“Hah… What’s taking Shin so long to come back?” A tearful moan echoed through the halls of Imperius Academy, one that was so mournful that ordinary bystanders would think that a murder had just taken place.
“He’s attending a training exercise, of course, it would take him a while to return.”
A gorgeous young girl replied the indignant cry with a hapless expression as if she had heard this complaint a thousand times before. Brushing her luscious black hair, the girl closed the leatherback book that she carried with a snap and got off her chair.
“Shizen, get up! It’s unbecoming to lie in the middle of the courtyard!”
“Eh~. It’s not like there’s anyone here!” Shizen waved his four limbs like a wanting baby in protest. “Leave me be! I just finished the last flask of water that Shin had given me. The only way I could feel better is for an endless amount of rain to fall!”
‘This brat…’ Kanari cursed the young man mentally, something rare even for her.
Ever since Shin, Elrin and Isadore had left for the Land of Dreams, Kanari had been spending more and more time with the rest of the clique. On the side of the orphan twins, she was more or less settled. Bribing, no incentivising them with a plethora of luxurious items as well as showing how good of a lord she would be, Kanari had brought Ella and Emma over to her side convincingly.
Emma, who was among the top three people in Shin’s life, alongside Elyse and Lady Seph, was a prime target for Kanari. If she wanted Shin to entirely join her faction, it was best to have help from the inside. Of course, that wasn’t the only reason why she wanted the two Ice Archers to join her ranks. Though they weren’t in the top ten of the school rankings, the twins were a frightful pair when it came to work ethic and overall talent. Even if Shin didn’t exist, Kanari would have loved to poach the pair to come work for her.
Shizen, on the other hand, wasn’t as easily moved.
Kanari may be young, but she had seen her fair share of deception and politics. She was well aware that people would only act when there was a benefit for themselves, and there was always an agenda for each movement that anyone makes. If someone had approached her with a gift, there was definitely something that they wanted in return.
However, all of those rules that she had been taught of since she was young had been thrown out of the window when it came to the Freak of the Dundlewoods.
Kanari had offered him numerous deals that would make high-tiered members of High Society drool with envy. A private villa? A well-paying job for the rest of his life? Connections to anything that he desires? All of those terms were brought up in the contract that she had drafted for Shizen, but it was all for nought.
The nature boy would ignore all benefits that he could have possibly received and would return back to his favourite habitat, the glass pyramid greenhouse that allowed him to bask in the sun.
Shizen couldn’t be moved by worldly possessions, a trait that Kanari had never encountered in her entire life. The only thing that could possibly motivate Shizen was the black-haired boy that she hadn’t won over, which made it a double conundrum for the young girl.
Whenever Kanari tried to talk some sense into Shizen, the boy would brush it off as a joke and continued to do whatever he wanted. Up till this day, the Highgarden Duchy’s heir still had no idea what Shizen wanted to do in the future or why he had joined Imperius Academy in the first place. Nevertheless, Shizen was still one of the four cultivators in her year that had reached the Spirit Core realm, making him one of the most talented youngsters of his generation.
If by some miracle, Kanari had managed to poach Shizen over to her camp, it would be a significant win for the Highgarden Duchy.
“Hah… Shizen, remember that dark fizzy drink that you drank at Elrin’s store?”
“What about it?” The youth tilted his head with expectant eyes, his movements akin to that of a child that begged for candy from his parents.
“I have one or two cartons of it stored in my secret stash. Do you want it?” A sinister grin climbed up the young girl’s mouth.
“Of course I would!” Suddenly gaining back his vigour, Shizen jumped to his feet like a puppy who had found its treat. “Although it may not be as delicious as Shin’s juice, it’s still not a bad choice.”
“Pffft…” Kanari nearly choked. She could never get used to how the nature boy referred to Shin’s created water, no matter how many times she listened to it.
Bringing the innocent Shizen all the way to the amphitheatre that she had first brought Shin to, Kanari readied herself for whatever reaction the boy had to the Soul Tree. For the longest time, she wondered how Shizen would behave in front of the legendary remnant of the Empyrean Wonder, the Tree of Illusions. Since Shizen had awakened the Adivinar Tree, perhaps he might gain an epiphany on how to proceed with his own cultivation.
However, every time Kanari tried to lure the youth into the amphitheatre, Shizen would avoid the matter entirely and cling onto Shin as if he were a koala bear. After a year of knowing Shizen, Kanari had finally managed to persuade him to witness the grandeur of the Soul Tree for himself, but before that…
“Oh, Kanari and Shizen? That’s an unnatural pair.”
As they were walking over to the amphitheatre, two young boys who had been training caught sight of the pair. The pudgy looking one came forward first while wiping the sweat off his forehead.
“Eeekkk, Danroy!” Shizen visibly jumped. Evidently, the incident during the orientation week still left a scar in the young boy’s heart.
“Haha, I’ll be hurt if you continue to act like that.” Danroy chuckled. After being beaten thoroughly by Shin during the Year-End Tournaments, the Rhinoceros kid had tamed down and had stopped living his life chasing another’s shadow.
The past Danroy would have asked Shizen for a rematch to determine who was the stronger man, but now, he couldn’t be bothered who was superior.
“Suji, help me talk to him!” Danroy turned to the sinewy youth whose face was wetter than a swimming pool.
“You reap what you sow.”
“Hah… I don’t have any allies huh?” Downtrodden, the pudgy young boy turned to the gorgeous black-haired girl that had stood at the apex of her generation for many years now. Before, he would gaze at her figure with envy as he fantasised about having her genius. Now, Danroy just saw her as a fellow student that was close to the person that had bested him.
“Kanari, I thought that you would have joined Shin in the training exercise.”
“It’s not like I didn’t want to…” Kanari adorably rolled her eyes. Puckering her lips, the girl looked as menacing as a squirrel that wished to horde as many nuts as she possibly could. “But I have my own limitations.”
“…” Suji was the one who had picked up on Kanari’s despondency. As an heir of a military family, the youth knew how much pressure the girl was under, more than anyone else her age.
“Haha, what was that?” Kanari giggled. Suji wasn’t particularly adept at social interactions and seeing him trying to comfort her greatly amused the young beauty. “There’s no need for the Son of War to feel pity for me.”
“I…” Rendered speechless by Kanari’s sharp rebuttal, Suji choked on his saliva. “It doesn’t matter…”
Turning his back, the young man who was way too muscular for his age decided to leave Kanari and Shizen alone for the time being. However, before he could muster up the strength to walk away, Suji gave the girl a few parting words.
“Once I beat Shin, the next person I’ll target is you.” Suji glanced over his shoulder, his eyes showing a glint of determination that was capable of matching a warrior at war. “Get ready for that.”
“I welcome the challenge.” Kanari waved indifferently. She had been challenged thousands of times before, and not one person had managed to best her in battle. For Kanari, Suji was no different from the rest of the fools that dared to step in the arena with her. Furthermore, his hurdle wasn’t truly her…
“But you would have to beat Shin first.”
“Hah.” Suji flashed a wry smile and didn’t say anything more. A rematch between the two was inevitable, the problem was, how much stronger would the both of them be when they faced each other once more?
“Hehe, Suji’s shy.” Danroy snickered in entertainment as he watched his childhood friend saunter away. “I should leave as well. Once Shin returns, tell him that I want to meet. Just to catch up.”
“… I’ll relay that to him.”
“Thanks!” Danroy waved goodbye to the duo before chasing down the sinewy youth that had left for the showers.
“That fatty… He seems kind of different.” Shizen, who had been observing the entire interaction in silence, finally spoke out. While he wasn’t particularly adept in reading social cues, even the nature boy could tell that something had changed with Danroy.
“Yeah, Shin changed him apparently.” Kanari didn’t go into the details.
“Anyway, let’s go! Don’t you want your cartons of fizzy drinks?”
“Of course I do!!!”
Skipping their way into the amphitheatre, Shizen had naively followed Kanari all the way until they reached the Soul Tree, the sole artefact that remotely resembles an Empyrean wonder in Imperius Academy.
“This is…” Taken aback by the sudden mystical tree, Shizen felt a deep longing in his heart.
The Soul Tree was capable of bringing out the deepest emotions that a person had buried down in their consciousness, and coming in direct contact with the spectacular entity would send the cultivator into an emotional spiral.
Fear. Sorrow. A yearning for something more. Shizen felt himself being entangled in those emotions that he thought he never had. After a brief period, a crystalline teardrop dripped down from his mournful eyes and fell beautifully onto the ground.
“How do you feel?” Kanari probed. The Soul Tree would never threaten anyone’s life, and being exposed to the enigma would only serve to enhance any cultivator’s comprehension of themselves and their Spirits. For someone known as the Freak of the Dundlewoods, there was no doubt that the Soul Tree would have given him an endless amount of benefits.
“Dizzy…” Shizen rotated his head about three times before landing straight under the Soul Tree. Lying his head on the foot of the plant, Shizen felt a wave of lethargy hit his cranium as he fell into a deep slumber.
“What?!” Kanari exclaimed. “He really sleeps anywhere…” Turning to the sky, Kanari let out an unpleasant sigh.
“How did you even manage to tame Shizen?”
“Mistress, should I wake him up?” The female butler that had been hiding in the shadows finally made her appearance. Her face was full of annoyance at how indifferent the Freak of the Dundlewoods was acting towards her young master.
“No, just leave him.” However, instead of sharing her subordinate’s anger, Kanari didn’t feel any resentment to Shizen. “I was the one who brought him here in the first place. Let’s just wait for him to wake up. Oh, set up the table, would you? Prepare that fizzy drink as well. Once Shizen awakens, I’m sure he’ll feel thirsty.”
“As you wish…”
An hour had passed since Kanari first brought Shizen into the presence of the Soul Tree. Sipping on her favoured tea while continuously reading her prized book, Kanari patiently waited for Shizen to get out of his hibernation. Fortunately, she didn’t have to wait for long.
“Urghhh… What happened?” Shizen got up with a dreadful headache. His knees weak and legs numb, the boy could barely stand up and was nothing more than a baby deer trying to get a foothold of his bearings.
“Just rest for now.” Kanari stood up from her fluffy white table and brought over the mug of black fizzy liquid that her butler had prepared. “Here drink this.”
“Thanks…” Gulping down his second favourite drink of all time, Shizen immediately felt refreshed as the gassiness of the liquid rejuvenated his sleepy state.
“How are you feeling?”
“I’ve been better.” Turning back to the Soul Tree that lay behind him, Shizen wore an incredulous expression.
“Sorry about that. I thought that the Soul Tree would help with your cultivation, just like it did for Shin and me.”
“You couldn’t have warned me about it?”
“If I did, the effect wouldn’t have been as potent.” Kanari laughed. “As an apology, you can have as much of that black liquid as you want. I brought a few barrels of it just for this moment.”
“The carrot after the stick, huh?” Shizen snorted. As much as he hated Kanari for her actions, he couldn’t stop gulping down jug after jug of the delectable beverage.
“Anyway, what was that?”
“A Soul Tree. A mutated plant that had been in close proximity to the Tree of Illusions, one of the few Empyrean Wonders of the world.” Kanari explained. “Since you had awakened the Adivinar Tree, I’d thought that it would be worth a shot for you to experience the Soul Tree’s powers firsthand. And from the looks of it… My bet had paid off.”
Shizen may look to be in a weakened state, but the truth was, his spiritual energies were currently off the charts. He had just entered the Spirit Core realm and yet, he looked as if he was on the verge of breaking through. Compared to the first time she experienced the powers of the Soul Tree, Shizen had a much better haul.
“Yeah… I sort of understand what had happened…” The Freak of the Dundlewoods looked down at his hands with wonder. As someone who lived on instincts and moved on a whim, his sensitivity to his own bodily state was much more acute as compared to a normal cultivator.
Shizen knew that the greatest harvest that he got wasn’t the surge in mana, but something else entirely…
“The Tree of Illusions… An Empyrean Wonder is it?”
“Yeah, what about it?”
“Do you know how to get there?”
“Huh?” Kanari raised her eyebrows at the sudden question.
“I feel like… There’s something more for me there. If I somehow manage to make it to the Tree of Illusions, maybe I can make sense of what’s in store for me in this life.” Shizen raised his arms in the air as if he were a cardinal leading a sermon. Unlike his usual drowsy state, Shizen looked like a man on a mission, as if he had finally found a purpose to keep on going.
Naturally, Kanari was startled by the boy’s change of attitude. “Where did you even get that from?”
“Just my gut feeling.”
“Gut feeling, huh…” The black-haired beauty bit her fingernails. “Well, it’s not like I don’t know how to get to the Tree of Illusions, but not everybody has made it out alive from that place. If you want to get there, you must at the very least be a Spirit King or Emperor, and even then there’s no guarantee that you’ll see the Tree of Illusions.”
While other Empyrean Wonders could be observed at plain sight, the Tree of Illusions always hid itself in the famed Illusory Canyon. As its name suggests, the Tree of Illusions would use a myriad of false realities to confuse those who dared to tread into its territory. Even a Spirit Saint had once perished to the mystery that was the Tree of Illusions. Legend has it that only those who it deemed worthy would have the chance to witness it in all of its splendour.
“I… Still want to try!” Shizen straightened his back. “There’s definitely something there! I must see it for myself!”
“It’s not like I’m stopping you from going…” Kanari placed her index finger on her lips and fell into deep thought.
“How about this? Join my Highgarden Duchy, and I’ll provide you with the resources to become a Spirit King or Emperor. Once you have reached that stage, I’ll convince one of our Spirit Venerates to escort you to the Illusory Canyon. That way, you would have a better chance of making it back alive.”
“Will I be forced to kill people?”
“Huh?! Where on earth did you get that stupid idea from?!” Kanari’s heart nearly skipped a beat. Was Shizen under the impression that she was going to use him as a gladiator from now on? Was that the reason why Shizen had been avoiding all of her deals?
“All I need you to do is train well. I will handle the rest. Also, I promise you that I won’t force you to do anything that you really hate to do!” Kanari explained it in the simplest way possible. As much as she wanted to lock Shizen into a job that could benefit her immediately, she still needed to examine his strengths and weaknesses. While becoming a warrior that could defend her land was tempting, many more jobs suited the non-combative boy’s character.
For instance, Kanari could appoint Shizen as a developer of fertile soil, something that could potentially boost her Duchy’s harvest in the long-term. Nonetheless, the most important thing was to win Shizen over to her side. She could iron out the details in the future when Shizen had grown to become a top-tier cultivator.
“Also, I’ll provide you with as much black fizzy liquid as you want.”
“Hmmm, alright. I agree.” Shizen finally fell to the sweet whispers of Mephistopheles, enabling Kanari to gesture a triumphant fistbump behind her back.
‘One down, one more to go!’
Never giving up on bringing Shin over to her faction, Kanari found north and gazed into the distance.
‘I wonder what you’re doing now?’