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

“Save Aldrich’s Keep? What do you mean?”

Lady Seph tilted her head in confusion after hearing Lymark’s plea. Aldrich’s Keep was the first line of defence of the Himmel Empire’s western front. Bordering the enigmatic Uncharted Wilderness, which was rife with vicious spirit beasts, the valiant soldiers of the fortress ensure that the west border is well protected and safe. The Himmel Empire also spared no expense when it came to giving the warriors the support that they needed. After all, the massive project to construct waypoints throughout the land was primarily because of military posts such as Aldrich’s Keep.

Headed by an illustrious general that was at the Spirit Emperor realm, Aldrich’s Keep had always retained its impregnable status. No matter how hard the tribulations, the sturdy structure perpetually maintained its form, acting as the immovable shield for the Himmel Empire. Hence, when Lymark, who was one of the general’s most trusted aides, claimed that the fort needing saving, Lady Seph did not know what to think of it.

“His Excellency had sent me to deliver a message. The purge that happens every decade has been moved up due to unforeseen circumstances. The capital is currently lacking manpower and cannot afford to send additional Spirit Users to the Keep.”

“Hold it right there… Anmac should know that I’m just a healer, I won’t be able to add much firepower to his defences.”

“Yes, but your deeds at Yara Pass is legendary. If you can lend even a fraction of your abilities, our warriors will be able to last for days when facing the beasts head on!”

Shin’s eyes began to glaze over as he attempted to follow the conversation that the two seniors were having. He was curious about the happenings of Aldrich’s Keep, but after hearing the unfamiliar terminology, Shin just sighed in resignation and slowly crept to a corner. Noticing her disciple’s odd behaviour, Lady Seph returned back to her chair as she said:

“It seems like my disciple is unable to follow our talk. Do me a favour and explain the circumstances to him will you?”

Pouring herself a cup of tea, Lady Seph relaxed her body as she stared into the distance. If it were any other person requesting her to return to the battlefield, the elderly woman would decline with all her might. In fact, she would have lashed out in anger at the person. However, her relationship with the general stationed at Aldrich’s Keep was somewhat complicated. It could be said that he was a benefactor of sorts. Hence, she wanted to give herself some time to review the situation.

Surprised at the sudden demand, Lymark moved his eyes between the young black-haired boy and the distinguished woman, who had made her mark on the national level years ago. From the rumours he had heard, Lady Seph did not spare the faces of anyone and was somewhat of a loose cannon. There were even some reports that she had once reprimanded the highest authority of the land, the Emperor. Thus, hearing that she valued the opinion of her disciple came as a great shock to the middle-aged man. Making a mental note to get into the good graces of Shin, Lymark cleared his throat and explained the situation.

“I’m sure you are familiar with the purpose of Aldrich’s Keep, am I right?”

“Yeah…”

“Alright, then it speeds up my explanation. The Uncharted Wilderness contains a plethora of savage spirit beasts, each stronger than the other. Some are said to rival the might of an entire nation and could even pose a threat to the strongest beings on the Terre Continent. Fortunately, those creatures tend to avoid civilisation and live deep in the massive patch of land.”

At this moment, Lymark cupped his hands together with his back bent forwards. Sensing a shift in the man’s tone, Shin’s face turned sombre.

“Aldrich’s Keep focuses on dealing with the spirit beasts that live in the outskirts of the Uncharted Wilderness that might actually slip out and wreak havoc on the masses. However, our predecessors realised that by the time the army responded to the threats, multiple lives might have been lost… As the saying goes, prevention is better than cure. Thus, the first commanders that created Aldrich’s Keep decided to initiate a beast horde through artificial means to wipe out a significant percentage of the beast population.”

“We call it the purge. Happening every ten years, brave warriors from all over the country would gather in Aldrich’s Keep to face the beast horde, and it worked wonders. Incidents where beasts that had escaped from the Uncharted Wilderness and terrorised local villages sharply declined. Casualties when battling the beasts could also be contained as it was a structured military operation with adequate resources supplied to defeat the beasts. However, this year, something strange occurred…”

Lymark paused for a moment. Shaking like a leaf, the poor man continued his story.

“All of our outposts in the Uncharted Wilderness had been wiped out. Even the devices that we used to push out the beasts and trigger the horde had gone missing. Fearing that foul play had occurred, his excellency ordered us to be vigilant as he suspected that the number of beasts attacks from the Uncharted Wilderness would surge; and he was right. Day after day, new sightings of spirit beasts filled the reporting room, and countless of my associates had been casualties of the sudden increase of attacks.”

“In fact, on my way to Chilyoja Waypoint, I had even been attacked by a vicious Hellfire Lion. Thankfully, I managed to take it down before it went anywhere near innocent people, otherwise…”

Finally explaining how he got the wound on his chest, Lymark sighed in agony. He knew that if things remained the way that it was, the warriors stationed in Aldrich’s Keep would run out of energy before the beast epidemic was solved. If that happened, the consequences would not only be dire for those in the fortress but to the entire Himmel Empire.

“His excellency and the rest of the high ranking officials in the Keep decided to bring up the purge four years ahead of schedule to wipe out the sudden increase of the spirit beasts population. However, since the request came at an unfortunate time, the capital is unable to immediately send troops over, and the estimates state that the earliest reinforcements could be dispatched is two months from now… By that time, we fear that Aldrich’s Keep would be overrun with beasts as our soldiers had been worn down from the non-stop fighting.”

Lymark gave small glances at Shin and the inanimate elderly woman, who was listening in to the conversation. He knew that convincing Lady Seph was a momentous task as she had long retired from a life in the government. Not many people knew the real reason why such an esteemed figure disappeared from the public eye, but Lymark was one of the few who knew. Being one of the most trusted subordinates of General Anmac, the brown-haired middle-aged man knew more than he let on. Hence, he was aware that his trip here might prove to be fruitless. However, seeing how Lady Seph valued Shin, Lymark saw a silver lining. If he could convince Shin that Lady Seph’s presence was absolutely essential, perhaps the famed healer would display her mythical powers once more for the Empire.

“You said that foul play might have occurred… Have you identified the perpetrators?”

Lady Seph, who had been quiet all the while, suddenly opened her mouth to question Lymark.

“N-no! Not yet! However, his excellency has his suspicions! He said that there is only one entity that has the ability to perform such a feat and benefit from the fall of Aldrich’s Keep…”

Hearing Lymark’s words, Lady Seph’s eyelids began twitching erratically.

“The Kori Federation…”

“E-exactly! His excellency claims that the Kori Federation had instigated the attacks…”

“Does Anmac have any proof?”

“No… Not yet…”

Closing her eyes, a variety of emotions could be seen on the blonde woman’s face. After a period of prolonged silence, Shin saw his Master’s eyes quiver as she raised her hands to say:

“Alright, get out… Go to an inn somewhere and rest… Your body is still weak, and you need to recover from your injury. I will give you my answer tomorrow… Shin, see him out.”

Not wanting to entertain her guest anymore, Lady Seph retreated into her office. Taken aback by his Master’s sudden attitude change, Shin could only blankly nod at her orders.

“Senior Lymark, do you have a place to stay?”

“Just call me Lymark… Yeah, I have a house in the town. Shin, may I call you that?”

“Of course!”

“Alright then, Shin… Please help me convince your Master… Lady Seph’s abilities are absolutely critical in the next purge. With her around, the morale of the troops would be heavily boosted in this time of crisis. Please, I’m begging you…”

Nearly falling to his knees, Lymark grasped the wrist of the black-haired boy and pleaded.

“I-I’ll try my best…”

After listening to the conditions at Aldrich’s Keep, Shin could not help but feel for the man. In fact, he was unsure of why his Master was hesitating. The opportunity to not just save the lives of the heroes at the fort but also countless innocent civilians of the Empire just presented itself. For a healer, wasn’t it the calling of a lifetime?

“Thank you… Thank you so much… I’ll be on my way then…”

Getting up from his chair, Lymark stumbled around the room a few times as he felt a little light-headed. Running up to support him, Shin was only stopped by the injured man’s outreached hand.

“S-senior Lymark, do you need help returning home?”

“It’s alright… I can manage… Shin, I hope that you can help convince your Master…”

With that, Lymark trudged out of the clinic and disappeared into the distance. Bingbing, who had been sitting comfortably on the counter, leapt up and landed on Shin’s shoulder, licking his neck in the process. Usually, this action would prompt the young boy to play with the adorable critter. However, Shin was lost in thought as he furrowed his eyebrows in dissatisfaction.

Turning about, Shin briskly walked down the corridor and straight to the frosted glass door of Lady Seph’s office. Knocking twice, Shin sought an audience with his Master.

“Master, can I come in?”

“Yeah…”

A lethargic voice sounded out from the other side of the door. Pushing open the door, Shin was greeted by a slouched blonde woman who was blankly staring at the ceiling. Closing the door behind him, what ensued was a minute of awkward silence. Shin, unsure of how to begin the conversation, nervously awaited his Master’s orders. Lady Seph, on the other hand, was as quiet as can be.

“Shin, make us some tea…”

Finally, the elderly woman broke the stillness of the room. Immediately acknowledging her words, Shin began the routine that had been ingrained into his soul over the past three years. Perfectly brewing a fresh cup of Oolong tea, Shin poured out two cups, one for his Master and one for himself. Over the years, he had long grown accustomed to the taste of the bitter tea.

“You must be wondering why I did not accept his request straight away…”

“…”

Accurately determining Shin’s thoughts, Lady Seph gently placed the teacup at the saucer and peered straight into her disciple’s eyes. From what Shin understood of his Master, although she was extraordinarily queer and harsh, the elderly woman had a pure and kind heart. There was no way she would sit back and let even a single person die in front of her, let alone an entire fort of brave warriors that risked their lives for the safety of others.

“The matters of the military are more complicated than you think… Politics is an even worse path… I didn’t want to expose you to the dark side of the Empire this early on…”

Sighing in self-condemnation, Lady Seph gave Shin a remorseful look that sent shivers down the thirteen-year-old’s spine.

“Hah… Give me some time to think… Here, this is today’s replenishment pill… Return home and cultivate well…”

Handing over a mahogany pill box, Lady Seph shooed her disciple out of her office. Bingbing, who was resting on the boy’s shoulders, jumped to its Master and waved Shin goodbye by wagging its tail.

“Okay… Then, I’ll be off…”

Initially, Shin wanted to help Lymark convince his Master, but after seeing her melancholy mood, he could not muster up the words to persuade her. Placing the pill box into his pocket, Shin gave Lady Seph a light bow before leaving Yakkyoku Clinic.

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