Imperius Academy. Three months later. Year 812, the Month of February.
As the freshmen year came to a close and the sophomore year began, Shin and the other high rankers started to get accustomed to their new lavish lifestyles. For Elrin and Kanari, the addition of new resources was something that they were used to, but having it all at their fingertips in the academy made their second year a hell of a lot more different. With authority to move items to and fro from their houses, the pair of wealthy scions benefited tremendously.
On the other hand, Shin was unsure of how he was going to ration all the wealth that had been bestowed upon him. Of the hundreds of medicinal pills that Principal Erudito had delivered, the youth gave over half of it to his fellow orphans, especially to Elyse and Fionn. They were busy mugging out at home and had very little professional guidance. Thus, as an elder brother, giving them some resources was the least that he should do. However, the two younglings back home weren’t the sole recipients of Shin’s grace. Shin had given a large portion of his medicinal pills to the twins, in hopes of increasing their firepower. In fact, he even wanted to loan them the use of his private cultivation chambers, until he was severely reprimanded by Vice-Principal Hirda for going against academy policies.
The cultivation chambers were among the best resources that the academy had to offer and they were only awarded to those with outstanding merit. Case in point, Shin managed to claw his way out from Rank 21 and advanced by two ranks throughout three months! An unprecedented feat that not even Kanari could have accomplished! Although he had used all the remaining medicinal pills he had to soar through the ranks, the fact still remained that his water-elemental chambers assisted him throughout his ascent.
Entering the sophomore year, Shin and the rest of the clique were somewhat numb to the entire academic process. For one, the twins and Isadore had joined the Star Class bringing the whole group together. Secondly, since they had perhaps the greatest assortment of talents gathered in one area. Shin was a genius when it came to books and mentoring his fellow friends wasn’t an issue. Isadore had revealed his prodigious skills in the martial arts, which meant that he could easily mend any flaws in his comrades’ combat ability; and finally, Kanari, who was the perfect all-rounder, could help boost any imperfections in Shin or Isadore teachings.
Throughout the three months, it wasn’t only Shin, Kanari and Elrin who got the best out of the arrangement. Shizen, who had reached the pinnacle of Rank 19 back during his match with Kanari, instantly condensed his Spirit Core and even self-created his own spiritual ability. The twins had advanced a rank while Isadore had reached the peak of his realm. Even Suji and Danroy had made huge gains as well.
With the weight of his shoulders, Danroy started to become more carefree, and his cultivation progress exploded. He was now keeping pace with Suji, someone that he had been chasing his entire life. Determined not to be overtaken, at the turn of the new year, Suji hurriedly condensed his Spirit Core making him the fourth person in Shin’s cohort to do just that.
Typically, students would condense their Spirit Cores in their third and fourth years, while some talented few would do so during the end of their sophomore year. However, before Shin’s second-year had even begun, there were already four Spirit Core cultivators trotting the academy grounds. In fact, based on how fast Danroy and Elrin were progressing, it wouldn’t be strange if two more popped up before February was over.
“Ahhhh, so tired… I don’t want to study anymore…” An indolent voice cried out. Seated at the usual restaurant, a brown-haired youth groaned as his head fell onto the thick books on the table before him.
“Shizen, if you don’t study, it would be hard for you to keep your ranking at the top! Do you want to drop out from the Star class that badly?” Shin chided his friend.
“I don’t want to study anymore! I can’t stand the indoors anymore! I want to bask out in the sunlight!”
“What are you a plant?”
“Well, that’s not too far from the truth…” Throwing a tantrum like a spoilt brat, Shizen kicked the legs of his chair and dropped his pen. “If I said I was a tree, would you let me out?”
“Not in a million years… Come on, just one more chapter!” Shin continued on his draconian teaching methods. However, whenever there was a stick, there was also a carrot. “Also, I’ll give you one gallon extra this week.”
“Erggkkk! You really know how to play with my heartstrings, Shin…” Shizen grasped his chest to prevent his heart from jumping out. “Fine… Just one more chapter!”
Watching this whole interaction, the other member of the group giggled. Her radiant smile that blossomed was capable of charming anyone who witnessed it. “You have Shizen tamed quite well, sire Shin… Care to teach me your ways?”
“It’s not like you aren’t a black belt at manipulating others, Kanari… I see what you did to Emma! You hypnotised her to divulge information about me!”
“Ara, was I busted?” Kanari giggled with a face full of innocence. “Hehe, eventually I would have you join the Highgarden Duchy, so there’s no issue in me gaining some information!”
“There is to me!”
The arguments between Shin and Kanari had become so commonplace that it had turned boring to those who spectated them on a daily basis. Shizen rolled his eyes and continued doing his homework, like a child waiting for his parents to stop fighting. Fortunately, his saviour was fast approaching.
“Shin! You’re here!” The bells on the door rung as a silver-haired boy forcibly pushed it open. Flushed to his ears, the youth bolted towards the table and grabbed his buddy by the wrist. “Can I borrow you for one second?!”
“S-Sure… What’s the emergency?”
“Yeah, Isadore. Did something happen?” Kanari backed up Shin’s question with a confused face. Of the entire clique, Kanari knew Isadore the longest, and she couldn’t recall the last time that the youth had been so flustered.
“I’ll explain to you later… Shin, let’s move outside for one moment.” Isadore smoothly lied and led the black-haired boy out of the diner and into the grassy fields outside.
“Shin… Imperius Academy is going to have a joint training session with the Imperial Military later this month. All of the year fours and above are invited to attend.”
“Yeah, I’ve heard of that.”
It wasn’t a secret that Imperius Academy had ties to the military and the Imperial Family. In fact, the sole reason why Imperius Academy had prospered for so long was precisely because of that connection. A vast majority of graduates from the institution had continued on their careers as thriving soldiers or government officials. Thus, to ensure that the future generation was as competent as possible, the military would often hold joint training sessions or military exercises to give them a cursory taste of life outside civilisation.
“Then have you heard about the purpose of the joint training session?”
“Of course not. We’re just sophomores, remember?” Shin knew that entering Imperius Academy meant that he would eventually be roped into some military activities, but he didn’t have to worry about it until he was a fourth-year student.
“Oh, then you would want to hear this…” A wry smile crept up the face of Isadore as he inched closer to the youth. Ensuring that his voice was as soft as possible, the silver-haired boy whispered into his buddy’s ear:
“They found clues of a Black Mask operation.”
“What?!” Shin was unable to hide his surprise. His pulse started to rapidly spin, and he grabbed his friend by his shoulders. “Is this real?!”
“Eighty per cent certain…” Isadore didn’t lie about how legitimate his source was. “However, from the information that I’ve got, the whole reason why the military is moving with students from Imperius Academy is due to the neutral location. They can’t launch a full-scale military exercise, but if they used the joint training session as a guise, the authorities would have the freedom to investigate further.”
“Where exactly is this location?” Shin inquired.
Knowing that he got Shin on the hook, Isadore smiled and replied. “It used to be called the most progressive nation the world has ever seen. However, now it’s simply called the Land of Dreams.”
“The Land of Dreams? Spirit Immortal Dream’s country?!”
The tale of Spirit Immortal Dream was well-known to everyone in the mortal realm. Especially since it was such a recent event. Only five hundred years had passed since the last Spirit Immortal shed her humanity to break through the heavens and the tragedy of how she annihilated her entire country’ population with one move was a familiar folktale told in every household.
“What do the Black Masks want to achieve in the Land of Dreams?”
“Unsure, but the Land of Dreams is now a neutral territory where many of the three superpowers households meet to trade and socialise. If they are trying to make ground there, it is unlikely that they would send any of their strongest forces to the area.”
“What are you trying to tell me, Isadore?”
“Alright, I won’t beat around the bush anymore… I know that you have a vested interest in chasing down the Black Masks so that you can bring Junius to justice, and I know you want to start an organisation to hunt them down after you graduate…” Isadore smiled and finally got to the crux of the issue. “Do you want to expedite your plan a little early and join the expedition?”
Shin closed his eyes and threw his head back. He would be lying if he said that he wasn’t tempted. It was the first time he heard of any news about the Black Masks syndicate since the battle on Frie Mountain. Even if the joint training session didn’t bear any fruit, it was still a valuable first step towards his goal.
“Before I answer your question… What do you want from me?”
“I just told you, I want you to join the expedition!”
“No, there must be another motive! You don’t simply come and give me information about the Black Masks without expecting anything in return! What do you really want, Isadore?” Shin made his point.
Even an imbecile could tell that the information that Isadore possessed was top-tier intelligence that wasn’t readily available for the mere foot soldier. If he passed it on to Shin, there was definitely a price that Isadore wanted.
“Hah… I can’t fool you.” The silver-haired youth shrugged his shoulders. “I’ve been thinking about that day a lot… The day where you confessed everything to us.”
“You see, I have been caged almost my entire life. I have never been outside of the Capital, and I never had any peers as you had in Junius or Ariel. Your story, your happiness, your grief… For some reason, it seemed so distant to me. Yet, it was something I yearned for.” Isadore placed his hands behind his back and poured his heart out. “I want to help you achieve your dreams, Shin. Just imagine, an organisation with you as the leader, and me as the Chief of Intelligence. If we include the assistance that Kanari and Elrin would bring, what heights could we possibly reach? I want to find out!”
“So you’re using me as an experiment to figure out your life?” Shin knew next to nothing about Isadore’s past. The silver-haired youth had always been an enigma, a puzzle that couldn’t be solved. However, with Isadore’s heartfelt confession, Shin started to piece together what the youth truly wanted.
“You could say so… I want to break the chains and soar in the air, and perhaps you are the key for me to do just that…”
“I see…” Shin moved closer to his buddy and held both his shoulders firmly. “I accept your resolve, Isadore!”
“Yeah… Let’s go to the Land of Dreams!”