“Take a left here and walk straight! We’ll reach the Merry Waterfall then!” A high-pitched excited cry echoed through the rocky terrain of a small and hidden valley, bringing life to the godforsaken landscape.
Five throbbing footsteps crackled on the vast numbers of pebbles and gravel on the earthen floor as vultures circled high above in the skies, hoping for an early meal this beautiful morning. A checkered brown rattlesnake slithered its way out of the cracks between the trenches to identify its unwelcomed guests only to get washed away by a foreign river current. Wiping his forehead off of any sweat, Isadore turned to the sole person that knew the terrain.
When Shin first stepped foot into the valley where snakes and tarantulas roamed freely, he immediately scooped the young thirteen-year-old onto his back lest any mishaps were to happen. Furthermore, it was an excellent method of physical training, something he lacked severely when on the road.
“Latina, are you sure there’s a waterfall after this valley? It’s so dry out here!”
“I’m positive! Back in the village, there was a tradition for all of us to celebrate the Day of Spirits at the Merry Waterfall! It’s where I awakened my Spirit!” Latina retaliated with her chin up high in the air. If it came to the Estrella Region, she was far superior compared to the seven young heroes. “If the Black Masks were to choose a remote location to hide their bases, the deep cave behind the waterfall would be a great choice for them!”
For the past few days now, Latina had been guiding the group to significant hotspots that were mostly untouched by humans that could serve as excellent places for the Black Masks to hide their bases. While Elrin, Shizen and Ella stayed behind to guard the horses and supplies, the remainder of the group all travelled in hopes of catching a glimpse of Black Mask activity. Unfortunately, all of their searches thus far were fruitless as all they got were the defecation of wild animals and a tonne of sweaty clothes.
“If you say so…” Isadore rolled his eyes and continued to move forward. It wasn’t that unusual for the team to be lethargic. They had been on the prowl for almost a week now without much success. Even the most dedicated Alliance members would turn listless after this many failures.
The young mercenary raised her right index finger to retort, but the words she wanted to say remained unspoken. She was just a guide, it wasn’t appropriate for her to argue with her clients. Hence, Latina was forced to eat her words and return to pushing her weight on Shin’s shoulders, which didn’t go unnoticed by the lean young man.
“Don’t mind him. He’s just tired.” Shin’s voice was as sweet as the summer’s nectar while he pushed her up his back to adjust his posture. “Once we’re done with the remaining few places you mentioned, we’ll explore the Crypts of the First Men. At that time, you wouldn’t have to come, and if need be, I’ll arrange for someone to take you back to Huuring City.”
“Brother Shin…” Latina tightened her grip around the toned white neck of Shin’s as she breathed into his ear. “I just feel so useless. You hired me to be a guide, and I haven’t been doing my job! There’s not a sign of Black Masks even after I brought you to all those places!”
“Hehe, your job is to be a guide of the Estrella Region! There’s no need to stress yourself out!” The youth continued to console the distraught girl. During these past few days that he had spent with Latina, Shin was reminded of the good old days where he had fun petting Elyse and Emma, back when they were as adorable as puppies. Now that they were in their late teens, it proved rather tricky to cuddle or piggyback his younger sisters. Apparently, they were too ‘grown-up’ for such activities.
“I… Nevermind…” Nestling deeper into Shin’s back, Latina just remained silent. She felt so worthless. The seven young heroes, Shin especially, had done so many things for her that it was impossible to pay them back for their grace. They had saved her life twice, gave her beautiful showers and had even taught her the basics of cultivation. They had done so much for her but the one thing that she could do for Shin and the others, Latina had royally screwed it up.
Though it wasn’t by any fault of her own, Latina still felt inconsequential and wanted to dig herself a hole to bury into.
After a few minutes, a faint humming sound resonated through the crisp summer air, resembling that of a colony of bees buzzing about from a distance. The intense heat that Shin and the other’s felt started to dissipate as the wind turned moist while the fragrance of diluted flowers filled their noses. To find the source of that delicate noise, the group rounded the corner as per Latina’s directions and was greeted with a whirring waterfall.
An unusual sight for a dried up valley, the thirty-metre tall waterfall flowed violently down into the vast oceanic blue basin beneath it, splashing thousands of water droplets into the air and soaking any critter that dared to roam near it. The bright sun sent rays of dreamy brilliance, turning the ever-flowing waterfall into a glistening cataract of divine silvery light and at the same time, bringing a little joy to the heavy shoulders of the group.
“Wow, there really was a waterfall in this land…” The silver-haired elf-like man gaped in awe. However, at the same time, Isadore dropped his shoulders. At first glance, there wasn’t any signs of the Black Masks. There wasn’t even the signature mana imprint that was found in most of the syndicate’s bases. Most likely, this location was a bust as well. “Latina, you said that there was a cave inside the waterfall?”
“A-Ah yes!” Surprised that Isadore had addressed her so abruptly, Latina fumbled on her words before pointing straight at the stone path that started from the bottom of the waterfall and sliced through the interior of the rocky cliff in one swipe. “During the Day of Spirits, the High Priest would ask us to walk through on that path where you start as a human and walk out as a Spirit User. The Merry Waterfall was a sacred ground for our small village, but once everyone left for a bigger city, it had been left alone.”
“Hmmmm… Though it’s highly unlikely for the Black Masks to have a base there, it wouldn’t be a stretch if it was used for other purposes.” Isadore thought out loud to himself. “I’ll go look inside for clues. The rest of you stay here and rest for a bit.” Leaving the group to enjoy the rustling rapids, Isadore leapt headfirst onto the path and cautiously walked into the waterfall, disappearing from everyone’s sight.
“Alright, you heard the man.” Shin clapped his hands and immediately dropped to his bum. After hiking up and down for the better part of the morning, even he felt a slight strain on his blistered feet. “Let’s take a thirty-minute break. After this, we should return to base to plan our advancement in the Crypts of the First Men.”
“Honestly, I didn’t think that this mission would be a dead end as well.” Kanari dropped next to Shin and threw her head back. They had been on multiple missions, and there had been many times where they wouldn’t find anything on the Black Masks. However, for the final mission that was assigned to them, Kanari’s gut feeling told her that it would be a hit. “Looks like our legendary journey has come to an anticlimactic end.”
“Hey, hey! We still haven’t searched the Crypts of the First Men!” Her partner retorted. “This mission is far from over.”
Though Shin had said that, deep in his heart, the young man couldn’t help but feel the same way. He had learnt many things from his adventures with his best friends. How to lead a team. How to live effectively outdoors. How to track people without the help of others. How to fight in a large group. All of these were important aspects of this journey that would stay with him for a lifetime. However, the most crucial lesson that Shin had learnt was that no matter how one cuts it, peace was always better than chaos and sometimes, the epic tales of heroes were often overhyped.
So what if he didn’t find any clues about Junius? In his adventures, he had often witnessed the aftermath of a Black Masks siege. The ones that genuinely suffer weren’t the members of the Alliance or the White Knights that were dispatched to deal with the enemies, but the thousands of innocent civilians that just wanted to go about their daily lives. Sometimes, an annoying mission was much better than a torturous one where hundreds were expected to perish.
“Of course it isn’t over!” Kanari chuckled and moved behind Shin. Laying both her silky hands on the young man’s tense shoulders, the ethereal beauty immediately located his Myofascial trigger points and placed an adequate amount of force into her thumbs, bringing out audible moans of pain with a slight tinge of comfort.
“Hey, Emma…” Natalie, who had been observing the entire group for the past few days, finally gave in to her curiosities and turned to the bob-haired maiden who was watching the two’s interactions with a warm gaze. “What’s going on with those two? Are they an item?”
“No, they’re not.”
“Really?” The middle-aged mercenary twitched the corners of her lips while tilting her head at Shin and Kanari. Natalie had attempted to figure out the relationship dynamics of the seven young heroes ever since she first met them. From what she could observe, all seven of them were terrific friends with Shin being the actual glue that kept them all together. However, as she delved deeper into their relationships, the more confused Natalie became.
Ella and Shizen had some dependency issues which resembled that of a mother and son rather than a couple. Isadore was a lone wolf that was friendly with everyone and seemed to possess a brother-sister-like relationship with Kanari. Emma was the calm and benevolent saint that listened to everyone’s woes, while Elrin was the resident joker that did everything her way.
And then, finally, there were the two ‘leaders’ that continued to confuse Natalie till this day. Evidently, the entire group respected both Shin and Kanari judging by how well they listened to both their orders. In fact, Natalie initially thought that Kanari was the leader of the group until they were on the road. As much as they were good friends, it was odd for a group such as their own to have two alphas. Back in Huuring City, if there were two ‘leaders’ in a mercenary troop, there were bound to be significant issues, and the troop wouldn’t even last a single year. Yet, the seven heroes were as cordial as can be, with Shin and Kanari having the closest relationship from what Natalie could see.
If they were husband and wife, then the relationship dynamics would make sense, but it was undeniable that they were far from that stage. Shin would at times distanced himself from the young maiden that any man would love to touch and at other times, he would place on his trust on her shoulders. It was a weird sight to behold for the unmarried Natalie, and she didn’t know what to make of it.
Nonetheless, it wasn’t her business to stick her nose in the affairs of her benefactors, so Natalie just remained silent on the issue. So long as Latina and the seven heroes were safe, the middle-aged mercenary was content.
Speaking of safe…
“Kanari… Did you feel that?” While enjoying the massage of the most sought after woman in the Himmel Empire, the hairs on Shin’s arms began to rise, and a chill ran through his entire being.
“Yeah, I did.” Stopping her elegant flowing hands, Kanari immediately cast her Spiritual Body Enhancement and merged with her Kumiho. The snowy white ears on top of her head fluttered as she began to commit a more thorough scan of the area. At the same time, Isadore had jumped out of the gushing waterfall with his spear summoned and eyes sharpened.
“Guys, there’s trouble,” said the silver-haired young man. “There’s some carcasses of Spirit Beasts and remnant skeletons of Dalits. The Black Masks have been here.”
“There’s some movement two kilometres from here. I can’t confirm if it’s wild animals or humans.” The fox lady grimly stated her findings.
“Damn it!” Almost instantly, Shin created a lengthy water spear which slowly changed its state within a few seconds. Bringing out his favoured Spear of Aiglos, the young man barked out his orders while preparing for an inevitable clash. “Kanari! Emma! The two of you aid Natalie in bringing Latina out of here! If there really are Black Masks, fire the flare! Isadore, you stay with me as we slowly cover their retreat! On my mark, we run!”
It was better to be safe than sorry. In a situation where the enemy was unseen, it was better for the group to just retreat blindly, rather than to allow an ambush that might encircle and eradicate them.
“What fine senses you have.”
Alas, their observation skills came a little too late. By the time Shin had finished his orders, several dark shadows had emerged and surrounded the six individuals. Of the ten shadows, three remained floating in the air, indicating that they were at least in the Spirit Spectre stage. Staring straight at the youngsters that tread into their territory, the Black Masks pointed their weapons at the group. Their leader, a Spirit Spectre who wielded a two-metre-long hiltless odachi, levitated down to the ground and spoke out in relative tranquillity:
“It’s fortunate that you have noticed us too late. Otherwise, chasing you would be a pain in the ass. Oh, killers of Sanbert.” The Vaishya’s voice was soft but firm. Strong but youthful. It was a voice that had tortured thousands of victims, but for one member of the group, that voice created a thunderstorm within the depths of his mind as he senselessly turned his back around.
Their eyes locked and the world seemed to come to a standstill. Nothing else mattered in Shin’s mind at this moment. Everything that he had trained for suffered for has boiled down to this one moment. The moment where he reunited with the one person he loathed the most in the world. The moment where he would give justice to those that perished at Frie Mountain that fateful day.