Book 3: Aldrich’s Keep || Chapter 41: The Final Stage (1)

“Have you calmed down?”

After a few minutes lying on Ariel’s chest, Shin’s body stopped trembling as the tear ducts in his eyes ran out of moisture. The sweet and comforting natural scent that his childhood friend was emitting greatly helped the teen to regain his composure and come to terms with what had happened just moments prior. When he was at his most vulnerable state, Shin felt that it was soothing to have a familiar fragrance envelop his nasal cavities, thus easing that tension that he had. Taking deep breaths in, the black-haired boy slowly came to his senses. Earlier on, he had received a blow when his mental and physical state was at its worst. However, now that he had somewhat recovered, he realised the silly position that he was in.

Releasing his arms from Ariel’s slender back, his face of despair had turned red from embarrassment due to showing his weak side to a close friend and even forcing her to cuddle with him. Invisible steam seemed to whistle out of the young boy’s ears like a boiling kettle as he stammered on his words.

“S-Sorry about that… I’m fine now…”

“Are you sure? You can continue if you want to…”

“No… I really shouldn’t…”

Ariel’s standard Frie Clan robes had been stained with tears and snot, essentially placing a sizeable wet smudge on her chest area. Shin, who was the cause of the state of her clothes, blushed furiously while taking small peeks at his childhood friend’s bosom. Curious about his odd stare, Ariel traced his gaze and finally noticed the strange dampened spot on her robes. Likewise, her entire face flushed in unease while she stuttered:

“Y-Yeah… You shouldn’t…”

“…”

An awkward silence descended upon the two teenagers as they recalled how shameful their earlier actions were. Ariel started to twiddle with her hair by forming curls while Shin scratched his nose to rid himself of the terrible itch that he had gotten. For a short period of time, the two didn’t speak a single word. However, the peace and quiet were broken by an irate young voice.

“Urgh, I can’t stand watching these two anymore! Emma, let us return!”

From the side of the medical bay, two identical purple haired young girls, one putting on a pleasant smile while the other pouted in annoyance, stood lying on a nearby pillar while they observed the duo. Although Ariel was the one who stuck firmly to Shin throughout, the twins were also somewhere close, monitoring the rookie healer as he did his treatments. When they saw the black-haired boy charge out the room with Ariel running close behind, Ella and Emma were worried that Shin, in his moment of weakness, might do something brash. Thus, they quickly chased after them. However, all they got to witness was the two lovebirds in each other arms while Shin sobbed uncontrollably.

“Hehehe, come on Ella! It’s like watching a love story come to life!”

“Blergh!!! Ahhhh… Why did Ariel choose Shin anyway? I’m sure she could do much better!”

The two sisters spoke out in a loud voice, as if unaware that Shin and Ariel could clearly hear them. Naturally, the duo’s reddened faces only turned even more crimson after listening to the twins’ conversation. However, now that he was composed, Shin decided to ignore the mindless taunts and walked straight towards the two young teens, gossiping at the entrance of the medical bay.

“You guys, do you know how Senior Ronlen is faring?”

“Ah!”

As a healer, one should never leave a patient unattended for. Yet, back then, when Shin was overwhelmed with emotions, he had just stormed out of the tent, letting the wounded soldier lie unmoving and without proper attention from a healer.

“Shin… That… I think it would be better if you see for yourself…”

“Alright then…”

After a brief pause, the young healer took in a deep breath. From Emma’s short words, he could deduce what had happened. At his side, he could feel a warm hand grasp his own. From the corner of his eyes, he could see a scarlet-haired girl standing next to him with a face as red as her own hair. Although she was embarrassed, there was no way Ariel was going to let Shin cross this hurdle by his own. Her small hands had been roughened up and had minor callous forming, possibly due to her frequent handling of the Lava Warhammer. Unlike a typical girl’s gentle hands, Ariel’s possessed a particular might that not even Shin could accurately describe. What all Shin knew was, with her by his side, he was empowered and felt that he could move mountains if he so wished.

“Ariel… Thank you…”

Pulling the girl along, Shin re-entered the white tent. Once he popped into the medical bay, all the surrounding onlookers stopped in their tracks and focused their attention on the youth. With every step that Shin took, the frozen bystanders would take one step backwards, making way for the young healer to return to the place where he once was. And it didn’t take long till…

“So he’s gone?”

At the station where Shin had worked for this past hour, a white blanket covered the entire body of a certain individual, indicating that a life had been lost. Nurse Hannah, who had rushed forward once seeing Shin’s arrival, closed her eyes as she gave an affirmative nod.

“Healer Shin, please don’t reproach yourself… Healer Escred had taken a look, and there was nothing that you could have done. Corporal Ronlen was a valiant soldier, and fought hard until the very end.”

“Yeah…”

To be entirely honest, Shin knew from the start that Ronlen had a slim chance of survival once he saw the state of his body. However, Shin had hidden that sentiment deep down as he believed that if he tried his best, maybe, just maybe, a miracle could happen. Unfortunately, Shin did not possess the mystical powers of his Master just yet.

Kneeling next to the unmoving corpse, Shin brought his two hands together and began to pray in a soft voice.

“I hope you find peace.”

At this point, Shin felt rather faint, but he persevered on. After healing five consecutive patients and seeing his sixth pass on into the next life, he was exhausted. Mentally, physically and mana-wise, he had next to nothing left in the tank. All he wished for was a nice place to lie down and recuperate his strength. Sadly, life wasn’t so kind.

“*BOOOOOOOOOOOOOMMMMM!!!!!!*.”

A thunderous explosion, one that shook the earth of the Keep and brought everyone in it to the ground, sounded out causing the medical tent to collapse upon itself.

“What’s going on?!”

Healer Escred and many of the other senior management screamed out. The Frie Clan higher-ups all scrambled to protect the children from as the Shrine Maiden formed a force field that shielded all within it.

Rushing out of the collapsed tent, everyone in the medical bay scrambled around to find the cause of the destructive sound. Luckily, or rather, unluckily, they found it rather quickly. The walls facing the Uncharted Wilderness, the pride and joy of Aldrich’s Keep, the reason why the Western Border of the Himmel Empire had been secured for countless years, had been breached.

Two-thirds of the wall had come crumbling down leaving an enormous hole at the centre of the famed barricade. Spirit Beasts of all shapes and sizes charged through the opened ‘gate’ that wasn’t there a few seconds ago and viciously stormed their way to the other end. And even though it was still in the afternoon and the sun was still illuminating the sky, those on the ground could only see darkness.

“WHAT IS THAT?!?!?!”

One of the soldiers exclaimed in horror. Standing at over two hundred metres tall, a leafy and verdant Gargantuan Treant, eluded the bright fiery ball in the sky as it used its colossal feet to stomp through the walls of the Keep. Every time that its legs made of thick roots and vines came into contact with the ground, a miniature earthquake shook the area, causing the dwellings in the Keep to come crashing down like huts made of straw.

“A Tier 9 Spirit Beast!!! Seriously what is up with this purge?!”

The Gargantuan Treant was a Tier 9 Spirit Beast, the beast equivalent of a Rank 80 Spirit Venerate. In Aldrich’s Keep, there were only two Rank 70 Spirit Emperors, and that was General Anmac and Lady Seph. However, even if both their strengths were put together, they were still far from a match from a Spirit User that had transcended into the Rank 80 realm, let alone a Spirit Beast that had reached Tier 9. At this point, the Himmel Empire must send either a Spirit Venerate or a Spirit Saint if they hope that the Keep could remain standing.

Thankfully for Shin and the rest, the Gargantuan Treant seemed uninterested in interacting with the small fry that it considered being equivalent to ants and slowly made its way to the other end of the Keep, aiming to take down the other wall as well. Aldrich’s Keep had mainly two walls to protect the Western Border. The wall containing the Guardian Rock that faced the Uncharted Wilderness carried the most weapons and defence mechanisms so that they could repel beasts whenever a purge arrived. In fact, in theory, as long as the Guardian Rock remained, even a Primordial Beast that stands at the apex of the food chain would have trouble breaching the defences of Aldrich’s Keep. Unfortunately, the Guardian Rock had been utterly decimated by the earlier mysterious laser beam, making the western wall just a normal barrier made out of concrete and rock.

“Aldrich’s Keep has been breached?! What happened to Master?!”

Now that the western wall was destroyed, it was only a matter of time until the eastern one falls as well. After all, the east wall does not even boast a tenth of the defences that the western wall has. All the Gargantuan Treant needs to do was to gently kick the brick hurdle, and it would come crumbling down.

“Lady Seph’s mana signature is still strong! Quick, all of you hide immediately! Do not engage the Spirit Beasts! Safety is your primary concern right now!”

The Shrine Maiden replied to Shin’s inquiry and followed it up by barking orders at the rest of the facility. Earlier on, General Anmac had requested for the Frie Clan to protect the medical bay and that was what she planned to do. Although she was tempted to aid in the fight against the beast horde, the white-robed lady realised that the best thing that she could do was ensure the safety of the injured and the younglings she swore to protect.

Responding to the Shrine Maiden’s orders, the nurses and healers brought all that couldn’t move deep into a hidden part of the Keep that was safe from outside invasions while the wounded that could move, assisted in whatever ways they could. The younger generation of the Frie Clan, including Shin, all retreated with the help of Ines and the others while the Shrine Maiden squinted her eyes at the beast horde that raced through the Keep like gazelles stampeding across the savanna. Instead of going for the fresh flesh of humans, they all had eyes on one thing, to enter the territory of the Himmel Empire.

‘Their behaviour is highly unusual, but at least it works in our favour…’

Typically, savage Spirit Beasts would mindlessly attack humans, no matter the situation. That’s why they were so viciously hunted down by the authorities, even to the extent that for stronger beasts, a generous bounty would be offered. However, instead of going for the easy prey, the Spirit Beasts ran past the medical bay like it didn’t exist.

‘Whatever, I need to report this to Enfen first!’

Putting her two of her fingers into her mouth, the Shrine Maiden whistled out loud calling for a carrier pigeon that she had brought along to send urgent messages back to Frie Mountain. Taking out a small piece of paper, she wrote down four ominous words before tying it to the feet of the white bird. Seeing the carrier pigeon take off, the beautiful woman let out a mournful sigh as she said:

“Aldrich’s Keep has fallen…”

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