Master… To think that there was so much going on behind the scenes…’ Shin thought to himself. ‘If I continue on this path, I would eventually cross swords with the Lantis Republic as well. If I join the Lantis Republic, I would be labelled a traitor, and if I followed Master to the Healer’s Association, I would give up on chasing Junius and bringing the Black Mask syndicate to justice…’
Shin found the logical conclusions for each one of the options that Lady Seph had laid out for him. His mind racing at a thousand kilometres per second, Shin tried his best to find the optimal solution to his current predicament. Unfortunately, even with his knowledgeable mind, the prodigy was still unable to figure out the best path to take.
‘Three paths… All of which leads to unhappy endings…’ Shin lay his head back onto the wall while lifting his right hand off Bingbing’s fur. Grasping the amethyst necklace once more, the black-haired teen recalled the face of his now deceased lover. ‘Ariel, what would you have me do?’
Every time Shin was caught at a significant crossroad, he would consult the memory of the scarlet-haired Amazonian girl. Always headstrong and dauntless, Ariel would never yield to anyone or anything.
‘That’s right… There’s no need for me to choose any of those godforsaken paths… I am my own trailblazer! I forge my own path!’Coming to a revelation, Shin opened his eyes and stared at the blonde beauty sitting in front of him. ‘I can’t rely on Master for everything! To accomplish my goals, I have to become stronger on my own terms!’
“So, what’s your choice, Shin?” Sensing that her beloved disciple had come up with an answer, Lady Seph probed the boy once more.
“Master, I reject all of those paths. I know that you want the best for me, but I can’t allow myself to go down a road that someone else has planned for me any longer!” Prior to the events on Frie Mountain, Shin had been living a life that others had laid out for him.
If he chose any one of those options, Shin would be sent back into the same spiral that he had longed to escape from, with others dictating how he should live his life. No longer wanting to be a puppet that had no control over itself, Shin decided to make a fourth option for himself.
“Firstly, I can’t join the Imperial Family or the Imperial Courts. Even though I can’t remember anything about the Awter Clan, I can’t condone the acts of the entity that supported the massacre of my brethren.” Shin resolutely declared. “I will use Imperius Academy to grow my strengths, but I will never allow the Himmel Empire to affect my goals.”
“For the second option, I doubt that it would be a good idea to enter the Lantis Republic blindly. Yes, I might gain the best benefits if I joined their ranks, but the backlash that the Himmel Empire could give me would be unbearable as well.” Shin continued to reason, and Lady Seph continued to listen attentively.
“Finally, to turtle up in the Healer’s Association… Master, you and I both know that I can’t do that… I have to grow strong enough to beat Junius and take down the Black Masks syndicate! Also…” Dropping his eyes, Shin remained silent as the churning sounds of teeth grinding softly murmured out of his mouth.
“Enough… I understand…” Lady Seph stopped Shin from blurting out the words that had caught his tongue. Being his Master for more than five years, she clearly knew how hard it was to voice out his true feelings. “But something must be done. Otherwise, your future in the Empire would be perilous.”
“I know… So I have to become a mighty independent cultivator, that no one can ever influence. Once I reach the Spirit Spectre realm, I would have my own means to roam the continent!” Shin laid down his future insights to the blonde beauty. “For now, I will complete my six years of education at Imperius Academy. During that time, I will individually forge relationships with major entities such as the Highgarden Duchy and the Zedcris Conglomerate. Once I graduate, I will definitely have enough clout to protect myself!!!”
“Shin…” Lady Seph took in a deep breath as she stared deeply into the eyes of her disciple. In the time that she had left him alone, not only has he grown physically, but mentally, he was as level-headed as a sage. “Fine, I accept your answer. For now, that is…”
“Also, you’re forgetting something! You don’t have to handle everything by yourself. Once the year-end tournament is over, I’ll publically announce that I have taken you under my wing. That would at least deter some of the more pesky offers that you’re getting right now.”
“Master, you don’t have to do that! I…” Worried that his problems were about to cause Lady Seph a mountain-load of trouble, Shin moved to deter the blonde Spirit Venerate from going down that path. However, before he could even attempt to persuade her, Lady Seph raised her hands to stop the boy.
“Shin! What do you call me?”
“I’m asking you, what do you call me?”
“Exactly! So are you telling me that a master should just sit back and watch as her disciple gets plunged into the abyss?!” Lady Seph refuted Shin. “A master for a day, a master for life! Don’t you get this principle? Listen here, my child. I will always be here for you… Always…”
“Master…” Shin dropped his head once more and felt the same fuzzy feeling that beat through his entire being. Even with the threat of fighting against all of the forces in the Himmel Empire and the Lantis Republic, Lady Seph still decided to support Shin no matter what. Not knowing how to repay her, Shin fell to his knees and banged his forehead onto his dormitory room’s floor. “Master… I have been unfilial.”
“Haha, there’s no need to be that melodramatic!” Accepting the black-haired youth’s kowtow, Lady Seph picked Shin up and rested him on his bed. “Your master, I, have considerable influence and power you know. It’s not like I’m putting myself in danger or anything.”
“Thank you, master…” Not knowing how else to display his gratitude, Shin gripped the heavenly hands of Lady Seph.
“Alright, let’s not talk about that for now. What’s more pressing is the future matches that you have. Come, tell me all the plans that you have formulated. I’ll help you review it.”
Abruptly changing the topic, Lady Seph kept the manual that she had handed over to Shin so that they could discuss the future matches that Shin was about to face. Their discussion continued on for hours and hours, as the prodigy laid down all of the information that he had acquired and how he was planning to exploit his opponents’ weaknesses. Only when the pitch-black sky of the night turned into the pale-blue sky of dawn, did the ethereal blonde beauty leave Shin alone and returned to whence she came.
Imperius Academy. Lucha Amphitheatre.
After the full five days filled with action-packed matches of the early rounds had come to a close, it was finally time for the highly anticipated round of thirty-two. Each bout was now an elimination match where even the first and second seeded players could meet in the early stages of the tournament. However, luckily for Shin, for the freshmen years, Kanari and Shin were in different brackets, and they would only meet in the finals if both of them won all their matches.
“There’s much more spectators now…” Shin remarked as he observed the packed stadium.
“Of course! Now that each year has been narrowed down to the final thirty-two, there are many more students who are freed up to spectate! Furthermore, for our year, we have so many talents that could easily match the second or third years! Having these many spectators is kind of expected…” Isadore explained with a radiant expression.
“You’re right…” Unable to refute the silver-haired boy’s logic, Shin furrowed his brows in disappointment. Shin loathed being the centre of attention and having thousands of eyes glued to him while he fought was often a distraction to the boy.
“By the way, are you prepared for your match?” Looking at Isadore, who was happily humming while kicking his legs, Shin couldn’t help but wonder if he practised at all.
“Hmmm… You could say so? Either way, if I won my match today, I won’t be able to go past the next round.”
“That’s right…” Thinking back to the way the bracket was structured, Shin finally knew why Isadore was so carefree. If he won his first match, in the round of sixteen, Isadore would be facing off against the monster who was the absolute favourite to win this entire competition.
“My condolences…” Shin wore a mournful expression as if he was attending a funeral of a close friend.
“It’s fine! I didn’t really want to progress too far anyway. Top sixteen is fine! At least my place in the Star Class next year is secured!”
“I see…” While Shin admired Isadore’s optimistic attitude, his mind was in a deep despondent state. ‘If I win all of my matches, I’ll eventually have to fight Kanari… But… How the hell am I going to beat her?!’
Shin was a meticulous planner. Gathering all the information that he possibly could on his opponents, Shin had hatched hundreds of plots that would help him triumph over the next four matches. However, in the finals, if he were to face Kanari, the youth had no clue on how he was going to beat the black-haired beauty. Such was the strength of the Witch in the South. All of his moves would be countered by Kanari and his greatest asset, his speed, was rendered useless by the Gale Control that the Kumiho granted to the girl.
‘I’ll worry about Kanari after I reach the finals! What’s more pressing is that I beat Natasha, Danroy and Suji first!’
Just as Shin was lost in his own world, the distinct pitch of trumpets being horned echoed through the packed amphitheatre, forcing the boisterous audience to quieten down immediately. Flags were raised as the band started to play the Imperius Academy anthem, prompting all of the students to stand in respect. Midway through the song, a tall and imposing figure sauntered out of the VIP stands and out onto the terrace where everyone in the stadium could see him.
Bronze-faced and relatively lean, the man was donned in a dashing beige scholar robe that gave him an aura of an intellectual. On his left hand, an opulent golden staff, which had an ornament of a dragon’s head biting on a brilliant jade orb, shone with every step, striking fear to those who laid their eyes onto it.
“Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls! Welcome to the finals of the year-end tournament!” The moment the school’s anthem ceased, Principal Erudito’s voice boomed out into the crowd.
“For those who are participating in today’s freshmen round of thirty-two, you have done well to come this far! It brings joy to my heart that so many of you are performing so well! In the future, I am certain that many of you would leave your mark in history as some of the best cultivators the Empire has ever seen!” Smiling down upon his students, Principal Erudito praised the freshmen.
“Once this event ends, I’m sure that some of you would be euphoric over your results, while others might be disappointed… However, I want to remind all of you, that your journey is just beginning! Don’t let your victories overwhelm you, but don’t let one defeat get you down! Rise above the challenges that lie ahead of you and eventually… All of you will forge your own paths to become legends!!!”
“Ooooooohhhhh!!!” Thunderous cheers from the crowd reverberated the amphitheatre, shaking the ground in the process. Satisfied by the reception of the audience, Principal Erudito smiled broadly as he slammed the base of his staff on the floor.
“Alright then… Let the games begin!”