The inn that Shin and the group had stayed in lacked any proper meeting rooms or conference tables. With no other choice, the seven young heroes, as well as the two ladies from the Moon Mercenaries, all gathered in Kanari and Elrin’s room, which boasted the most space among the four rooms that they had booked. The girls all took their positions on the beds, while Isadore and Shizen took a seat on the chairs that they had brought in. Only Shin remained standing as he read out the note in his hands.
“Alliance Headquarters has confirmed the suspicious movements around the Crypts of the First Men that they had seen as Black Mask activity. Through an extensive networking search, they had come to the conclusion that there was a high possibility that the base of the Blade of Death, Junius, is located around that area. All units near the Crypts of the First Men are to investigate with caution.” Shin summarised the message.
“Around that area? Does that mean he’s not inside the Crypts of the First Men?” The sharp ears of Isadore picked something up.
“Inconclusive.” Shin shook his head. “We have the green light to enter the Crypts at our discretion, but it would be better if we searched the area around it. Fortunately, our guide here is quite familiar with the area.”
“I-I will do my best!” The thirteen-year-old stood up straight and hollered out her intentions.
“Of course!” Shin smiled and rubbed Latina’s soft hair once more. After Elyse had grown, the youth had no one left to pet and Latina’s arrival into the group was a welcome change. “Our orders are to investigate and not engage. Once we map out the area with potential hotspots, we are to send the blueprints back to Headquarters where they would dispatch the White Knights to demolish the base.”
“The White Knights are coming?!” Hearing that heroic name, Natalie’s eyes sparkled in absolute delight. The war against the Black Masks had been prolonged for almost four years now. Countless lives had been lost, and families were torn apart by the vile deeds of the Black Masks. For the public, their wretched syndicate’s name had become synonymous with death and devastation.
However, as the war lengthened, one other name popped up. It’s organisation’s name had become a full counter to the Black Masks and had turned into a symbol of hope in the darkest hour. And that was the White Knights.
A unique existence formed by the Alliance of the six superpowers, the White Knights, consists of multiple teams of superagents, each led by at least one Rank 60 Spirt King. Tasked with the neutralising any threats that the Black Masks posed, the White Knights annihilates any Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas or Shudras in their path. They were the aces of the Alliance, and the general public would always hail them as heroes whenever they met the White Knights, and Natalie was no exception.
“If we find out the location of the base in the Estrella Region, yes.” Shin succinctly replied. “We may be strong, but there’s no way we could overcome an entire Black Mask stronghold. Especially one where Junius is located.”
“I see…” Natalie held in her excitement as she thought back on Shin’s words. It was the first time she had ever taken an assignment issued by someone from the Alliance. Furthermore, she was escorting Latina to protect her. The seasoned mercenary needed to learn more details about the mission. “You called him the Blade of Death earlier on. What’s that about?”
“Junius? Right…” The young man dropped down the note and closed his eyes. The air around him turned serious while the twins, who were seated adjacently to Natalie and Latina, both released sad frowns. After composing himself for a bit, Shin reached into his bag and took out a thin black paperback manual. Flipping to a bookmarked page, the young man recited:
“Junius Awter, also known as the Blade of Death. Though he’s only a Spirit Spectre, the Vaishya has proven his worth by planning many successful operations for the Black Masks. Ruthless and decisive, Junius has killed hundreds with his Obsidian Water Blade. Many of those who spectated his methods claim that it only takes Junius one shot to kill his victims. A highly wanted criminal with a hundred gold ingots to his name, the Blade of Death is an enemy that has to be apprehended at all costs.” Once he was done, Shin slapped the manual shut and took a deep breath in. For the two Moon Mercenaries, they didn’t know the history that Shin shared with Junius, but the others all held in anger, careful not to agitate the young man even more.
“We’re going up against such a dangerous individual?!” Natalie muttered under her breath. She wasn’t that afraid of losing her life to aid her benefactors. However, should anything happen to Latina, there was no way that Natalie would be able to live with herself.
“Ah, don’t worry. Our job is to investigate, not engage. If there’s any sign of danger, getting the two of you safety would be our primary concern.” Shin reassured the middle-aged lady. “No matter what, our actions reflect on the Alliance. There’s no way that we will allow innocent bystanders to perish under our watch.”
“I see…” Hearing Shin’s confirmation, Natalie was able to breathe a sigh of relief. “Do you need any horses or carriages for the trip? I can provide some from my troop.”
“That would be helpful.” The youth nodded. Usually, the group would either travel on foot or pay to hitch a ride with travelling merchants. However, with a young thirteen-year-old directing their way, it would be quite inconvenient for them to use either of those options. It would be much safer if they had their own caravan.
“The Estrella Region is west of Huuring City, and it takes about a day to get there on horseback. For safety reasons, we will be moving a little slow so we should expect to get there in two days. Once there, we are to delve deep into suspicious territory, as labelled from the map shown here.” Shin tossed out the map that he had prepared for such an occasion. “We will circle around the Crypts of the First Men, covering as much ground as we possibly can. There will be other teams investigating as well, so we don’t have to worry about reinforcements. Should we encounter any trouble, fire out any of these flares and help will arrive.”
Kanari handed out the flares that were prepared beforehand. Though they would be travelling as a unit the majority of the time, there was no such thing as absolutes in this world. Should even one of them get separated from the pack, these distress signals would prove to be handy.
“Any other questions?” Though Shin had asked everyone, his question was directed only at the two ladies from the Moon Mercenaries. By this time, the group had been accustomed to briefings like this. They only needed to follow Shin’s instructions, and everything would be fine.
“How long would we be gone?” Natalie asked.
“Estimated time of completion ranges from a week and a month. If there’s nothing in the Estrella Region, we would be back within the week. If there really is a Black Mask base there, well there’s no telling how long we would stay there.” From their experience, the missions handed down from the Alliance were usually hit or miss. Just like a mystery box, without opening the wrappers, there was no telling what would happen.
“Alright… I’ll relay that to my comrades.”
“Good! We’ll gather at the town’s entrance early Monday morning. From there, it’s a straight journey west.” With two claps, Shin ended the meeting with a charming smile. “Oh, and senior Natalie, I hope you wouldn’t mind us borrowing Latina tonight.”
“Hmmm? Is something wrong?”
“No, since the mission may turn perilous, I figured that it would be helpful if we helped train Latina so that she could fend for herself. Shizen and I would be analysing her Spirit to figure out some of the best cultivation methods for her so we’ll need a little time. If you would allow us that is.” Shin worded out the sentence as if it wasn’t a big deal. However, the moment Natalie heard his ideas for Latina, she felt a sudden blow to the head, as if someone had really attacked her with a mace.
Why was Latina still using a bow and arrow instead of fighting with her own Spirit? Wasn’t it because there was no one among the Moon Mercenaries that could effectively mentor her? Even if they did manage to teach her something, it would be cultivation techniques that even vagrants would turn a blind eye towards. Now that Shin and Shizen were offering their assistance to train the young girl, how could Natalie possibly refuse?
“Y-Yes! Of course, I would allow that!” Hiding her jubilant expression, Natalie brought Latina into her hands and forced both their heads to bow. “Please teach her as you will!”
“Haha! There’s no need to be that animated!” The youth immediately pulled up the shoulders of the two ladies. For Shin, it didn’t matter if he spent some hours mentoring Latina. Either way, he had to wait until all their preparations were complete. However, it was a different story for the thirteen-year-old girl. Shin’s few hours of tutoring would be a thousand times better than the three years she had practising under useless cultivation techniques.
Surrounded by the tender smiles of the seven heroes, Latina felt a warm, fuzzy feeling in her heart as she felt her eyes watering up. At that moment, she really felt that God had sent his guardian angels to answer her prayers. Prayers that she’d thought were fruitless. Wiping her face with the silk handkerchief that Elrin had gifted her, Latina looked straight at the black-haired young man and declared with all that she had.
“P-Please take care of me!”
The Kori Federation. The Estrella Region. Deep under the Crypts of the First Men.
Long ago, in a time long before the formation of the three superpowers. A time where the world’s most ancient organisation, the Shaolin Temple was just in its infancy, there existed a great civilisation. After millennia of constant wars where bodies would pile up higher than the tallest peaks and blood would flow more rapidly than the most turbulent of currents, three Rank 99 Spirit Saints brought the shattered remnants of humanity to create one single entity.
Ruled by those absolute monarchs, the daily battles had turned into friendly neighbourhood arguments. The mournings of loved ones had turned into celebrations of new births. Children knew nothing about the terrors of war, and young men grew deep into their twilight years, never fearing about perishing on the battlefield. It truly was the dawn after a long night for mankind.
Pleased with their achievements, the three Spirit Saints all ascended on the Day of Spirits, bringing hope and light to the ancient civilisation. Even though the name of said civilisation had long faded to dust and their structures reduced to rubble, the deeds of the three Spirit Immortals were still resonant in the ears of modern society as thousands still made the pilgrims to their memorial.
Alas, not all archaic structures of the relic civilisation were preserved. The Crypts of the First Men, a burial tomb for the most influential people among the ancient country, had been allowed to erode into nothingness. The terrain had been turned into a mangrove after years of neglect, and it takes over five hours to traverse on foot from the nearest settlement. With most of its architecture broken down with swamp vines dominating the region, only the most dedicated of archaeologists would make the trip into the crocodile-infested land area. Of course, being such remote and poorly visited location, the Crypts of the First Men had also turned into a popular hotspot for criminals to stay.
“Vaishya! Vaishya! Urgent news!”
Hidden deep within the darkness of the catacombs, there was a small facility that could store no more than ten men. There were no windows, and neither were there any elegant finishings. Just a few standard tables and bookshelves. In fact, if one didn’t know better, they would have mistaken the enclosure as a jailor’s cell. Nonetheless, for the purpose of the facility, these bare necessities were sufficient.
“What is it?” A flat voice replied the concerned Black Mask who was running in with a report.
“Vaishya Sanbert has failed his mission of burning down Huuring City! We suspect that a team of White Knights may have wandered into the area!”
“Sanbert?” The young face seated in the centre of the chambers raised his eyebrows at the sudden news. Putting his pen down, the Vaishya slid back into his chair and raised his gaze to the brown, dampened ceilings. “Up till now, he hasn’t failed a single arson mission… There must have been some complications. Have there been any sightings of White Knights?”
“Not exactly… But there have been some whispers about some young heroes that saved the peace of Huuring City. Perhaps they were the ones that stopped Vaishya Sanbert.”
“Young heroes?” It wasn’t rare for experts to look younger than they really are, especially if they broke through into the Spirit Spectre realm rather early in their lives. “Just in case, raise the defence readiness condition to level three. Reduce the number of Spirit Beasts in the base by half and get ready to evacuate on my order. We’re almost done with our task here anyway, we can afford to lose some firepower.”
“Understood!” The Shudra saluted the viridian-haired man that was still seated on his chair. His face was void of any emotion. There wasn’t any fear or anxiety in his soul and if there was, his voice did well in hiding them. “What do we do about the killers of Vaishya Sanbert?”
Taking one deep breath, the Vaishya got off his desk and reached for his black coat. At the same time, a dense dark fog congregated in his opened palm, slowly taking the form of a solid obsidian mask with a green snake embroidered on its forehead. Placing the mask on top of his cranium, the Vaishya stood ever so close to his subordinate, immediately forcing a visible gulp from the Black Mask. Like a veteran commander descended from the high heavens, Junius took one step out of the chambers and declared:
“Let me deal with them…”