“Shin…” Elrin cried out in worry. During her year-long interactions with Shin, the youth had always kept a cool and calm mind. There has never been an instance where he lost himself in despair or anger, and even if he were emotionally unsound, Shin would always hide his mental state.
Yet, right in front of her, the youth was now drunk in a pit of fury. Barbaric, that was the only way to describe Shin as he was. Gone was the wise sage that never resorted to brute force. Using his own two hands, the berserk young boy charged through the beast pack and clawed his way to the centre.
After punching his hardened fist into a beast’s gut, Shin felt something peculiar. He felt a familiar sensation, one that was uncommonly found in the stomach of a Spirit Beast.
‘This is?’ Feeling confused, Shin pulled out the strange object with one swift motion.
“No… No way…” Shin’s eyes quivered in anguish once the object came into full view. It had been partially digested, and bits of its flesh had already been corroded. However, Shin clearly recognised the object that he had pulled out from the Spirit Beast’s stomach…
Pale as a sheet, while being slightly longer than a twig… Shin had pulled out a dead child’s hand…
“Damn it! Damn it! DAMN IT!!!” Shin immediately threw the hand to a side and washed his own hand with his created water. Adding fuel to the flames, Shin’s anger spiked tenfold.
‘Black Masks! Junius, this is the organisation that you joined! This is the organisation that the Awter Clan joined!!! An organisation that kills innocent for their own gains!’ Shin cursed the face that he associated with the Black Masks. Not even a child was spared!
“ARGHHH!!!” Digging down further and further into the hell that was eternal hate, Shin used his seismic step on the next beast that charged straight at him and continued to wreak havoc among the beast pack.
At his side, Isadore sensed the shift in Shin’s conduct and the massive outpour of emotions from the depths of his friend’s soul. Gritting his teeth, Isadore swung his majestic spear and sliced through the Tier 1 Spirit Beast before him. Crimson, warm blood spewed out and stained his pristine grey robes, but he didn’t dare to stop.
Based on how Shin was acting, he would only stop once the beast pack was thoroughly annihilated. Isadore didn’t want his friend to continue on rampaging like a brute and thinned down the numbers as best as he could.
“I suppose… Master Shin, hasn’t killed anyone yet…” Watching as Shin vented out his frustrations, Reginald stroked his beard with a melancholic sigh. “It’s always novel to watch how a man behaves after he claims his first life.”
“Uncle Reg? What do you mean?”
“Lady Elrin, can’t you tell by the way he’s behaving? Master Shin’s mental condition can’t be described as optimal right now.” Reginald patiently explained to the young girl. “The mercenary killed his partner and then committed suicide. After which, he pinned the blame on Master Shin. Based on how he’s reacting, Master Shin must have never killed anyone before.”
“I see…” Elrin nodded in comprehension. She had never taken a life before and couldn’t understand what Shin was going through, but seeing how crazed it had made the youth, it was apparent that Shin would never be the same. “Is there a way to help him?”
“Time.” Reginald succinctly replied. “Letting him vent out on the Spirit Beasts is a good idea as well, but ultimately, time is the best healer. Should he continue down the cultivation path, Master Shin would definitely meet enemies much worse than the mercenary we’ve just met. Sometimes, the people that he would be forced to kill are good samaritans as well. At that point, the guilt that he would experience would far surpass what he’s feeling right now.”
Reginald closed his eyes as he remembered the first time he claimed a life. It was during his escort guard days where merchants would hire him to guard their trading caravans. Bandits were rife back then, and an unguarded convoy was basically a sitting duck for the criminals at large. No matter how cold-blooded a killer was, he would always remember his first kill with great detail, and the same rule applies to all cultivators.
In the cultivation world, where the strongest reigned supreme, murders and deaths were a common occurrence. In fact, Reginald was willing to bet that anyone above the Spirit Spectre realm has slain a few enemies, even if they were auxiliary cultivators. For instance, Lady Seph, who was widely regarded to be one of the most dominant healers alive, had tainted her life-saving hands with blood before.
Elrin’s eyes turned misty. As much as she hated to admit it, she was still a small fish in the cultivation world. Not only had she never been in an actual battle before, she had never had the burden of claiming another’s life. How heavy was it? The white-haired sheltered girl questioned herself. How heavy was another person’s soul?
‘If Kanari were here, she would know what to do…’ For the first time, Elrin felt inferior to her bosom childhood friend. As they say, every rose has its thorn. Being the heir to the Highgarden Duchy, it wouldn’t be shocking if Kanari had already taken a few lives in her ‘training’ to be the best.
Furthermore, Elrin knew that Kanari had participated in multiple battles before, albeit as a spectator. Compared to her lack of experience, Kanari was the far superior candidate to console and support Shin in his time of darkness.
Evidently, the young girl wasn’t the only one that was conflicted. Isadore, who had been at Shin’s side the entire time, carefully observed his buddy’s reactions. In this day and age, where war was an afterthought, young children like them never had to worry about claiming another’s life. Yet, before Shin had turned sixteen, he had directly caused the deaths of two individuals, just for the sake of advancing his cause. Was Shin capable of dealing with the trauma? That was Isadore’s burning question.
BBRRTTT!!! BRRTTT!!! BRRTTTT!!!
As the last beast fell in Shin’s hands, a loud siren bellowed out from the horizon. The ground shook in tremulous fear, bringing all movement to a halt. The three Spirit Emperor’s perked up their ears and brought up their guard. If the Black Masks had returned with yet another beast horde, they would immediately grab hold of the youths and fly back to the Empire at top speed. Thankfully, their caution was unwarranted as the familiar sigil of the Imperial Army came into view.
“The Empire sent the entire Second Army?” Reginald raised his brows. He had expected the Himmel Empire to act, but to send an entire army was unheard of in the modern age. “Looks like things are escalating faster than I thought.”
“The Second Army? Shouldn’t they be permanently stationed at the northern border?” Madam Warulee exclaimed in shock.
The Himmel Empire military consists of approximately twenty-two armies, each one ranked by their importance and overall might. If the First Army was responsible for protecting the Capital as well as the Imperial Family, the Second Army was directly accountable for the most volatile land in the nation, the northern border.
Throughout the years, even though there had been no wars, the relationship between the Himmel Empire and the Kori Federation had been deteriorating rapidly. Skirmishes between the two superpowers were bound to occur and the ones to react to the threats by the Kori Federation were the courageous Second Army.
“If the Second Army is deployed, it must mean that the Kori Federation had agreed to that movement. Otherwise, there’s no way the military elders would have moved the entire army.” Reginald gave his two cents. Turning to the three youths that he was supposed to protect, the butler continued: “We should stay here and tell them our story. If we run now, the scouts may think that we’re the enemy.”
“… Yeah, let’s do that…” Shin was in no mood to quibble. Dropping the dead carcass head in his hands, Shin moved closer towards Madam Warulee.
‘He’s still emotionally shaken…’ Taking one look at the despondent youth, the scholarly woman sighed. Over the past few days, he had been experiencing ordeal after ordeal. What he needed now was a nice long rest. ‘Hopefully, the military won’t make our lives difficult…’
A few hours had passed since the Second Army’s arrival at the Main Hub. Once the green light was given to march into the Land of Dreams, the soldiers of the Second Army wasted no time and desperately moved to secure the region, hoping to find any survivors amongst the carnage. Some of the military men and women had relatives that were present in the Land of Dreams, and they prayed to the Immortals above that their families would be safe.
Alas, the world wasn’t that kind. As they marched into the Main Hub and witnessed the horrendous deeds of the Black Masks, the battle-hardened warriors of the Second Army felt sick to their stomach. Many fell to their knees and cried out in terror while those who had seen a thousand battles turned to one corner and retched out uncontrollably.
They had seen evil before. The Second Army soldiers had seen death and destruction before. However, never in their lives had they seen such a heinous scene.
Beheaded bodies of warriors, elderly, children, pregnant women, were littered all over the town with corroded body parts split from their corpses. On the unmoving bodies of the victims, dirtied footprints and disdained bruise marks crisscrossed their fallen figures, hinting the lack of humane care that the winners of the battle had. With most of the victims’ bodies wrecked out of recognition, it became increasingly apparent that identifying the fallen to give peace of mind to their families was a near impossible task. Nonetheless, it was a necessary evil.
Gritting their teeth while holding back their rage, the warriors of the Second Army quickly quelled their burning hate and solemnly gathered the bodies of the fallen. They had come too late, and now, the least that they could do was give the victims of the Main Hub a proper burial.
“Field Marshal, the ‘survivors’ are here to see you.”
At the centre of the town square, a two-metre tall giant was overseeing the entire burial operation. With an ashen face, the colossal man was alone building sandcastles in the air until his subordinate’s voice brought him back to reality. Turning towards the six individuals that were waiting behind the officer, the giant opened his green eyes and stared intensely into the survivors’ souls.
‘Ridan Bitterdawn… The Spirit Venerate that has supreme command of the Second Army…’ Isadore recognised the man in an instant. One of the few Spirit Venerates that swore fealty to the Imperial bloodline, Field Marshal Bitterdawn was THE sword of the Himmel Empire. Perhaps the strongest combat Spirit Venerate in the Himmel Empire, Ridan Bitterdawn’s presence in the Land of Dreams shows how serious the upper echelons were treating the threat of the Black Masks.
Initially, the Field Marshal was taken aback when he saw a certain silver-haired boy in the group. However, he quickly composed himself and didn’t allow his emotions to show. “Survivors, huh? Did you witness how the Main Hub fell?”
“No, sire. We arrived here just a few moments prior as well…” Madam Warulee nominated herself as the group’s spokesperson and recounted their experience. “When we arrived, the buildings had already been raided, and the people had already been…”
Madam Warulee couldn’t find the right word to describe the carnage that had befallen upon the residents of the Main Hub. Thus, she merely kept silent.
“We were part of the Imperius Academy training exercise. You can verify it with your men.”
The Field Marshal eyes flashed with understanding. “Imperius Academy? I see, so why didn’t you return with the rest of the group?”
“We were tasked by the Dalgeom Sect to lead them to the Black Mask’s base in Mort Bay. You see…” Bit by bit, Madam Warulee told everything that she knew to the Spirit Venerate. Lying was utterly pointless. Given his overwhelming insight and might, it was useless to lie to the Field Marshal. Furthermore, the Second Army’s intelligence unit would be more than capable of finding out everything that they needed. It was best to be completely candid about everything.
“This kid here came out to investigate the Black Masks on his own, and actually found their base?” With a raised eyebrow, the Field Marshal turned to Shin, who still had his head down.
“Yes, sire. He has a history with the Black Masks you see…” Madam Warulee knew that she had to be careful with her words. Should the Field Marshal suspect Shin of being a spy, the consequences would be dire. “His family was murdered by the Black Masks. Thus he was adamant about taking them on.”
“A reckless tale.”
“…” Shin’s mouth twitched slightly, but he didn’t bother to retort. Bringing his head up, Shin’s eyes resolutely met the Field Marshal’s. As much pain as this expedition had given him, Shin didn’t think that he was wrong in his actions.
‘Hoho, what an adorable kid…’ Field Marshal Bitterdawn lauded Shin’s guts to look him in the eye. However, his praise for the kid was primarily that. Just dumb bravery that all hot-blooded youths were expected to have.
“As much as I would love to send you back to the Empire, you will need to remain in our custody for further questioning. Especially since you have witnessed the World Serpent. We need all the information that we can get.” The Field Marshal smiled and shooed his guests away. For now, he had more pressing matters to attend to.