Bolting back towards the abandoned cottage that he had left Isadore and Elrin in, Shin finally got his mind in order and began to focus on finding clues in his surroundings. Based on the map that Isadore had given him, Mort Bay was only a hot spot due to its remote location making it a possible region for syndicate activity.
The Black Masks were an elusive organisation that had its roots in the Himmel Empire, and it seemed like their prime objective was to destabilise the peaceful structure of the three superpowers. Always the frontrunner to shake the foundations of society, the Black Masks were a unique organisation that cared neither for riches or notoriety and now that they have begun to play some sort of influence on the international scale, the syndicate was looking to expand their operations.
‘After the Battle of Aldrich’s Keep, when it was revealed that they contained the firepower of at least two Tier 9 Spirit Beasts, the Black Masks have kept a low key in the Himmel Empire… So why are they suddenly moving into Kori Federation territory?’ Shin scratched his cheek as he pondered on the actions of the mysterious organisation. ‘I can understand the motivations of Junius and Vellan… The remnants of the Awter Clan would love to take revenge on Frie Mountain and reunite the orphans with them… But what about the other members of the Black Masks? What about the Allfather? What is their true goal?’
No matter how hard he thought about it, Shin couldn’t comprehend why the Black Masks behaved as they did. Based on the intelligence reports that Isadore had obtained, the Black Masks had no particular modus operandi for their attacks. Additionally, they almost specifically targeted government organisations or military structures in an effort to perform as much terror as they possibly could.
‘To understand how Junius and the Awter Clan remnants work, I must first understand the Allfather… That mana I felt when Junius’ father exploded in front of me… Was that truly the Allfather’s mana?’ Shin pondered as he landed right in front of the concrete building that housed his two friends. Turning up to the overcast sky, Shin smiled at how the rain died down, giving the trio the opportunity to finally explore Mort Bay to its fullest.
Entering the small and humid house, Shin caught eyes with the two inhabitants. Being left alone for a full hour, the duo were bored out of their minds. They had even resorted in playing a children’s game using pebbles to pass the time. It was particularly torturing, especially for the playful Elrin. Fortunately, Shin made his entrance at the right time, bringing a bright smile to both Isadore and Elrin’s faces.
“I’m back. Sorry for the delay.”
“No worries, I know how alluring the ocean might have been.” Isadore stretched himself as he stood up, sending a compassionate gaze at his friend’s direction.
On the other hand, Elrin was somewhat miffed that Shin had left them alone for a full hour. Adorably pouting her face, the white-haired girl puckered her lips and sent a baleful complaint at the youth: “Yeah, took you long enough!~”
“I’m sorry! I’ll make it up to you back at camp! Anyway, did you notice any irregularities during your stay?”
“Not necessarily…” Isadore thought back on the hour he spent. “There wasn’t any special occurrences. We did, however, hear some howling in the distance.”
“Wolves huh? Do you think that they were Spirit Beasts?”
“Hard to say… Honestly, I didn’t feel any mana signatures in the area. Of course, my senses are limited to a few hundred metres, so that doesn’t mean much.” Isadore shrugged his shoulders with a wry smile. “I see that the rain has begun to slow, looks like it’s the perfect chance for us to move, huh?”
“Finally, we get to leave this depressing hut!” Elrin happily rejoiced. Taking out her compass-shaped spirit tool, the young girl prepared herself for the search ahead.
“Conceal your mana first, Elrin!”
At Shin’s timely warning, the young girl made sure to put forth the appropriate measures before starting her reconnaissance. With her spirit tool in hand, Elrin was able to unveil suspicious locations within a kilometre radius, making her the best search tool for the squad.
“Hmmm… There’s nothing here… Perhaps we should go further north?”
“Okay.” Succinctly agreeing to Elrin’s suggestion, Shin led the march up north. His senses heightened, the youth made sure to scan his entire surroundings, in hopes of finding a clue.
“By the way, did you get any gains from your cultivation session?” While Elrin had her eyes closed in search for rogue mana signatures, Isadore started to make some small talk.
“Yeah, I advanced a rank. I’m now at Rank 24.”
“Wow! That’s awesome!” Isadore was genuinely impressed. He might be superior when it came to martial arts or searching for information, but when it came to cultivation, there was no way that Isadore could match up to Shin or Kanari. “Wait, does that mean you get to fly up the ranks if you cultivate near the ocean?”
“Maybe… But it won’t last forever. Once I get normalised to the environment, I won’t be able to get the short bursts of cultivation that I had just experienced.”
“Nonetheless, it’s still amazing! If you continue at this rate, you would be able to catch up to Kanari by the end of year six!”
Isadore always thought that Kanari’s throne at the top of the cultivation world wouldn’t be challenged by anyone from her own generation. However, with Shin’s monstrous advancement rate, it wouldn’t be surprising if Kanari was overthrown in just a few years.
“That’s not possible. You and I both know how hard Kanari works now. If I want to overtake her in cultivation, I would need a thousand times the amount of resources and time.”
“But you do not deny that it’s possible?”
“…” A wry smile crept up Shin’s face as he heard Isadore’s claim. If he were frank, Shin had thought about the possibility of taking Kanari’s throne as the most talented Spirit User in the world by hurriedly advancing his cultivation. However, as he sat down to really think about it, Shin was appalled that he had such a childish notion.
With bigger dreams to chase and harder opponents to face, Shin could care less if Kanari retained her spot as the most talented cultivator of her generation. What mattered the most to him was how he was going to achieve his most pressing goals.
“I have no plans on doing that. We have so much to do before I can launch my own organisation. Chasing Kanari’s records can be left to someone else.”
“Wow, such a noble way of thinking…” Isadore rolled his eyes at Shin’s mature speech. It was during times like this that the sixteen-year-old aspects of the team were on full display.
“Guys, as much as I would like to listen to the rest of the conversation…” While the two boys were merrily talking among themselves, Elrin shook her head with a sombre expression. “We finally got a hit.”
“A hit? You found something suspicious?” After numerous failed searches, Shin had almost given up on finding anything substantial. Hence, when Elrin reported that something was amiss, the young boy felt his adrenaline pumping as his throat started to dry.
“Yeah, look!” Elrin pointed towards a cave that was almost a kilometre away. At this distance, the most that they could see was blurred images, making it hard to determine if there was any human activity or not. “I feel a few mana signatures coming from the interior… Eight, nine, no I can feel over a dozen human mana signatures!”
“That many?” Shin unconsciously swallowed his saliva. Although they were the elites of Imperius Academy, Shin was only in the Spirit Core realm while Isadore and Elrin were at the upper end of the Spirit Apostle realm. Even they would have an issue facing that many opponents at once. “What do you think is the average cultivation level of those inside?”
“I don’t know… Some are weaker, and some are immensely powerful… I think there might be a Spirit Adept inside as well…” Elrin speculated as she tightened her hold on the compass spirit tool. “This is definitely suspicious… Why would there be so many powerful individuals in such a remote location?”
“Either way, we definitely can’t carelessly approach. If we alarm them, we won’t be able to return to the encampment to seek for help.” Isadore chimed in.
“That’s right. Remember our objectives! We won’t face them unless it’s absolutely necessary! Alright, let’s move until we get a better view of the cave. Elrin, if they make any sudden movements, tell us right away! We can’t risk anything!” Shin barked out his orders.
Taking baby steps towards the cavern, Shin and his friends made sure that there was an appropriate escape path should things go south. It wasn’t until they were five hundred metres away from the cave, did the trio stop in their advance.
“There’s movement.” Elrin cautioned the rest. “It’s slight, but they’re slowly moving out of the cave… We have to be careful.”
“Right, if they have come to search for us, I will give the signal to run.”
The tense atmosphere continued on to build as the trio huddled up together. Feeling the heartbeats quicken, the youths did their best to calm their nerves as beads of sweat rolled down their cheeks.
Tap Tap Tap Tap
While the trio was busy trying their best to hide their presence, three individuals sauntered out of the cave with a carefree expression, their faces free of doubt or worry. Once they exited the damp cave, Shin’s eyes widened in absolute horror.
It wasn’t because they had any deformities or anything of the sort. The reason why Shin was terrified was that he recognised every single one of the individuals that emerged out from the cave. The towering middle-aged man and the black-robed woman, who was just out of her prime years, were two fresh faces within Shin’s mind.
Back at Spirit Immortal Dream’s old laboratory, he was assisted by a couple when he stared too long at the Mystery of the Dream. Initially, he thought nothing much of the couple and was glad that they were there to help him when he got tipsy. Yet, there they were in the most suspicious area of the Land of Dreams. Furthermore, they were currently being led by the one person that Shin wished to fight the most…
With gritted teeth, Shin held back his rage as his nails dug deeper into the mud. That rich viridian hair and prominent facial features that were hard to forget was on full display as he basked under the after-rain sun. Even though they were over five hundred metres away, all Shin needed was one look to identify the man that he had spent his entire childhood with.
“That’s Junius?!” Elrin muttered under her breath. Next to her, Isadore was wearing a complex expression as he closed in on Shin’s body, preparing to restrain the youth should he lose control.
“Don’t worry… I’m fine…” Sensing his partners’ nervousness, Shin took a step back and quelled his vengeful heart. If he were to go crazy, he would not only put his own life at risk, but the safety of his two friends would be compromised as well. “I’m in control.”
“Okay… But to think that we would run into Junius here… Looks like we’ve hit the jackpot.”
“Yeah. Junius’ involvement in Mort Bay all but guarantees that the Black Masks are planning something big here. We will need to inform the higher-ups in the encampment.”
“Hmmm, are we not going to observe anymore?” Elrin turned to Shin with a confused face. “I thought the whole reason why you’re trying to track down the Black Masks is to find Junius’ location. Right now, we have him! If we strike, we could possibly take him into custody, so that he can atone for his sins!”
“No…” Shin shook his head. “Now’s not the time. The couple that’s with him are both Spirit Adepts, and Junius is no pushover either. Among us orphans, he was the strongest fighter and now that he had been trained by the Black Masks, our chances of winning is virtually zero.”
“I see…” Elrin hung her head. Back when Shin poured out his heart and described in detail about the ordeals he faced back on Frie Mountain, the young girl wanted to order a siege on every Black Mask location to wipe out the evil that had caused her friend so much hurt. One could only imagine how much restraint it took for Shin to wipe out his desire to charge forward and confront the weasel that ordered the attack which claimed Ariel’s life.
“We have to retreat now! Before we alarm them that this location is compromised!” Shin softly commanded. “We’ll return with reinforcements!”
“Shin…” Feeling the same way that Elrin did, Isadore was amazed at how rational his buddy’s thinking was. If it were him, he would most definitely order an all-out assault on the cave primarily out of spite. “You’re right… Let’s go.”
As the trio slowly retreated under cover of the bushes, Shin took one final look at his brother that had betrayed him. Shin knew that this was probably the best opportunity to apprehend Junius and accomplish one of the goals that he had set for himself. After all, no one knew if Junius would visit Mort Bay ever again. However, for the greater good, Shin had to place his personal feelings aside. With a low growl, Shin cut the bottom of his palms as his nails started to dig deeper and deeper into his flesh.
‘Junius… I’ll get you soon, just you wait!!!’