Book 3: Aldrich’s Keep || Chapter 22: Arriving at Aldrich’s Keep (3)

“Black Masks?”

Lady Seph raised her eyebrows after hearing the unexpected word. Back when Shin first entered her tutelage, he recounted his near-death experience when the Kshatriya with the black sword attacked their convoy. Thankfully, the assault ended in failure, and the Black Masks retreated, otherwise, Lady Seph might not have discovered such a talented disciple.

“Yeah, I’ve heard of them. Aren’t they just some small-time criminal organisation?”

From her perspective, a bunch of Spirit Kings and Spirit Lords leading a syndicate some something minor compared to the villains that she had faced in her illustrious career. To her, the Black Masks would be more of a minor annoyance than a legitimate threat.

“If only… Initially, when I saw how nearly all of our defensive mechanisms in the Uncharted Wilderness were compromised, I deduced that only the Kori Federation could be behind such a large-scale operation. However, I was wrong…”

Opening his desk drawer, General Anmac brought out a small jade box, sealed with talismans and barred with iron chains. With careful precision, he twisted the knob of the chain and released the restraints of the case.

“…”

Peeking over from her side, Lady Seph waited for her bosom friend to reveal its contents. However, instead of directly opening the lid, the seasoned general sent a surge of spiritual energy to down its way. The jade box vibrated wildly like a rabid dog once it detected the foreign power causing the table to shake and the teacups to topple over, spilling its contents.

Standing up abruptly, Lady Seph’s pupils began to dilate, and her eyes quivered in agitation. Black gas, darker than any substance known on earth, spilt out from the opened spaces, contaminating the room with a foul stench. Using his silver cane, General Anmac gently lifted the lid of the jade box to reveal its contents. A single Black Mask with a green serpent embodied on the middle of the forehead.

Like a frenzied caged animal, the inanimate object lifted itself from the bottom of its cell and frantically tried to escape. Unfortunately for it, the Spirit Emperor was using his mana to keep it contained. Otherwise, it would have long vanished. Only after General Anmac’s cane pushed the Black Mask down did it revert back to its calm state. Curious about the object, Lady Seph’s face edged closer the foreign mask to get a better look.

“After some reconnaissance, we found an out of place cabin deep inside the Uncharted Wilderness. Thinking that it might have been our saboteurs, we sent an elite team to clear out the shed, only to find a group of Black Masks staying inside. The fight that ensued was a gruesome one. There were at least ten Rank 40 Spirit Adepts and two Rank 50 Spirit Lords amongst their ranks causing us to expand all of we had to even capture one of them. Unfortunately, on the way back, he self-denotated though some unknown means, leaving behind this mask.”

With his cane still firmly pushing down the Black Mask, the elderly man explained everything to Lady Seph.

“This mask was retrieved from a Rank 40 Spirit Adept, or what the syndicate would call them, a Vaishya.”

“So what’s with this mask? Does it have some supernatural powers or something?”

“…”

After hearing her question, a bitter smile crept up General Anmac’s face.

“We don’t know… This mask is truly mystical. Embued with some sort of mana, it is able to move and launch attacks by itself. The black gas that it emits is equally as dangerous. If a person did not awaken a Spirit, there would be no way for him to resist the power of this mask.”

“Are you saying that whoever wears this mask would gain some sort of foreign power?”

“That is what we deduced… The Vaishya that this mask belonged to was an auxiliary Spirit User. However, his agility and strength match that of an offensive Spirit User… Seraphim, I bet Lymark told you that the Kori Federation was behind the recent crisis that Aldrich’s Keep is going through. However, after a quick search of the abandoned cabin, we found out defence mechanisms scattered all over the floor.”

Pushing the Black Mask back into the jade box, General Anmac resealed the case and chained it up once more. Hiding it in his desk drawer once more, the elderly man resumed his conversation with his old friend.

“The Black Masks are behind this attack. For what reasons, we do not know, but there is something we do know now… There is a substantial power standing behind this organisation, and it has no qualms about making the Himmel Empire its enemy.”

“So there are only two possibilities. A Spirit Saint or a Primordial Beast huh…”

Stoking her chin, Lady Seph voiced out the only two entities that did not fear any repercussions from one of the three great powers of the world.

“Here’s where it gets tricky… Of all the known Spirit Saints, none of them would possibly bother about matters of the material world. And as for Primordial Beasts…”

The number of Rank 90 Spirit Saints alive could be easily counted with one hand. As they were essentially celebrities, everything about them had been recorded down in great detail. From their motivations to their personality and their past exploits to their plans for the future. Everything that there is to know about the Spirit Saints the world already knows. Thus, General Anmac could surmise with great confidence that none of the Spirit Saints that he knew of were behind the Black Mask syndicate.

“I know you don’t want to hear this but, there’s no way a Primordial Beast is responsible for the Black Masks… And that’s because there is one serving their boss…”

“WHAT?!”

At this point, Lady Seph was unable to sit still. Slamming her hands on the general’s desk, she shrieked hysterically.

“SOMEONE IS CONTROLLING A PRIMORDIAL BEAST?!?!”

Her nostrils flared as her clenched knuckles turned beet red. In her eyes, the veteran general could see a tinge of uncontrollable hate and wild terror. A squeaking noise could be heard coming out from her small mouth as Lady Seph’s gritted teeth rubbed violently against each other. Resembling a slumbering dragon that had been rudely awakened, the elderly lady vehemently shouted.

“Calm down, Seraphim. You don’t know the full story yet. Although I get your anger, there’s no need to be so up in arms.”

“…”

Realising her folly, Lady Seph took her empty teacup and walked towards the teapot situated a couple of metres away. Gulping down the liquid gold in one shot, she imposed zen on herself to help her calm down. Her frantically beating heart slowed, but that did not quell her impatience.

“Tell me more about this Black Masks organisation…”

Initially, Lady Seph was gutted that she had to comply to her old friend’s request to enter the military once more even though she retired. However, after hearing his tale, she realised that it was the right choice to come here.

~~~

While his Master was comfortably sipping tea with the general of the Keep, Shin was anxiously standing in front of a white tent bearing the mark of the Healer’s Association. In every military zone, there was always a sick bay that tended to the fallen and injured soldiers of war. As a neutral organisation, the Healer’s Association had members serving in every corner of the three great powers. Carts and wheelbarrows carrying numerous injured soldiers all wheeled in and out of the tent as groans of agony echoed through the platform.

“So many people were injured?”

As she was unfamiliar with the battlefield, Ariel assumed that the earlier battle brought little casualties and to a certain extent, she was right. The valiant effort of Commander Alwig and the expertise of the vanguard troops had minimised the damage done. Nonetheless, having wounded soldiers were still inevitable.

“*Gulp!* Let’s enter…”

Steeling his resolve, Shin led Ariel and Bingbing, who was resting comfortably on his shoulders, into the clean white shelter. The first thing that they saw once they entered was rows of linen sheets laid down on the floor with rough and haggard men rolling about on it. Crimson red blood that gushed out from their wounds stained the pristine white cloth that covered them, and nurses tried their best to keep up with the influx of patients. The pungent stench of alcohol and medicinal herbs entered the two teenagers noses causing Ariel to take out a handkerchief to cover her nasal cavities. Shin, who was used to the smell, opened his mouth wide at the extensive variety of equipment that was present in this tent.

“Hey! You two! No entry for uninjured patients! Please exit the tent!”

While the two of them were marvelling at Healing Association tent, an authoritative voice sounded out from the back. Looking up, they saw a stern middle-aged lady, with her hand firmly attached to her curvilinear waist, staring straight at them. Draped in a full Healer attire, the woman’s dark brown hair was neatly tied into a bun, perhaps in fear that a stray hair might accidentally lodge itself in an injury, causing an unnecessary infection.

“Senior, I’m a healer too. I’m under my Master’s orders to assist in treating the injured.”

Quickly explaining his arrival, Shin attempted to persuade the woman that he was a legitimate healer.

“You? A Healer?”

Scanning the boy from head to toe, the woman raised her eyebrow in scepticism. Shin’s juvenile, clear face and high-pitched voice suggested that he was younger than he truly was. His grey Frie Clan robes that had elaborate designs allowed the woman to infer that this boy was not someone from the Keep, possibly an outsider paying a visit to his family. The woman even examined Ariel who was standing next to him. Connecting the dots, she concluded that the boy was trying to show his girlfriend that he was some sort of big fish, even though he had mediocre skills.

“Hmph! If you’re a Healer, then I’m a Spirit Emperor! Go back to your family, boy! We’re trying to work here!”

Shunning the black-haired teen out of the tent, the middle-aged woman resumed her work.

“Hey! You don’t have to be so rude!”

Ariel cried out in protest. They were here offering a helping hand, but all they got was contempt.

“Bring your girlfriend along too! We don’t need any hindrances around here!”

“Hindrance?! Did you call me a hindrance?! Ha?!”

Before Ariel lost her temper and did something out of hand, Shin grabbed her by the hands and gagged her mouth.

“Sorry for the disturbance…”

Bowing his head down, the black-haired teen slowly retreated from the premise. After interacting with so many hot-headed individuals, he knew that the best method was not to face them head-on. Instead, he should make a tactical retreat first and decide on the best course of action later.

“Why did you do that for?! That woman was so rude!”

Ariel shrieked at Shin.

“We shouldn’t cause a disturbance here… We can just try again later. In fact…”

Looking around, Shin saw many more soldiers lying outside of the medical tent rather than inside. It was common knowledge that the most gravely injured people were treated first, leaving behind the others for when the Healers had more time on their hands. Although Shin had learnt ‘Heal’ and Lady Seph had assured him of his capabilities, he still felt slightly apprehensive when it came to healing severe wounds. Thus, dealing with the lower tier of injuries felt more comfortable for him.

Finding a random stranger, who was left unattended, the young boy walked over with his partner in tow.

“Mister? Hi, Mister?”

“Hmmm?”

Touching the arm of the resting soldier, Shin put on his brightest smile as he woke him up. The trooper had light bruises all over his hands and legs, and his most severe injury was the cut that stretched from his left nipple to the core of his abdomen. Although there was a bandage stopping the bleeding, he was still rather broken down.

“Mister, I’m a healer here to treat you… May I see your injuries?”

“Healer? You? Have you finished drinking your mother’s breast milk yet?”

Laughing crudely in a hoarse voice, the war-torn soldier mocked the black-haired youth. Once again, his age was his downfall. No one in the sick bay took him seriously.

“Hey! You-!”

Before Ariel could mouth a rebuttal, Shin raised his hands to stop her from speaking.

“Mister, I truly am a healer. Whether you believe me or not is up to you. If you want to remain in pain, you can just shun me off right now. However, if you want to walk around freely once again, please let me help you.”

With an earnest gaze that stunned both the soldier and Ariel, Shin pleaded to treat the fallen warrior. When Shin first scanned through the injured outside the medical tent, he picked out the ones who were in the most need of attention. It just so happened that the rugged man in front of him was one of them.

“Buahahaha! Fine! I’ll entertain ya! Go ahead! Show me what you got ‘doctor!’”

Sitting upright, the damaged soldier spread his hands out wide allowing Shin to begin his treatment. Heaving a sigh of relief, Shin put on a broad smile as he gathered his mana.

“You won’t regret it. I’m going to start now…”

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