A day had passed since Shin, Elrin and Isadore had completed the paperwork given to them by Madam Warulee, and the trio was finally ready to begin their covert mission. Knowing that his friends had burnt the midnight oil for him, Shin decided to give them a full day of rest to recover and recharge their batteries for the following weeks ahead, which lead them to day five of the joint training exercise.
“Have the both of you slept well?” At the side gate of the encampment, a black-haired youth was busy adjusting his backpack of supplies while addressing the two similar aged teens that had just arrived.
“It’s alright… The beds were awful though…” Elrin complained while dragging her feet. She had been used to sleeping on luxurious cushions all her life, and to switch to bunk beds that rarely had any support for the back was a great culture shock moment for her. Fortunately, since she was dead-ass tired from Shin overworking her, she could hibernate for twelve hours straight, in preparation for this morning’s mission.
“Really? They’re better than sleeping on the cold-hard ground though.” Isadore teased the white-haired girl.
“Shut it, Isadore! If you like the ground so much, why don’t you camp there for the rest of the month!”
“Guys, don’t argue. You’re attracting some unwanted attention.” Shin acted as the mediator and got between the two youths. Hearing Shin’s words, Elrin took a good look around and flushed deeply. “Alright, we should go over the plan now. The first place we’re checking is this abandoned ruins just ten kilometres north of here. Although it seems moronic to have a base so close to an encampment, there might be some leftover clues.”
“How many sites are we going to check today?” Isadore asked. With more than three weeks to investigate thirteen sites, the trio had to operate on a tight schedule.
“One a day… That’s the ideal. We can’t get too complacent. Safety is the most paramount after all.” Shin cautioned his group. “We’re strictly investigating the site, not engaging enemies. The best scenario is finding nothing but leftover documents or clues about the Black Masks. I’m sure all of you know how to hide your spiritual presence?”
Imperius Academy offers a mandatory survival class for all students that teaches them how to hide their spiritual presence, identify which foods are suitable for consumption and much more. Being honour students from the Star Class, the trio had long mastered the craft.
“Of course!” “Naturally!”
“Good! When we’re about a kilometre away from the site, we will have to proceed with caution. If there is any form of activity, we must prepare to retreat. After all, we can’t handle anyone above the Spirit Core realm.” Shin smiled and turned his gaze to Elrin. “If you need help in escaping, feel free to call me out. I’ll carry you.”
“Haha, thanks but no thanks!” Elrin stuck out her tongue as she raised her leather boots that had numerous strange engravings on them. “With these Frigate Boots, I can move up to twenty-times my normal speed! Watch!”
Bending her knees, Elrin supplied a small amount of her mana into the footwear, making it glow in a grey light. In an instant, the white-haired girl leapt once and was propelled over twenty metres forward, stunning both Shin and Isadore in the process. “See? I won’t be a deadweight! No, in fact, are you sure you can keep up with my speed?”
“…” Shin was unable to find a rebuttal.
“Made with the prime leather of a Tier 6 Frigate Eagle, the Frigate Boots allows me to move at a quickened pace for six hours until my mana goes dry! I can easily make the ten kilometre trip in less than an hour! If you want one, I can sell it to you at a discounted price! Comfortable, easy to carry and nice to look at, it is perhaps the best speed boots on the market!” Elrin laughed as her merchant instincts began to show.
“Elrin… You don’t have to show off that much…” Shin let out a helpless sigh. He had been worried about the white-haired girl’s pace, but as it turned out, the combat-course students were the ones at a disadvantage. Walking towards the gate, Shin showed the guard an emblem with a major’s rank carved into it, forcing the trooper to click his boots and salute.
After reminiscing about the past with Healer Escred, Shin found out that the Major was the commanding officer in charge of the supply lines, which meant that he was technically the military’s equivalent of Madam Warulee. With both their highest command wrapped under his thumb, Shin had near immunity in the encampment, and his irregular movements to and fro from the camp wouldn’t raise any suspicion.
“Wow, where did you get that?” Isadore asked with a raised eyebrow. Both he and Elrin had connections to high command, but it would be weird if they used a high-ranking commander’s badge to get through basic checkpoints.
“An acquaintance of mine from Aldrich’s Keep happened to be our commanding officer.”
“Such a coincidence?”
“Don’t give me that look! I was shocked too!” Shin defended himself. “Many soldiers got retrenched after the fall of Aldrich’s Keep, and some of them made their way into the Second Army. In fact, other than the commanding officer, I’ve seen some familiar faces as well.”
“Hmmm… That’s why field work is important. You get to have all these connections…” Isadore thought out loud. Shin had only entered one major military engagement in his life, and he had already made a lifelong relationship with some men in the army. If he had attended even more military-related exercises, Isadore was confident that he would have thousands of ‘acquaintances’ by now.
“I’m not interested in serving the Imperial Army. I thought I made it quite clear.” The black-haired youth protested. His hate for the Imperial Army and the Imperial Courts were definite, and there was no way that he would serve them ever again.
“Haha, yeah!” Quickly brushing past the question, Isadore did his full set of warm ups as he prepared for the early morning jog. For Shin and Isadore, they could use mana strengthening to smoothly traverse the ten-kilometre distance with ease.
“Alright, since our first destination is close, we should be back for lunch if we’re quick! Let’s go!” Likewise, Shin stretched his body lightly before jumping off his feet to run north. Following his lead, Isadore and Elrin matched his speed as the zoomed past the breezy fields at an astonishing pace.
For an average well-built athlete, they would take around an hour to finish ten kilometres, and that was at maximum speed consistently. However, as cultivators, the trio could use their spiritual energy to move that distance without breaking a sweat. Of course, if they were Spirit Spectres, they could have easily flown towards the location in less than ten minutes, but they weren’t that capable yet.
Half an hour later…
“Guys, stop!” Realising that their destination was near, Shin planted his feet on the ground and raised his right hand. “We’re about a kilometre away from the ruins. Conceal your mana. We’re walking the rest of the distance.”
“Sure thing~.” Elrin pleasantly replied.
In the distance, the group could see the decrepit remnants of a building. Lost to time, the construction had been reclaimed by nature as verdant life grew from all of its corners. Careful not to stun any residents if there were any, Shin circled around the ruins once and was extremely cautious not to let anyone notice his presence. He had even used his superior senses to check for any signs of cultivators in the building. Only after another half hour of searching, did the youth finally ease his heart and dared to enter the ruins.
“It should be clear. Let’s search for anything that might be useful…”
The ruins were exceedingly plain. Just like any form of broken down buildings, there wasn’t anything to be seen. All of the paint had faded away, and any possible treasures that it had were most likely looted already. If not for the labels on the map, Shin would have never found this place, let alone mark it down to be suspicious. Combing through the area for an hour, the trio couldn’t find anything that remotely resembled anything from the Black Mask syndicate.
“Looks like the first location is empty…” Isadore disappointingly muttered.
“Well, it’s not like we were expecting anything much from here in the first place. It is the closest location to our encampment. If there were anything, we would have struck the jackpot.” The black-haired youth sighed. “Let’s find Elrin and call it a day.”
“Ermmm, Shin? Isadore? Could you come here? Please?”
Hearing a little nervousness in the white-haired girl’s voice, Shin immediately sprung to his feet. “Did she find something?”
Dashing towards Elrin’s direction, Shin and Isadore started to get their hopes up. Jumping across low broken walls and sliding under collapsed ceilings, the two youths finally reached the white-haired girl, who was cautiously backing away from something.
“Elrin, what’s going… Wait, what the hell?” Following his friend’s line of sight, Shin understood why Elrin was so apprehensive. Isadore, who was just a tad bit slower than Shin, also caught an eyeful of the creature that was crouching five metres away from them.
At over three metres long, a spotted feline Spirit Beast was baring its fangs as a slight spiritual pressure mounted on the trio’s bodies. Behind it, five baby cubs were covered in a sticky liquid, hinting that they had just come out from their mother’s womb.
“A Rosegor Jaguar. A fully grown adult would be a Tier 3 Spirit Beast.” Shin instantly recognised the creature that lay before them and begun to educate his friends. “A variant elemental type that uses mud, it is extremely protective of its young… To think we found one that had just given birth.”
“A Tier 3 Spirit Beast, which means that it’s as strong as a Spirit Core cultivator right? We can take it on.” Immediately switching to fight mode, Isadore’s eyes shone with a fierce glint.
“Wait, wait, wait! I was the one who trespassed on its territory! I don’t think that we should kill it?! Why don’t we flee?” Elrin’s kind-heart showed, and she tried to persuade Shin and Isadore to retreat.
“As much as I would love to move away without a fight, her maternal instincts have started to kick in. Look.” The black-haired boy gestured for Elrin to take a closer look at the Rosegor Jaguar. Already turning the ground below it to mud, the feline creature had its fur erect as its razor-sharp claws and fangs were on full display. If any of them made a sudden movement, there was no doubt in Shin’s mind that the Spirit Beast would maul them to shreds.
“T-That!” Elrin immediately felt guilty. She didn’t want to murder a Spirit Beast that had just given birth to a litter of adorable cubs. “Shin, can you knock it unconscious if its movements were sealed?”
“…” The black-haired teen gave his friend an incredulous look before reverting his sights back to the Rosegor Jaguar that was ready to pounce at any moment. “I can try.”
“That’s all I wanted to hear… Buy me five seconds and don’t kill it!” Elrin brought her hands together in prayer as mana started to congregate in the middle of her palms.
Seeing how the human girl in front of her had begun her attack, the Rosegor Jaguar entered a feral state and roared in a fury. From its mouth, a small mud orb shot out like a regurgitated ball of fur and flew straight at the three intruders.
Instantly casting his spiritual body enhancement, Shin’s skin turned cerulean in colour as thousands of fishy scales covered him up. Uncorking two of the three gourds on his belt, Shin released his regular created water and the water mixed with a paralysing agent. During the year-end tournaments, he was barred from using this concoction against his opponents. Fortunately, the wild fields didn’t have those ridiculous rules to bind him.
Forming a water wall to protect Elrin while she was praying, Shin watched as the mud ball dissolved in the air. Turning his paralysing water into mini bullets, the black-haired teen shot them at the frantic Spirit Beast.
Sensing that its life would be in peril if it took any of those hits directly, the Rosegor Jaguar coated itself in a layer of mud, allowing the yellow liquid to flow down its body without touching its skin.
“Smart move…” The youth praised the Spirit Beasts quick thinking. From his peripheral vision, Shin could see Isadore summoning out his trusted spear, which glistened in a divine light. Leaping forward at a rapid speed, Isadore spun his weapon like a general in the forefront of a battle and swung the blunt end at the Rosegor Jaguar’s head.
Instead of taking the blow head-on this time, the Spirit Beast masterfully evaded, as if it wasn’t weakened from childbirth. Its eyes emitted a spiritual presence as five mud crescent blades formed, forcing Isadore to retreat as quickly as he charged forward.
“I’m ready!” Just when Shin thought that the battle was about to get complicated, Elrin’s excited cry reverberated through the empty ruins.
A holy light radiated out of the white-haired girl’s soul, making her resemble a high priestess that had successfully compelled a goddess to descend. In her hands, a perfectly symmetrical symbol of infinity was glistening as it reflected the morning sun rays that dazzled from the heavens above. On each side of the infinity symbol, a row of shiny pearls fell to the ground and completed multiple twirls until they met each other to form a perfect circle.
‘The Rosary of Eternity… I never thought I would get to see it in combat…’ Shin’s heart palpitated wildly. He had heard numerous rumours about the enigmatic Rosary of Eternity that dominated the auxiliary course, and it was the first time he had seen it in person. ‘Let’s see what she’s got!’
Shin took one step back and allowed Elrin to do her magic.
“Split!” Hollering out one word, Elrin’s four thousand and ninety-six pearls scattered through the air and created a temporary domain of light. “Boost!”
A faint pillar of warm spiritual energy enveloped both Shin and Isadore, who were caught inside her domain. All of a sudden, the two combatants felt a certain sense of vigour that was inexplicable through ordinary words. It was as if their bodies had turned lighter and their internal system had been entirely detoxified.
‘Elrin’s innate ability, Sacramental Boost!’ Shin cried out mentally.
The white-haired girl’s first spiritual ability, Sacramental Boost, was the primary reason why she was able to dominate her cohort. Giving her targeted allies an all-around ten percent boost, Elrin was able to become the best support Spirit User in her generation. Naturally, since her first spiritual ability wasn’t a specialised one like ‘Heal,’ if she didn’t add more potent skills in the future, Elrin’s throne at the top of the auxiliary department would eventually be taken away from her. However, at the moment, no one in her age group could come close to her abilities as a support in the battlefield.
“Now, Bind!!!” In the blink of an eye, Elrin cast her second spiritual ability.
Playing a support role was tough, especially in a battlefield where almost everyone would aim to take down the cornerstone of their enemies first. Thus, Elrin came up with a method to protect herself and assist her partners at the same time. Through her ‘Bind’ ability, Elrin was able to seal the movements of her target for a certain period, depending on how weakened they were; and since the Rosegor Jaguar had just gone through childbirth, Elrin could bridge the cultivation level gap between them to confine it for a few seconds.
As if waiting for this moment, Shin leapt forward and reached the exhausted Spirit Beast almost instantaneously. Not willing to give away the advantage that Elrin had given him, the youth aimed at the only weak spot that he knew about the Rosegor Jaguar, the back of its head. Landing a perfect chop, effortlessly knocked the immobilised Spirit Beast out cold.
“Wow, with Elrin’s help we really have a significant advantage huh?” Shin thought out loud. For the first time in his life, he felt grateful that a support-class cultivator was on his side. Without Elrin, even though Shin was confident of taking the Rosegor Jaguar down, he would have ultimately killed the Spirit Beast to protect himself. However, with the assistance of Elrin, he was able to dispatch the Tier 3 Spirit Beast with relative ease.
Now that the threat was neutralised, the white-haired maiden recalled the Rosary of Eternity and headed straight for the litter of helpless cubs. “Hah… I’m sorry, little ones. Just wait for your mom to wake up alright?”
“Eekkk! Eekkk! Eekkk!”
Without knowing what was going on, the poor cubs were wailing in fear and confusion. The warmth of their mother was gone, and they were helpless on their own.
“They might be hungry?” Isadore interjected. “Shin, could you push the mother over?”
“What am I, a coolie?” Shin scoffed as he created two water arms to gently push the unconscious Spirit Beast over. Rolling the feline to its side, Shin allowed the cubs to go near the Rosegor Jaguar’s nipples, to have their early lunch. “That’s the most that we can do. The Spirit Beast will awaken in a few minutes, so we should leave now.”
“That’s right…” Elrin looked a little dejected. The adorable faces of the jaguar cubs made her swoon a little, and she was rather getting attached to them. “Let’s leave before she wakes up then.”
“Haha, don’t be that way! I’m sure you can buy as many pets as you want back in the Capital!”
“My father doesn’t like to keep pets in the house! It’s rather annoying you know!”
“Hoho, I thought Uncle Terlus would have spoiled you rotten…” Shin raised an eyebrow at the shocking declaration.
“Well, he doesn’t always, okay! Hmph! Once I come of age and move out, I’ll definitely buy a thousand pets!!!”
Hearing Elrin’s words made Shin recall a book that he read about how middle-aged spinsters liked to surround themselves with pets to ease their loneliness. Thinking about that, a mental image of Elrin in her fifties, living alone in an enormous mansion immediately came to Shin’s mind.
‘No, no, no, no, no! What am I thinking! There’s no way that Elrin would become like that… Would she?’
As the trio returned back to the encampment empty-handed, the only thing that was on Shin’s mind, was how to find a suitable partner for his good friend to spend the rest of her life with.