Two days had passed since Shin switched on his academic mode and after forty-eight arduous hours, he had finally completed the tasks that Madam Warulee had bestowed onto him. Barely sleeping a wink during this period, Shin worked like a machine, flipping through ledgers at the speed of light. Madam Warulee had expected the trio to complete the tasks that were handed down to them within two weeks, and the fact that Shin took two days would definitely shock her socks off.
‘Finally, it’s all done! Now I can focus on tracking the Black Masks down!’ Shin let out a triumphant smile and stood up to stretch. ‘How long has it been since I left this chair?’
When Shin was in the zone, there was nothing that could break him out of it. Shin reached out to the plate of rations that was placed on his table only to realise that it had gone utterly cold. ‘I must have been at it for hours… Well, at least I completed everything.’
Turning his attention to the opposite side of the table, Shin saw his two friends busily snoozing away on the table, and a warm smile crept up the lips of his face. Although they didn’t have to, Elrin and Isadore still stayed on to help Shin finish up the paperwork. Naturally, the black-haired youth did the bulk of the work, but the help from his friends significantly boosted his efficiency.
Shin moved to the side of the sleeping beauties and gently tapped their heads. “Wake up! You can go rest now!”
“Urghhh, just give me another minute!” Isadore was the first to wake. With drool running down his mouth, he pushed the annoying hand on his head away.
“Zzzz…” On the other hand, Elrin was as still as a log. The bags under her eyes started to darken, and her delicate eyelids were fluttering. From his prior experience with Ariel, the young girl was in a state of deep sleep and forcibly waking her up might result in him getting some unwanted injuries.
“I’ll just leave a note here then…” Defeated, Shin took a piece of paper to write a simple message that he was going to his bunk to sleep and they should do the same. Stretching out his hands up high, Shin walked out of the tent a fatigued boy and couldn’t wait to return back to his room.
Glancing up at the blue evening sky, Shin took a whiff of the sweet fragrance of nature that was rarely found in an industrialised city like the Capital or the Main Hub. Back when he was on Frie Mountain or Chilyoja Waypoint, the aromatic scent was omnipresent. Thus, it took some time to get used to life without it. Thankfully, field trips like this one could bring him closer and closer to nature, rekindling his love for the outdoors.
‘Now that I think about it, I had never been to an ocean before?’ Shin thought to himself. He was in possession of The Sovereign Koi, one of the Eight Scions of Water and yet, he had never been to the one place where the water elements dominated, the ocean.
One’s environment plays a key role when cultivating. For instance, when Ariel awakened the Lava Warhammer, she was given a beautiful chamber that was just a few hundred metres away from the crater of Frie Mountain. Even Shizen, who awakened a tree Spirit in a forest, had the optimal environment to cultivate from young. Although Shin had encountered a few bodies of water, he had never utilised the greatest one of them all.
‘There’s a place on the map that links to the sea… Perhaps I could go there and cultivate for a few hours.’
To get to the ocean, Shin had to travel eastwards where the Lantis Republic lay. Thus, the next best option that he had was to go for the small seas that were littered all about the continent. Thankfully, there was a tiny sea located in the Land of Dreams that connected itself to the more massive oceans, giving Shin a chance to feel the water elements all for himself.
“Shin Iofiel…” At that moment, a deep voice, filled with ominous anger, broke the youth’s concentration. Turning his attention to the source, Shin noticed a tall and lanky man, who looked no older than twenty, walking in his direction.
The black-haired youth squinted his eyes and searched his memory to identify the new entrant. Based on his uniform and badge, the man should be a fifth-year student at Iofiel Academy, and Shin could tell that he had seen him before. However, he just couldn’t put his finger on when…
“Senior? You are?”
“Fred Newton! Year five!” Folding his arms, the man softly grumbled out.
Finally recognising the senior, Shin’s eyes widened, and he unconsciously took a step back. Fred Newton was the infamous lovebird that got rejected by Kanari thirty-eight times. Due to his recent outburst at the year-end tournament coronation ceremony, the youth had been laying low to keep out of trouble. Furthermore, Principal Erudito had dispatched a counseller and an observer to ensure that Fred didn’t do anything that was out of line. And everything went well for the past three months. However, when word got out that Shin was joining the training exercise, a burning desire to confront the black-haired youth ignited in Fred’s heart.
“Senior Fred? Can I help you?” Shin tried his best to keep a neutral expression. When Shin was still in the sick bed, Kanari had warned him that Fred had misunderstood their relationship and he might eventually cause a little trouble with him. Thus, Shin had been avoiding the areas where his seniors congregated to prevent any form of conflict. In spite of that, Shin had actually forgotten that the joint training session was the best place for Fred to strike.
“I just want to chat a little. Mind if we switched locations?” Fred tried his best to remain calm, but the malice in his voice was extremely noticeable.
“Why can’t we talk here?” Shin cautiously took a few steps back, but that only made the angered bull in front of him more irate. “Where there are witnesses?”
“Don’t worry, Shin Iofiel. I just want to talk…” Like a dormant volcano waiting to erupt, Fred’s face turned crimson as the corners of his mouth twitched. “Here is too inconvenient…”
Both sides had reached an impasse. Fred wanted to confront Shin about his relationship with Kanari while Shin just wished to go back to his bed. Shin could try walking away, but based on the fifth-year senior’s body language, he seriously doubted that it was an option. Thus, the two simply stared at one another awkwardly.
“Is there a problem here?”
Thankfully, Shin’s saviour came in the form of a wandering military officer who wore a pure white robe. Initially, Shin had some questions of how the man was dressed, but he quickly threw them out the window as he needed all the help he could get.
“Senior, we were just chatting. Could you not interfere?” However, before Shin could get a word out, Fred sharply addressed the military officer.
‘Ah, this monster! He’s seriously trying to kill me!’ Shin hollered out mentally. If he followed Fred, he was a hundred per cent sure that he would come back with at least one broken limb. Putting on his best puppy eyes, Shin looked at the military officer, hoping that he would save him from the predicament that he was in. However, as the two met eyes, a vague sense of familiarity hit both of them at the same time.
“Shin? Is that you?”
“Senior Escred?” Shin combed through his memories back when he was at Aldrich’s Keep. The familiar hazel-coloured hair and the sharp, handsome features of the white-robed man were hard to forget. “Senior Escred! What are you doing here?!”
Back when Shin was accompanying Lady Seph to Aldrich’s Keep, he had met a horde of different servicemen and women, but the one the spent the most time with was undoubtedly the Chief Healer of the Keep. Senior Healer Escred.
“Haha, Shin! It’s really you! Wow, you have grown quite a bit since the last time I saw you!” Now that they were reunited, Escred put on the biggest smile he had in ages. Moving to Shin’s side, the hazel-haired man gave him a firm embrace and gently grabbed the teen’s head. “Before you were only up to my chest! Now, you’re almost as tall as me!”
“I still can grow, Senior Escred…”
“Still calling me senior… What did I say about that? Hmmm?” Escred playfully glared at the youth.
“Ah, sorry about that… Old habits die hard, Brother Escred!”
“That’s better!” The senior healer beamed. However, at that moment, he remembered the uncomfortable atmosphere that Shin and Fred had shared just moments earlier. Leaning in close, the healer whispered: “Do you want me to get rid of him?”
Realising what the healer meant, Shin nodded his head in reply. “Yes, please…”
“Done.” Escred smiled and turned to the stunned Fred. “Junior, judging from your uniform, you aren’t part of the supply line, am I right?”
“T-That! I just want to have a conversation with my fellow schoolmate! There’s nothing wrong with that!”
Ignoring Fred’s logical response, Escred walked over and tapped the youth’s shoulders. “It’s getting late junior… I’m sure you don’t want to miss your curfew.”
“I’m sure you don’t want me to call your commanding officer here?” Escred let out a light warning. “Move along, junior.”
“Tsk!” In a fury, Fred stomped his feet and hatefully glared at the black-haired youth that stood nearby. Never in his wildest dreams did he expect Shin to have an associate in the army. Promptly tromping away, Fred left the area, allowing Shin to breathe a sigh of relief.
“Who was that? Do you guys have an enmity?” Escred asked curiously.
“No, just some misunderstandings… Thank you, Brother Escred.”
“Haha, don’t mention it! It’s hard to see a familiar face here nowadays! I’m glad to see you again!” Escred laughed and slapped Shin on his back. “Now that I mentioned it, what brings you here? How come you’re wearing the uniform of Imperius Academy? There are so many questions I have for you!”
“It’s a long story…” Shin bitterly laughed. Although he wished to return to his bed to enter the Garden of Hypnos, it seemed rude to brush off a long-time friend, especially after Escred had just helped Shin resolve a crisis. “Could we discuss it at the mess hall? I have yet to eat dinner.”
“Ah, how rude of me! Of course, of course!” Escred laughed and did a roundabout turn.
“By the way, why are you here? Weren’t you going to stay at Aldrich’s Keep?”
Hearing the youth’s words, Escred immediately dropped his head and a dark cloud formed over him. “I wish it were that simple… After Aldrich’s Keep fell, the Imperial Courts pumped a huge amount of resources to defend that place. The walls had been rebuilt, the defences had been enhanced, and worst of all… They changed the commanding units.”
“What do you mean?”
“To bolster the strength of the western regions, the military sent the Fifth and Thirteenth Armies to man the grounds. That was a welcoming change since the West really was weaker compared to the other regions. The problem is their commanding officer… Field Marshal Egarsha!” A hapless sigh escaped Escred mouth as he remembered the fierce new commander.
“Field Marshal Egarsha is a renowned Rank 84 Spirit Venerate that was tough on excellence. She believed that those who survived on Aldrich’s Keep were failures and Aldrich’s Keep only fell because those working there didn’t experience any real hardship before. Honestly, who could blame her? Other than a few purges, the soldiers at the Keep didn’t face any serious threat. I mean before the fall, Aldrich’s Keep was known for its invincibility after all…”
“So what happened?”
“She did some… Let’s say ‘restructuring…’ Sacking almost everyone who was under Commander Alwig, Field Marshal Egarsha changed all of the key individuals in the Keep to her men. Bit by bit, the faces that I saw on a daily basis changed and eventually, even my position as Chief Healer was gone… I mean, her guy was a Registrar! I couldn’t compete with that right?”
“…” Shin went speechless. Based on his seniority, Escred was just one rank below of a Registrar. However, that gap was an insurmountable mountain to climb for many. Only one out of a few thousand Senior Healers would even get a chance to be promoted into a Registrar, which made them the most elite healers one could get on the market. For Field Marshal Egarsha to get one to exclusively serve her was a feat in itself.
“I could have stayed, but what’s the point? I don’t even know anyone there. So I decided to resign and return to the Capital to join the Second Army. At least, the pay here is better, and I got a promotion as well.” Escred pointed to his sewn-on rank on his white robes which indicated that he was a Major. “The work here is more tedious, but it’s safer. Sometimes I get to join training exercises such as this one, so all is good.”
“Brother Escred…” Shin could see the grief in the Healer’s eyes when he recounted about how he was sacked. He loved being on the frontlines to use his powers for the good of his fallen brothers. Yet, he had been sent to the back. Doomed to spend the rest of his days behind a desk.
“Alright, that’s enough about me! What about you, why are you in Imperius Academy?”
“Haha, didn’t you tell me to diversify my influence? That I shouldn’t stay in the Frie Clan and put all my eggs in one basket?”
“Urghh… Come to think of it, I did say that…” The healer lightly coughed as he thought back to the days back at Aldrich’s Keep. “Come to think of it, where’s the red-haired lass that followed you around? Is she here with you at the academy, or is she waiting back on Frie Mountain?”
“!!!” Shin froze. Due to the innocent question that Escred had asked, Shin felt his blood go cold as the most unpleasant memories of his life resurfaced once more. A sharp pain, akin to that of a thousand needle pricks, was aimed at his heart and he found himself gasping for air. However, his right hand unconsciously reached out for the amethyst pendant around his neck, and the soothing coolness of the crystal instantly calmed his heartbeat.
“No… It’s nothing… Yeah, she’s waiting for me alright… I can’t wait to see her again.”
“Tch, you bloody lovebirds…” Not knowing that he had forced Shin to recall a painful memory, Escred laughed the matter off while continuing to tease the youth. “You better don’t make her wait long! A girl like her would get tonnes of suitors once she grows up.”
“I know… I’ll go see her soon.” Half-joking, Shin entered the mess hall with the hazel-haired man as they continued to catch up about their lives.