After the tearful reunion that Shin and Kanari shared, the rest of the members took turns to grill the youth on his experience with the Black Masks. Specifically about his interactions with the treacherous Junius. Isadore and Emma, who were present when the brothers were reunited, had the most questions of them all. When they separated, did Junius attempt to take Shin’s life? Did Junius reveal any information about the Black Masks or the Allfather? Why was there an immense hurricane that decimated the land before they could return to assist Shin in his escape? How did Meijing Bingying appear in this desolate wilderness, where no one could ever hope to find without a guide?
One by one, Shin answered all of their questions faithfully. During their adventures, the team had learnt to be open and truthful with one another. One thing that made their teamwork gel so well was their willingness to be candid with their communications and that trait was the most evident when it came to Shin. Being their leader as well as the glue that sticks them all together, Shin shared almost everything that he knew or felt with the group and answered all of their questions, no matter how uncomfortable it made him feel. Shin was the nucleus of the cell. If the team didn’t trust him, the entire structure would begin to crumble to pieces.
Therefore, it didn’t bother Shin that he had to take almost an hour off his resting time to untangle all of the queries that the team had. At times, the group would gasp at major revelations such as the fact that Meijing Bingying had been tailing them for their entire mission. Other times, they would turn as pale as a sheet as Shin recounted his close shaves with death. However, most times, they were infuriated at traitor that worked for the dark side and at their ineptness to protect Shin when it mattered the most. Isadore especially. He had promised that he would return to rescue Shin, but in the end, when the hurricane came and decimated the valley, Isadore could only watch in horror and pray for the best for his bosom friend.
“As much as I dislike the fact that there had been a Spirit Venerate from the Lantis Republic tailing us all this while, we have to thank our lucky stars that they were there.” Isadore stroked his chin and replied lethargically. “If you had used your fourth spiritual ability out here, there’s no doubt that you’ll permanently damage your mana circuits. Meijing Bingying did well to stop you before you could use it.”
“That’s right… Hah, it really is a shame.” Shin sighed. “I spent all those resources to assimilate the shard into my Spiritual Body, and I find out that I can’t use it unless I’m in the Spirit Spectre realm. If I had full control over that ability, blasting away, that stupid monkey Vaishya would be a piece of cake!”
“That’s just a testament to how powerful the shard really is.” Isadore was there when Shin had first conceptualised of learning the ability and was even present when he promoted into the Spirit Adept realm and bore witness to the devastation it had caused. That wasn’t a spiritual ability that belonged in Shin’s mortal body. Yes, it possessed a ridiculous damage output, but the cost was way too severe for a Spirit Adept to handle. “Anyway, I’m glad that you’re fine. However, I hope there won’t be a next time.”
“I know… I know…” Shin looked down at Kanari, who hadn’t left his side for a single second and let out a huge sigh. After her tearful embrace, the young maiden simply stood by, as silent as a picture. She didn’t show any sign of emotion after her face was wiped clean by Emma’s handkerchief. It was as if she had been turned into a statue that only moved when Shin looked at her.
‘Those eyes of hers… She’s…’ Shin had only seen that look once before. It was an appearance that had brought him endless amounts of joy in the past, and it was also the one that haunted his dreams at night.
Kanari’s eyes never left Shin’s. They were interlocked for a long time before the fair maiden finally turned face slightly to the left. Though he wasn’t a mind reader, based on her rapid change of expressions, Shin could tell that Kanari was going through a storm of inner turmoil. However, that unrest didn’t last for long. Taking two deep breaths, the girl finally made up her mind and turned back to Shin with a determined look on her face.
“Shin. May I borrow a few minutes of your time?”
“Good. I’ll meet you at the south wing of the camp at midnight.” Saying her piece, the ethereal beauty left under the moonlight and headed straight back to her tent. Watching the whole debacle unfold, Elrin chuckled for a few seconds before skipping merrily away, interlocking her arms with her dear friend’s. What they said to one another was a mystery to all, but based on the imp’s dastardly laugh and Kanari’s flushed face, it wasn’t that hard to deduce what had happened.
“Shin, since you’re okay, I’ll wait for you in my tent! Tell me the good news later!” The hobbit-like Shizen took this tumultuous time to make his escape, where he would be silenced by the comfy bed that the Alliance had placed out for them.
“W-We should leave too! I’m sure Young Hero Shin needs his rest!” Natalie exclaimed. The two Moon Mercenaries were only carry-ons that served as guides for the seven young heroes. It wasn’t appropriate for them to remain hanging around when the youths were dealing with their own relationship troubles.
“Brother Shin, I’m glad that you’re fine! We’ll talk again tomorrow!” Latina, who was still wholly innocent about relationship affairs, waved a happy goodbye to her benefactor while being dragged away by her mentor.
That leaves behind Isadore, Emma and Ella to watch over Shin as he dropped his hands like a defeated boxer. The twins walked over to their brother and sat him down on a stray haystack. With one beautiful maiden on both his sides and his flowery appearance, it looked as if Shin was a playboy that toyed with the hearts of innocent young girls. Well, in this situation, that wasn’t that far from the case…
“Shin, you know that Kanari is…” Isadore shuffled his eyes back and forth before cautiously proceeding with his warning.
“I know… I’m not blind.” The black-haired young man brought both his hands up to his temples and rubbed them. Over the past few months, Kanari’s behaviour became increasingly… Different. She would tend to spend more time training with Shin. The young maiden had even attempted to learn how to bake cookies with Latina to please the boy’s taste buds. Imagine that. A future Duchess entering the kitchen for the first time. And it was all for the sake of one man.
“You know… Kanari is not messing around.” Ella leaned in and continued. “She’s not pushed by anyone to do this. The Himmel Empire and her mom has given her full autonomy to determine who she would want to partner with. Also, she has been deliberating about this for years now. It’s not some sort of puppy love that would fade away.”
“Shin, I know that you still have Sister Ariel in your mind. But, I don’t want you to remain single for the rest of your life.” Emma gently grabbed Shin’s rested hand and intertwined her fingers with his. “All of us. Ryner, Lia, Ella, Elyse, Fionn, Max, Jacob and I. We’re eternally grateful for what you’ve done for us. However, we’re now independent and can take care of ourselves. All we wish for is for you to be happy.”
‘If only it were that simple…’
Shin could tell that his friends meant well. He really could. Nonetheless, the matters of the heart weren’t that easily resolved. Shin liked Kanari. She was sweet, loyal and always there for the youth when he needed it most. Yet, there was this boulder weighing down on him that he could never absolve. Perhaps there was only one way for him to release himself from the chains that bound him, but it would take a miracle to pull that off.
“Shin… I’ve known Kanari the longest among all of you, and I can tell you this.” Isadore knelt down before the haystack and stared Shin right in his eyes. “She has never been into a guy before. Not like this. At her lofty position, men would climb mountains just to be in her presence. Her suitors include a list of princes, nobles, actors, scions of wealthy families. Yet, there was not one person that could impress her. So Shin… Though I can’t force you to be with her, at the very least, please consider it. I don’t want her heart to break.”
“I… understand.” Shin nodded and stood up from his position. There was still an hour or two till midnight. He still had ample time to consider his options. “Don’t worry, Isadore. No matter what happens, I promise I won’t hurt her.”
“That’s good…” The elf-like suave man tapped Shin’s chest with his fist and gave out a genuinely happy smile. “So, I’ll wait for the good news in our tent.”
“Don’t count on it.” Shin chuckled. Taking off into the darkness, the young man kicked on numerous pebbles while grasping the amethyst pendant that had become his signature item. If the owner of his necklace were still alive, the choice would have been as clear as day. Unfortunately, the girl has been absent from his life for almost six years now. The clear choice had become increasingly muddled.
‘Ariel… What would you have done?’
Kori Federation. The Estrella Region. The White Knights Encampment. Midnight.
Stuck in under the blanket of stars and a ravishing full moon that bore more beauty than the rest of the milky droplets in the sky combined, the temporary campsite that the Alliance had put up still remained as busy as ever. Though it was already deep into the night, hundreds of torches dominated the tents warming up the cold and breezy night. Well, not that any of the soldiers present needed any additional heat.
Their excitement for finally laying siege on the Black Masks was magnetic as more and more warriors gathered around the campfire to speak of the deeds they would do if they got their hands around the necks of those murderers. Many were still too caught up in their anticipation and could hardly sleep a wink, and that wasn’t limited to the foot soldiers. Even the high commanders couldn’t wait till daybreak arrived.
And then, there was Shin. Though he was the one that led the Alliance to this location, the dominant thing in his mind wasn’t tomorrow’s expedition, and neither was it how he would interrogate Junius, the brother who betrayed him. The one thing on his mind was the anticipation for meeting the one maiden that called him here.
‘She’s late?’ Shin checked his pocket watch. It was fifteen minutes past midnight, and the young maiden was still a no show. Though he didn’t mind the wait, it was uncharacteristic for Kanari to miss an appointment that she made. Especially by a fifteen-minute margin.
‘Did something happen?’ The youth couldn’t help but wonder. Just as he was about to make a swift turn back into his own canvas, Shin could hear soft, delicate footsteps from a distance.
Turning around, Shin immediately froze in his place. His eyes dilated, and his throat began to dry. Even in this chilly night, Shin’s back instantly got drenched with heavy sweat and beads of nervous fluid flowed down from the top of his head. The culprit for his extreme change of physique?
A stunning maiden wrapped up in a tight white kimono with floral imprints. Her originally white face had been further dusted with rouge with a hint of pink to perk up her gorgeously-placed cheekbones. The maiden had even gone one step further to tie up her hair into a traditional bun to showcase her small face and delicious-looking neck. As she approached him, a pungent aroma of scented roses and morning dew enveloped all of Shin’s senses, bringing all his thoughts to an abrupt halt. Satisfied by the boy’s reaction, Kanari brushed a strand of hair over her ear and stopped just a few centimetres away from him.
“Sorry, did you wait long?” Kanari apologetically asked.
“N-No… It’s fine…” Shin was so caught up in the girl’s appearance that he had forgotten that she was late.
“Good… Come, there’s a place I want you to see.”
Not willing to waste any more time, the maiden grabbed hold of Shin’s wrist and led him straight down the path that she had planned. Kanari used the two hours she had to push a complete makeover. First, she washed off her sweat and placed on some strong perfume. With the help of Elrin and the twins, Kanari was able to put on the most gorgeous piece of clothing that she could find. At the same time, the girls helped her to put on her make-up to enhance her beauty such that no man could resist her charms.
As the saying goes, love is war. To win a battle, one had to have the proper armour and weapons. With her trusted ‘artillery’ on her side, the chances of Kanari succeeding would be significantly amplified.
It didn’t take the pair five minutes for Kanari to reach her destination. An enormous plateau, void of any forestry or rocks. Just an exquisite night sky with billions of stars and planets as their witness. Watching as Kanari gaze up into the heavens, Shin couldn’t help but mutter:
Even Shin was unsure of what he was referring to. The starry skies were a scene to behold but adding on the enchantress of a woman that Kanari was, Shin just felt like he had borne witness to the most picturesque moment in human history.
“Shin…” With her hands behind her back and her face still pointed up high, Kanari addressed the only person with her on this beautiful night.
“We have known one another for almost five years now, right?”
“I remember the first time we’ve met. I thought that you were part of Spion and you thought that I was there to harm you.”
“Remember how we reconciled after your fight with Danroy? At Elrin’s place? That was a memorable night.”
Shin could only mindlessly reply as he heard the girl go on and on about their interactions. They were, no doubt, highs and lows in their relationship, but they had always remained to be the best of friends. Yet, after tonight, their relationship could only go one of two ways. They would never have this cordial talk like regular friends ever again. After a few minutes, Kanari finally mustered up the courage and turned to the young man that was standing right behind her. She knew that this step she was going to take would have a high likelihood of failure, but Kanari couldn’t lie to herself anymore.
“Shin… I think you know why I have called you here. Why I have dressed up for the sake of this occasion.”
“Shin! I like you!” The young maiden screamed out with all of her heart. “I don’t want to be friends anymore! I don’t want to keep standing by your side and never being able to touch you the way I want! I hate watching you feel so sad! I want to be there with you in happy times and in sadness! I want to be there when you laugh, mourn and cry! I don’t want to be just a friend anymore!!!”
Kanari poured out everything that she had bottled up. She knew Shin’s history. The reason why he fought so hard, the reason why he never gave up chasing Junius. Wasn’t it just for one person?
“I know I could never hope to replace her! But please!!! I just want to be with you…”
The incident where Shin nearly lost his life had opened her eyes. Kanari didn’t want to waste any more time being friends. Their time on this earth was limited. Just as how Shin lost Ariel before he could confess, Kanari didn’t know if the same would happen to her.
“Kanari… I…” Shin swallowed his saliva and stared straight at the ethereal beauty. He had come up with hundreds of strategies before this meeting, but they all faded to dust as he watched the girl he once called his friend burst out in emotion. Thus, he could only speak the first thing that came to mind.
“I’m… sorry… I can’t give you an answer right now.” The boy bowed down sorrowfully. He knew how much courage Kanari took to come up here and confess. Yet, he was taking the cowardly way out.
“W-Why? Why is that?”
“I… like you too.” Shin couldn’t deny that the way he felt for Kanari wasn’t that of normal friends anymore. It was reminiscent of the early stages of his relationship with Ariel, just that there were a lot fewer bruises and injuries. “I like the way you smile at me. I like it when we accidentally touch our fingers. I like how hard you work at your social skills even though you’re terrible at it.”
“So why? Why can’t you give me an answer?”
“BECAUSE I LOVE ARIEL MORE!!!” Shin dropped his head and screamed out. “Six years have passed. Six years, and I still get dreams about going on a date with her. I still remember the first time our lips touched. I still pray each and every day that I get to touch her adorable freckles once more, and… I still remember the day that she perished.”
The boy instantly looked a hundred times more defeated than he did facing the Black Masks. Shin tightened his face to prevent the tears from flowing, but his eyes couldn’t help it. Taking some time to wipe his face, Shin continued to look Kanari in the eye.
“Is it worth it?” Kanari moved forward and grabbed Shin by his head. Kanari was a head shorter than Shin, so the posture that they were in was slightly uncomfortable, but the Adonis didn’t care. Pulling him into her embrace, Kanari whispered her thoughts. “To suffer so much? To wallow in grief and heartache?”
Shin took some time to regain himself and calmed himself down with deep breaths. Grasping Kanari by her shoulders, Shin pushed himself up and watched the tearful eyes of the beauty.
‘They’re both so red…’ Shin thought. Perhaps it was their similar points that attracted Shin to Kanari. Nonetheless, that wasn’t the issue. Touching on Kanari’s supple skin, Shin smacked his lips and exhaled slowly. Was it worth to suffer that much? Shin didn’t know. However, he did know this…
“I’ll know when I see her again.”