“What is this place?” Emma muttered out in confusion as she observed her surroundings.
Although there were no torches or lights, the tunnel remained bright as the rocks all around were illuminating a strange glow. Creeper plants twirled their tendrils on all sides of the tunnel, allowing vines to hang down from the ceiling. Oddly enough, there were no bats or deplorable insects infecting the cave, even though it was filled with plant life. The damp and humid tunnel was definitely not a conducive place to stay in, but for some reason, the orphans felt that there was a mysterious allure to the odd cave.
“We’re in a secret passageway that leads straight to the academy.” Hirda replied to Emma’s mindless comment. During their short time together, the Vice-Principal of Imperius Academy had probed about the circumstances surrounding her future students, allowing her to seem like an approachable senior in the twins’ minds. After discovering that both the twins were already at Rank 13, her jaw nearly dropped in shock. The average freshmen that enter their academy would typically be either Rank 10 or 11. Yet, all of a sudden, they were accepting three superbly talented students.
“Is it really okay for you to reveal this to us?” Listening in on their conversation, Ryner promptly enquired. Telling Shin and the twins were one thing, but to show that there was a passageway to those who were not attending the school made the young teenager question the security levels of the academy.
“Not to worry! Even if this passageway is discovered, there’s no way unauthorised invaders can make it past the numerous traps laid down here!”
“Ah, they won’t activate as long as the Principal is present. Furthermore, there would be many reinforced doors that can only be unlocked using authorised mana signatures further on.” Just as she said those words, a humongous metal gate, that was emitting a frosty spiritual pressure, barred the path of the party trying to enter the academy. On it, innumerable illegible symbols only served to confuse the orphans.
Principal Erudito walked until he was in arm’s reach of the gate before placing his entire palm onto one of the mysterious symbols. Soon, the figures on the gate started to glow in a silver light as a low rumbling sound reverberated through the tunnel. A line began to split the gate in half before it started to open up slightly, giving just enough space for the party to walk through.
“Stay close. From here on, the traps would get more vicious so make sure you don’t stray too far off.” Issuing a light warning, Principal Erudito placed his hand on the gate as if he were holding the door open, and waited for everybody to pass. After the last person made it safely through, the metallic gate mysteriously closed shut, even without any prompts from the head of the academy.
“Such a mystical method…” Shin unconsciously whispered.
Heeding his words, the orphans shuffled their feet rapidly so that they were as close as possible to the Principal. Being in a foreign land that was rife with traps made them extremely uncomfortable after all. After passing three more similar gates, the party finally saw the light on the other side of the tunnel.
“Wow…” All of the orphans softly blurted out in wonder. Before them lay a vast mountain range that spread out for acres on each end. The essence of nature was fully captured by the various topiaries that were littered all over the hilly region. Since they were quite some distance above ground level, the air was much thinner as the younger orphans had to put more effort into taking in oxygen. However, due to their heavy breathing, they were able to smell the organic aroma of nature with much more clarity.
Walking out of the cave, an illusory wall suddenly appeared behind the orphans and hid the secret passageway. At the same time, a brown and thick boulder, which was just hanging over the entrance, suddenly fell, giving yet another layer of protection.
“Alright, we’re here!” Principal Erudito happily exclaimed.
“What? The academy is situated here on this mountain?!” Shin turned his eyes towards the Principal, shooting him a gaze of disbelief.
“No, this is Tsucai Mountain. It’s part of the Thaishu mountain range that the academy owns. The academy itself is located down there.” Pointing his index finger far into the distance, Principal Erudito directed the orphan’s attention to boundless campus that was situated at the foot of the mountain.
Even from afar, Shin could make out the distinct features of the school grounds. Hundreds of pristine white buildings stood up high with dozens of intricate fountains, statues and sculptures littered all around the campus. A towering clocktower that rose high above the other buildings drew the most attention from the orphans. It was at least a hundred metres tall, and the clock face was probably as wide as a regular home. Perhaps since it was not a school day, Shin was unable to spot any students moving about, making the colossal campus seem uninhabited in the process.
“So that’s Imperius Academy.” Shin marvelled at the sight of his home for the next six years.
“Beautiful isn’t it?” Principal Erudito smiled as he praised his own organisation. “Well, you can enjoy the scenery much more later on. For now, let’s get you into your rooms.”
During the first few weeks in the Capital, Lady Seph had arranged that they stayed in Imperius Academy while she tended to some logistics matters. However, since they were neither teachers nor students, Principal Erudito couldn’t justify them staying in a dorm. Therefore, they had to make do with a rest stop located right here on Tsucai Mountain.
Moving into the small cabin that was located not far from the secret passageway exit, the orphans hurriedly placed down their luggage as Vice-Principal Hirda sorted them to their rooms. While the mayhem of the orphans settling down was happening, Lady Seph sat down with the Principal in the living room couch. However, before they could begin any discussion, the Spirit Venerate beckoned for Shin and the twins to join in on the conversation.
“Firstly, it’s an honour to finally meet you again, Venerate Seraphim.” Principal Erudito bowed down to the young blonde, before taking his seat on the opposite couch.
“Dispense with the formalities, Eru. You’re the one that’s saving me from the trouble of settling down straight in the Capital.” Waving her hands, Lady Seph thanked the chestnut-haired scholar in her own way. Being the celebrity that she was, there was no way that she could find peace if she were to go through the main gate publically.
“No, no. The grace that you had bestowed upon the Academy decades ago has never been forgotten! Even my predecessor had said that should you ask for any assistance, the Academy must respond with everything that we’ve got. Bringing you in through the secret passage is a just minor thing!”
“Hah… There’s no need to bring up the deeds of yesteryear… Anyway, I’m grateful.”
“Haha, it’s my honour to be of your assistance. If there’s anything else that you need me to do, please feel free to inform me.” Offering his assistance once more, the Principal gave a gracious bow.
“Hmmm, for now, please deliver these letters.” Handing over a few newly sealed envelopes, Lady Seph asked for Principal Erudito to be her mailman. Taking a brief read through the names situated at the top of the letters, the wizened scholar’s eyes widened slightly.
‘So many influential individuals… Venerate Seraphim sure is on another level…’ Principal Erudito was amazed by the social sphere that Lady Seph was in. Even though they were both around the same cultivation level, before Lady Seph disappeared from the Capital, of course, their circle of influence was drastically different. Of the names listed on the letters, the Principal, who was a Spirit Emperor, could only arrange a meeting with a handful of them. The others wouldn’t even spare him a second glance.
“Consider it done. Is there anything else that I could do for you?”
“Well, could you slightly change the arrangement for Shin’s classes? I know that we had a prior agreement, but that has to be altered.”
“Why would that be?” Confused about the new direction that Lady Seph wanted her disciple to take, the Principal questioned the seasoned healer.
“Shin wishes to go down a more combatant path.” Without going into detail, Lady Seph shook her head as she reached out for the tea laid down on the table.
“Your disciple wants to go down a combatant’s path?” Principal Erudito shot a strange look at the black-haired youth. Although Shin felt guilty for letting his master down, his mind was set. He was way too weak as compared to someone like Junius. Therefore, he required to make the change. Meeting the sharp eyes of the scholar, Shin stood his ground.
‘Seems like there’s something that Venerate Seraphim is not willing to tell us…’ It seemed improper to question Lady Seph’s intentions, especially after she deliberately tried to be cryptic. “Well, that would be troubling…”
“What do you mean?”
“You see, the Imperius Academy curriculum allows the student to choose whichever classes they want as long as it fits their main course. If I recall correctly, Healer Shin would be entering the auxiliary course where his talents would be optimised accordingly. If I place him into the pure combatant course, alongside talented students that had been training their entire lives, I’m afraid that he might fall behind.” Principal Erudito explained his logic.
Imperius Academy was a place where the cream of the crop gathered. Any random student that was picked out could have easily topped the cohort of a lesser school. Thus, pitting Shin, who was not a combat specialist, against those monsters seemed a little unfair.
“Don’t worry, Principal! I can manage!!!” Shin frantically screamed out. The whole point of him coming here was to learn from the best in the Empire. If he had to sit out and attend lessons that had no meaning to him, Shin would much rather leave the Capital in search for greener pastures.
“Hmmm… How about this? I’m making all these assumptions without knowing your true combat ability. Why don’t we lightly spar, so that I can deem if you’re capable of handling the combatant course?” Principal Erudito offered Shin a lifeline. If the black-haired teenager were just another student, he wouldn’t even bother accessing him. However, since Shin was Lady Seph’s disciple, the scholar had to show some good faith.
“Thank you!!!” Bending his torso in a ninety-degree angle, Shin showed his gratitude.
‘I must go all out to impress him!’ Shin mentally cried out.
“Alright, let’s go outside then. Venerate Seraphim, it’s fine if I access him right?”
“Sure, do your thing.” Lady Seph nonchalantly replied as she took one more mouthful of the fragrant tea that lay before her.
Following the bronze-faced man out into the cold air of the mountain range, Shin felt his heart pumping at a frantic rate. He was, after all, facing a Spirit Emperor that could crush him with a wrong move. Even though the Principal was sure to hold back his punches, there was still a real possibility that something might go awry, and Shin would leave the battle with more than just broken bones.
The orphans all came out from the cabin alongside Vice-Principal Hirda and Lady Seph to spectate the battle between the two. Emma and Elyse were biting their nails in fear while Ryner and Lia were curious to see how much Shin had grown. As for the younger orphans, they were all praying for the safety of their older brother.
“Come at me whenever you’re ready!” Leisurely taking his position ten metres away from the black-haired teen, Principal Erudito looked like he was a tourist that was enjoying the view rather than a senior accessing a junior. With his hands behind his back and not a single trace of spiritual energy being emitted out from his body, Shin was unsure if he should go all out or not. However, after thinking that it was foolish to worry about his opponent, especially when he’s a Spirit Emperor, Shin summoned out his Spirit.
“Create Water!!!” Shin’s hands began to glow in a cerulean light as The Sovereign Koi appeared within his midst. Pumping out large amounts of mana, Shin utilised his first spiritual ability to great effect as he created gallons upon gallons of pure water that flooded the area. Waving his hands in unison, Shin controlled the water that filled the ground to form into eight spider legs that were attached to his back. At the same time, he created multiple water spheres that levitated as if unaffected by the pull of gravity.
“Hoho, what a flashy technique… So that’s the latent talent of The Sovereign Koi…” Still unwilling to move a single inch, Principal Erudito watched as Shin made his preparations. “But I wonder how hard it hits?”
No matter how visually intimidating an ability was, if it was unable to produce the damage, it might as well be worthless.
“Principal, pardon me.” Shin gave the Spirit Emperor ample time to ready his guard. Yet, he just remained standing. Reluctant to wait any further, Shin was compelled to attack. Moving his arms, Shin called for three water spheres to gather together and spun them at an astonishing velocity. The insides of the globes currently resembled that of a savage whirlpool that sucked all life into it. Directing his fists to face the direction of the Principal, Shin unleashed his new attack.
Three torrents of water viciously charged towards the Spirit Emperor, as if they were deadly snakes that wished to tear the Principal limb from limb. Shin’s first ability, which allowed him to create and manipulate water, allowed him to let his imagination run wild on the endless possibilities of attacks. Thus, even though it was only one ability, Shin could potentially create thousands of variants. The water tendrils, water spheres and spider legs were a few examples of what he could achieve. However, with such a wide range of possibilities, there was naturally a significant flaw in that ability.
As the water torrents crept closer and closer to the Spirit Emperor, the Principal still remained unfazed. Just before the water torrents could reach his body, they ran into an invisible barrier, immediately forcing the ability to dissipate into nothingness.
“How weak…” Principal Erudito calmly remarked. Shin’s variant abilities had one major flaw. As compared to normal spiritual abilities, it was still far too weak.
“If that doesn’t work, how about this!!!” Charging forward with his eight water created spider legs, Shin attempted to break through the barrier that the Spirit Emperor created. Or at the very least, show the full extent of his combat abilities. However, no matter what he tried, his efforts bore the same result.
“Damn it, breakthrough!!!” The spider legs changed its form every few seconds as it attempted to break the Spirit Emperor’s defences. Some instances, it resembled a weighty mallet and other times, it took the form of a spear. Nonetheless, the results were still the same. Principal Erudito still standing at the same place with the exact same expression.
“COME ON!!!” Feeding off his emotions, The Sovereign Koi supplied more and more water, hoping to find a way through this impeccable barrier that the Principal had created.
The exchange lasted for five excruciating minutes. Shin tried everything that he could think off to move the Principal, but nothing worked. In the end, exhausted and out of mana, Shin dumped all of his remaining water onto the Spirit Emperor, hoping to at least drench him. However, due to the mystical barrier, Principal Erudito survived that final attack, completely unscathed, and was as dry as a bone.
“Hah… Shin really has a lot of catching up to do…” Lady Seph let out a despondent sigh as she examined the desperate state of her disciple. She had personally experienced the calibre of freshmen going into Imperius Academy, and the seasoned healer knew that Shin was below average when it came to combat skills.
And her sentiment was shared with both Principal Erudito and Vice-Principal Hirda. If Shin were sent to the combat class in his current state, he would get eaten up alive by the elites who were many cultivation ranks lower than him.
“Boy… I don’t know what drove you to try for the combat course, but I suggest you give up. Your future is set even if follow your current path as an auxiliary healer, so you should stay on it.” As much as the Principal wanted to help Lady Seph, Shin was simply too weak. Forcing him into the vicious combatant course would only do more harm than good. “I’m sorry.”
Leaving the black-haired teenager alone with an apology, Principal Erudito returned to the cabin, hoping to continue his conversation with Lady Seph.
‘You don’t get it… If I stay on my current path, I have no future…’ Shin gritted his teeth as he lied down on the muddy ground. The image of a dying Ariel came to mind as he was given a bitter reminder of how powerless he really was.
‘Why am I so weak?’ Shin covered his eyes as Emma and Elyse rushed forward to help him up. Even though he thought that he had cried his all, tears started to flow out of Shin’s eyes once more as he lay despairingly on the floor.