich’s Keep, exhaled out a despondent sigh.

“Seraphim, what do you know about the Black Masks?”

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