Kanari’s Lunar Beam brought fire and ashes on the forest floor, triggering a minor earthquake tremor in the process. The leaves and the muddied floor had been thoroughly incinerated, and piping hot steam that could melt down gold smoked high up into the skies. Their enemy defeated, Kanari and Shin could finally descend from the canopies, and rejoin their group in securing the location.
“Is he still alive?” Emma thought out loud. Kanari’s Lunar Beam was one of their most destructive attacks. The temperatures reached within that ray of light could match that of a volcano’s magma and the force being exerted could break through any Aegis that the world possessed. Nonetheless, a Spirit Spectre wasn’t one to be underestimated.
After a full minute, the steam began to clear as the rain continued to fall, revealing a fully intact body. His robes had been burnt off, and his body had been charred, but the Vaishya could still moan in agony while rolling on the floor.
“Even Kanari’s Lunar Beam didn’t kill him?” Elrin gasped. It has been a while since they had fought an opponent that could fully withstand the wrath of the deadly attack. Not to mention, Shin had sealed all his meridians using the Yellow-Eyed Dragon Needles. It was a miracle for his body to withstand turning into a pile of ash. Alas, that Varja-like body of his could no longer protect him as that one Lunar Beam had emptied out all of his mana.
“All… father… All… father…” The Vaishya had long lost all motor functions and had ceased to remain as a human. With his spiritual energies drained and body fatigued, the Black Mask had turned into a mindless Dalit, that could only crawl in hopes of bringing down his opponent. Even if Shin and his group healed him and brought him back to Alliance Headquarters, there was no way that the Vaishya would last to give any information about the Black Masks.
“Such a pitiful soul.” Unable to take it any longer, Shin snapped his fingers and created a water spear that pierced through the Vaishya’s heart, bringing his miserable life to a tragic end. “May you find peace.”
Shin closed his eyes for a moment to give a silent prayer. His comrades did the same thing. The Vaishya may have conspired to kill their lives, but he was just a lamb that had lost its way. He and the captured Dalits were no different. The Allfather manipulated every single Black Mask to do his bidding and commit nefarious deeds under his umbrella.
“Hah… How many lives have to be lost before the Black Masks are eradicated?” Falling on her bum, Elrin asked the question that everyone wanted to know the answer to. Each Black Mask that they kill was originally a free man or woman. If not for the circumstances of their lives, they wouldn’t have turned to the Black Masks and neither would they have lost their lives in such an unjust manner.
“We just have to take things one step at a time.” Isadore cracked his shoulders and released his spear. “Deus Citadel wasn’t built overnight. We have laid down the foundations over these four years, and the rope is tightening around the Black Masks’ necks. Soon, we will taste victory.” For someone of his heritage, it would bring him the greatest joy if the Black Masks were finally wiped out.
The Kori Federation weren’t the only victims of the Black Masks. During these four years, attacks had been recorded within the Himmel Empire and the Lantis Republic alike. Small towns wiped out. Villages displaced from the constant threat of beast hordes. And the most significant event of all, yet another Purge had been led by the Black Masks to demolish Aldrich’s Keep. With more than a hundred thousand beasts, the Black Masks led a horde equivalent to that of the one that wreaked havoc on the Keep so many years ago. Perhaps the Black Masks thought that with the Guardian Rock gone, they would be able to steamroll through effortlessly. Hence, they didn’t even send the two Tier 9 Spirit Beasts to barge their way through the rebuilt walls.
That was a mistake.
Field Marshall Egarsha led the Fifth and Thirteenth Armies with machine-like precision, completely deflecting the beast horde before it even got a kilometre before the walls. If only numbers counted, the second Battle for Aldrich’s Keep would be the most devastating defeat of the Black Masks since they announced themselves to the world. Nonetheless, the war came at a cost. Of thousands of the valiant men and women guarding Aldrich’s Keep, about a tenth of their forces were either mortally wounded or had already departed to meet with the Grim Reaper.
Being a member of the Imperial Family, as well as a proud citizen of the Himmel Empire, it was a hard pill for Isadore to swallow. In fact, none of the Himmel Empire citizens took the news well. Students from all academic institutions dropped out and immediately signed-on into the military, while the common folk spent a massive amount of resources on building new weapons and armours for their brave soldiers fighting on the frontlines. Even the Imperial Family had decreed that over twenty percent of income that the crown generates would be funnelled into the military, a practice that was rarely executed.
The Lantis Republic also had its fair share of troubles. Two years after the Alliance was formed, a fleet of Black Masks launched a naval raid on one of their defensive islands to the east. Commanding over ten thousand oceanic Spirit Beasts, the Black Masks nearly got their victory. Fortunately, the Republic’s Navy was able to send reinforcements in the nick of time and repelled the vile creatures and eradicating any Black Mask ship that they had come across.
With each nefarious deed that the Black Masks had committed, the Alliance grew stronger and stronger. The agreed number of troops at the Summit had been overturned, and now, over a million soldiers were pledged to the war. It had finally reached the stage where politics did not matter to any of the three superpowers. They just wanted the Black Masks eradicated and the Allfather’s head risen on a pike.
“See? I told you that the battle was over!” While the group was busy cleaning up and arranging the surviving members of the Black Masks for the authorities, a familiar lazy voice called them out. Shizen, who had been protecting Latina and Natalie this entire time, had brought the pair straight to the crime scene.
“Shizen! Why did you bring them here?!” Ella hollered out at the top of her lungs. If the battle hadn’t been over, the Vaishya might have aimed the two unfortunate bystanders, changing the tide of the entire battlefield.
“After Kanari’s flashy Lunar Beam, that lady begged to march over.” The short brown-haired man pointed the finger at Natalie, placing all of the blame on her. “I told her that it was unnecessary, but she wouldn’t believe me. So, I brought her here to see for herself. Also, since Kanari had fired Lunar Beam, that means that the fight is won, no?” Shizen’s absolute faith in Kanari’s abilities was the main factor for his decision to shut Natalie up by bringing her back to the scene.
“You’re such a dolt,” cried Ella. Once they returned to their inn, she would be sure to lecture Shizen once more.
“Wow… They really did it.” Natalie couldn’t believe her eyes. The Vaishya, alongside his minions, was a force that trampled over the Moon Mercenaries and could most probably require a combined effort of three mercenary troops to completely knock down. Yet, these six brats managed to effortlessly defeat the Spirit Spectre as well as restrain the remnants without suffering a single injury.
“Where’s Uncle Gary?” Latina asked Elrin, who was the nearest person to her. The leader of the Moon Mercenaries was her benefactor. He took her in when there was nowhere else for her to go. Latina needed to know if he was still among the living.
“Right there.” A wide grin crept up Elrin’s face as she led Latina towards the unconscious five men laid just a few metres away. Latina was unable to hold back the tears and immediately knelt down in sorrow. If not for Gary wanting to train her as a mercenary by taking this job, they wouldn’t be lying still in the cold ground.
“Will they be okay?” Natalie questioned.
“They’re fine.” Her answer came from an unexpected place. Shin walked forward with confidence, bringing a dazzling wide smile. “Their injuries are quite serious, but they’re out of the danger zone. You may bring them to a healer at Huuring City to further their treatment, but the most important thing is that they get some deserved rest. However, your other friends…”
Shin dropped his eyes. They had identified the corpses and placed them together in a straight line. Eight of the fifteen that came on the patrol mission had passed on into the netherworld, further increasing the casualty count of the Black Masks.
“No, it’s alright…” When Natalie ran away with Latina by her side, she already knew that not all of her comrades in arms would return back alive. Having five of them survive was already a godsend. She shouldn’t ask for more.
“Thank you, young heroes.” Once Gary’s health was confirmed, the middle-aged woman immediately bowed down to Shin and his six friends. If not for their prompt arrival, both Latina and she would have perished, and an untamable forest fire would have threatened the lives of the thousands of residents in Huuring City. “How can we ever repay you?”
“There’s no need for that.” Kanari chuckled. They were wealthier than any mercenary and had almost everything that they ever needed within their fingertips. They were only present to combat the Black Masks, and saving others from peril was an added bonus.
At that very moment, shouts from the reinforcements dispatched by Huuring City could be heard from a distance. Hundreds of mercenaries had banded together in response to the distress flare and were just inches away from arriving.
“Wait, there’s one thing.” Remembering something vital, Shin tapped his right fist over his left palm. There was a reason why their group had left the Himmel Empire to venture this far north. It wasn’t for a sightseeing trip, and neither was it for a hiking trip. They had a mission. While they had the firepower and resources to complete the mission, they lacked an essential piece of the puzzle.
“Please, request anything! It’s the least that I could do to repay you!”
“Ah, it’s really nothing serious.” Overwhelmed by the outpour of emotion from Natalie, Shin took a step back, drawing giggles from the rest of his team. After all this time, the young man still hasn’t gotten used to the reverent gazes that were sent his way.
“We need a local guide for the area. Could you introduce us to one?”
Up in the rainy skies, where the sun couldn’t reach, and the ground couldn’t touch, three silhouettes appeared atop the grey clouds, silently watching over Shin’s group with curious eyes. There was no malice in their observation, rather they were quite warm as if they were watching their young child grow up before their very eyes.
“He’s improved.” Meijing Bingying, who had been acting as Shin’s guardian and teacher for the past four years, cracked a triumphant smirk. “Using evaporation to trick the heavens to rain. Perhaps only someone like Shin could consider and execute this skill.”
Xunyu Huanyuan similarly had a smile on his face. However, there also was a tinge of envy when he watched Shin effortlessly take on a Spirit Spectre. “Children with the Mark of the Celestial Dragon really are different. His growth over the past four years has been staggering, and he’s not even baptised yet! What a monster.”
At twenty-nine years old, Xunyu Huanyuan had reached the realm of a Rank 36 Spirit Adept. A feat worthy of praise as less than one percent of the world’s population would ever reach that height. However, Shin was only twenty and was already at Rank 37, one rank higher than himself!
“That’s right… It’s December, so there’s precisely one year left until the deadline is up… When he’s home and baptised by the Celestial River, I wonder what heights could he possibly reach?” Meijing Bingying added. “Elder Baobiao, what do you think?” The Pearl in the East questioned the wrinkled old man floating beside her.
A chin full of white long dragon hair and dashing eyebrows that had been tainted grey, the elderly man smiled along. A portion of his hair was tied into a bun while the rest were set free to flow to his butt. While he seemed to be carefree, Bingying and Huanyuan knew of the ferocity that the elder had. Champion over thousands of battles, the man has eaten more salt than they did rice. His opinion of Shin would prove to be most insightful for the pair.
“Hohoho~ Lass, if I may be upfront. He will surpass both Jingyu Taiyi and you. I’ve never seen someone so apt at using the water element.” There was nothing but praises for Shin from Elder Baobiao. “I’m confused though. Why didn’t he use his fourth spiritual ability to deal with the Vaishya? From what I’ve heard, he could easily kill a regular Spirit Spectre with that ability.”
“Hah… There’s actually a limit to that ability.” Bingying sighed. “His body is still too immature, and his mana pool isn’t deep enough. He may be able to kill the Vaishya in one strike, but it’ll come at a cost that his young physique may not be capable of withstanding. It’ll only be safe to use if he crossed the first barrier of mortality and advanced to the Spirit Spectre realm.”
“You won’t have to worry though! Just give it another year.” The Pearl in the East giggled sinisterly. “I promise you. As the mentor of Shin Iofiel, I’ll make him into a Spirit Spectre before he leaves for the Archipelago… I swear it.”