Rushing towards the heart of the supply line group, Shin was stunned to find a middle-aged, bespectacled woman tapping her feet while checking her pocket watch every few seconds. The wrinkles on her face had gotten much more prominent since the last Shin had met her, and it was evident that she didn’t have the most relaxing of months.
“Isadore…” Shin glared at his silver-haired friend. “You didn’t think to tell me that the person who would be chaperoning us is the Auxiliary Department Head?”
“Ara, is there a problem? I didn’t think that the two of you had any deep relationships?” Isadore innocently cocked his head. Even though he knew that the two were familiar with one another, the silver-haired youth didn’t think that they were on bad terms. “Is it a problem?”
“No, not necessarily…” Shin closed his eyes and brushed his friend’s shoulders. Madam Warulee was an integral part in his ascension to the Spirit Core realm, but she was also a significant cause for a number of his headaches. Throughout the months where he was recused, the middle-aged woman continuously attempted to poach him into the auxiliary course. Even though she had the best of intentions, Shin couldn’t help but shirk away each time he saw her face.
“Shin! Isadore! You’re late!” While the black-haired youth was busy recollecting the numerous instances where Madam Warulee dangled a piece of meat above his face, hoping that the prodigious youth would take the bait, an enraged cry sounded out.
“Sorry, we got lost.” Isadore placed his palms together and smoothly lied. “Won’t happen again!”
“Tch, you better!” A vein popped in Madam Warulee’s forehead as she chided the duo. “Do you know how much administrative work I had to do to bring the two of you into the supply lines?!”
“Sorry, sorry!” Once again, Isadore rubbed his hands as if he were a sinner looking for penance. Fortunately, the god that he was praying to was magnanimous and just spewed out a warning.
“The two of you, get in the carriage. Don’t even think about leaving my sights!” Madam Warulee lightly tapped the heads of the two students and pointed back into the metallic vehicle. Although Imperius Academy was loaded, there was no way that they could purchase hundreds of Aether Cars to transport their students. Not to mention, the Land of Dreams was only a few days away by horse.
“Yes, madam!” Isadore playfully saluted before opening the brown carriage door. However, before he could get on the steps to find a comfortable position, the smile on his face froze. Eyes widened, the silver-haired boy seemingly became a statue as his grip tightened on the handlebar.
“What’s wrong?” Peering into the vehicle, Shin was curious at the object that stunned his good buddy.
“W-What?!” The moment Shin laid eyes on the interior of the carriage, his jaw dropped so wide that an apple was able to fit. It lacked any sort of opulence and barely had any cushions. The gigantic window that allowed its passengers to enjoy the view while providing ample ventilation was a plus, but otherwise, the carriage was exceedingly simple. However, what tripped the duo wasn’t the comfort level of their ride, but the person that they were riding with.
“Yahoo~ I came!” A white-haired girl beamed at the two young boys with the most pleasant smiles that Shin had ever seen. Instead of her usual extravagant clothing, the girl was dressed in a grey sweatshirt and baggy pants. For the first time, the wealthiest daughter in the Empire was looking more like a pauper than an heiress.
“Elrin, what are you doing here?!” Shin was the first to recover his wits and raised his voice.
“Why can’t I come? You’re planning something fun, and you’re trying to leave me out? That’s not fair!” Elrin pouted like a squirrel and protested. “Also, I don’t really want to keep staying in the Capital. It gets boring after sixteen years, you know?”
Unlike her appearance, Elrin’s birthday was in the middle of January, making her the ‘eldest’ of their clique. Shin knew of her birthday due to the huge party she threw and how she continually teased Kanari about being her junior.
“I’m going to treat this trip as a vacation for my sixteenth birthday so don’t mind me~.” Elrin teased the youths. Stunned speechless, Shin and Isadore stared at each other and attempted a telepathically communicate.
‘What’s going on?!’
‘The hell I know! How did she even get onto the same carriage as us?’
Isadore had to pull all of the strings that he had to secure a place in the joint training exercise. Yet, there Elrin was, with the most disgustingly sweet smile.
“Money is a great thing you know?” As if she was capable of reading their minds, Elrin interjected with a mischievous tone. “All I needed to do was offer the military and academy all of the food and drinks they needed, and they could bat one eye to make me a ‘special’ guest!”
“…” The duo’s squinted their eyes as they failed to think of words to say.
‘So much for treating all students equally!’ Shin cursed. Money made the world go round. As much as Imperius Academy boasted that they didn’t give preferential treatment to those from High Society, only a fool would reject free rations that would cut down their expenditure by half.
“Boys, we are about to depart…” A flat voice notified them from behind. “Please take your positions in the carriage, we can’t waste anymore time.”
“Y-Yes, madam!” Shin pushed Isadore into the vehicle before jumping in himself. Since their luggage was placed in another compartment, they had all the room in the world to enjoy their journey, but the two boys huddled up next to Elrin.
“What do you want?” Shin was the first to speak.
“Hmmm, nothing much. I just want to do what you guys were planning to do!” Elrin jokes. “I know that your journey to the Land of Dreams isn’t solely for the ‘experience!’ I want in!”
To avoid stressing out his friends and family, Shin purposely obscured the real reason why he was attending the joint training exercise with the military. If they knew about the Black Mask operation, even Kanari would drop everything that she had to assist Shin in his endeavours. Truth to be told, Shin was quite proud that he managed to convince his friends. Unfortunately, not everyone bought into his deceitful lies.
“You… How much do you know?” Isadore continued to ask.
“Just that this training exercise is kind of fishy.” Sensing the shift in tone, Elrin dropped her playful visage and lowered her volume. “Typically, a joint training exercise would always be in Himmel territory, and it would be no longer than two weeks. However, this time, they are going to the Land of Dreams, and it was extended to a month! Honestly, even if you didn’t join the expedition, I would have sent someone to investigate about this exercise anyway.”
“Well, you’re not wrong…” Isadore dryly smiled and fell back onto his seat. Giving Shin a helpless look, the silver-haired boy mentally stated his intentions, eliciting a firm nod from his buddy. Now that she had already boarded their carriage, they might as well rope the white-haired girl into the fray.
Isadore took his position opposite of Elrin and pulled out the map that Shin had handed him. At the same time, the convoy of over a hundred carriages started to move, indicating the beginning of their journey towards the Land of Dreams. Carefully taking his time to explain every single detail, Isadore filled Elrin in about the suspected Black Mask operations, their use of mercenaries, how the Himmel Empire was using the guise of the training exercise to investigate further about the notorious syndicate, and how the duo were planning to move once inside the Land of Dreams.
All the while, the white-haired girl had her right hand on her chin as she did her best to absorb all of this explosive information. Due to her father’s work, she was one of the few children in the Empire that knew of Isadore’s true identity. If it was intelligence that came from his mouth, there was a good chance that it was accurate.
“Hoho, you were hiding something this interesting from me?” Elrin sneered. “I’d always thought that I was the secret-keeper… To think that Shin had one-upped me this round…”
“Elrin, although we don’t know what to expect, there is still a certain amount of risk involved in us meddling about. You should stay in camp while we search the areas for clues.” Shin warned. Elrin was from the auxiliary course, and she was weaker than both Shin or Isadore physically. If they dragged her around, they would be forced to guard the white-haired girl against foes that were undoubtedly more powerful than them.
“Stay at home while the boys go out to play? No way!” Naturally, Shin’s words struck a nerve within the young girl’s body. “I have plenty of methods to protect myself, alright!”
Opening her briefcase, Elrin showcased all of the Spirit Tools that she had brought. From life-saving talismans to speed boots that enhanced her fleeing capabilities, the tools that she possessed were potent enough to defend against Rank 40 Spirit Spectres with ease. Naturally, she also had a plethora of hidden Spirit Tools that she wouldn’t arrogantly display that could deal with much more skilled cultivators.
“Hah… Elrin, we’re not playing alright! We might get injured!”
“Shin… You know, I have been sheltered all my life…” Ignoring the youth’s threats, the young girl sighed and started to recount her own life story. “I thought that I had plenty of life experiences for someone my age. I frequently participate in High Society events, I planned and managed some of the stalls in the company, also I have personally made contacts with plenty of high-ranking officials, all on my own.”
“…” The duo kept mum as the white-haired girl boasted about her accomplishments.
“However, when I heard your story, Ella and Emma’s stories… I realised how little I actually ‘lived.’ I never stepped foot outside of the Capital, I had never been to a battlefield, and I never had experienced what it’s like to lose someone.”
The minute Elrin told her story, Shin turned his head to look at the silver-haired boy. He had heard a similar story before. A caged bird trying to find its wings. Evidently, for many protected children of High Society, it was a common problem. They yearned for adventure and to live a life filled with ups and downs. Too much comfort had bored them senseless. They didn’t want to be caged anymore.
“So what if we get injured?! At least we can learn how to deal with adverse situations! I’m tired of learning theoretical knowledge that may or may not apply! I want to be in the frontlines, fighting for what I think is right!” Elrin grasped the smooth hands of the black-haired boy that sat next to her and looked at him with teary eyes. “Don’t you want to form a coalition to take on the Black Masks? I’m sure you wouldn’t want someone like me, who don’t have any experience in battle, assisting you right?”
And there was the culprit… Shin’s persuasive speech after he was severely injured by Suji had moved the two sheltered kids. For the first time in their lives, they had the option to break free from what was expected from them. In time, Isadore and Elrin believed that Shin would become a powerhouse that would change the nation, and they wanted to be part of the revolution.
“Looks like it’s checkmate, Shin…” Isadore shrugged his shoulders and chuckled. The moment Elrin brought up Shin’s sermon, there was no going back. “Just let her follow, I’m sure she’s more than capable of protecting herself. Furthermore, it’s not like we’re engaging any enemies anyway…”
“You… Arghhh, how am I going to explain it to Uncle Terlus if you get injured!” Shin thought back to the nice man that treated him well the first time they had met. “Whatever, safety’s first! If I say we run, we run, alright!”
“Yay! Shin’s the best!” Elrin locked her two hands around the youth’s neck and snuggled on his chest like a domestic cat. Irritated, the black-haired teen, peeled the girl off his body and placed her firmly on the seat next to him. Looking out at the window, Shin couldn’t help but notice that the convoy had long left the academy and was on its way to the Capital’s border.
“Elrin, we’re going to go through our entire plan once more. If you find anything wanting or if you feel that we’re going on the wrong path, feel free to voice your opinion.”
Pointing to the map once more, Shin hoped to get another person’s opinion on the plan of his. Soon an engaging conversation between three of the academy’s top talents ensued. Sometimes, Elrin would add in a new detail that neither Shin nor Isadore had seen before, and other times, the white-haired girl would be enlightened by the new material given to her. In the end, the trio passed the time while profoundly thinking about how they were about to thwart whatever operation the Black Masks had in store.