After a full day of fighting and killings, Commander Martha had ordered all of the Alliance’s troops to pull back behind the walls that they had built and gave the brave warriors a well-deserved rest. Also, they needed to fortify the area surrounding the Payirci, lest more Umbras flowed out. Spearmen and archers, each standing five metres apart, stood watch with vigilant eyes, careful to observe even the slightest movement on the battlefield. Today proved to be a massive victory for the Alliance members. They pushed into the ten-kilometre radius of the Payirci and had forced all of the darkness-imbued Spirit Beasts back into the crypts where they were formed. Yet, no one had the stomach to celebrate.
In fact, it was the contrary. The Payirci’s ability to resist three consecutive Spirit Venerates attacks had placed a damper onto the triumphant mood that the army had. Some began to wonder if the Payirci was truly an invincible structure. So naturally, worried whispers started to spread. What if the Payirci could never be destroyed and the Umbras that they defeated just came back stronger than ever? That was all the soldiers could think about. They had scored a major victory today, but what if tomorrow comes and there were even more Umbras, wouldn’t they be back to square one?
And the sentiment wasn’t unique to the Alliance members. Shin and Suji’s team gathered around the campfire, all with dropped arms and cautious eyes. They were protected by hundreds of powerful Spirit Users, some were even the top dogs in the cultivation world. However, none of them felt completely safe. If Shin had the choice, he would rather be in the fields watching the Payirci at all moments in case of an enemy onslaught.
“What a crazy day.” Shizen threw his head back while warming up his cold hands near the campfire. The waxing gibbous moon was starting to take refuge up high in the darkening skies while the sun had utterly disappeared from view. Lacking the warmth of the indoors, the only thing that the young men and women could do was to stay close to a fire and cuddle up in their fur blankets.
“You can say that again!” Elrin continued. She was draped in a polar bear’s thick fur coat and was holding on to a heated cup of cocoa. Her small sips tickled the ears of her friends who resisted the urge to look to her in envy. Why? Because of the indomitable grey-haired butler standing right next to her.
When Kanari made plans to advance right here in the Estrella Region, all of the ‘hidden experts’ that were sent to protect the seven young heroes saw no need to continue their facade. Everyone knew of Meijing Bingying, Xunyu Huanyuan and Elder Baobiao, but no one really knew who was protecting the rest. Kanari’s guards were the first to make themselves known. Members of Spion, including the trusted female steward that the maiden trusted with her life, came forward to help Kanari with her advancement.
Elrin and Isadore’s guardians were next. As it turned out, Elrin knew of her stalkers due to how overprotective her father was, and had often interacted with them throughout the trip. The times where Elrin went out on her small ‘shopping missions’ were actually an excuse for the white-haired girl to report her situation verbally to the guards that followed her religiously. Isadore’s watcher was more benign. Covered in entire black robes, no one could see his or her face. They were soft-spoken and only replied with nods or head shakes.
As for the remaining three young heroes, Shizen, Emma and Ella, they weren’t assigned a guard per se, which highly annoyed the Freak of the Dundlewoods. Principal Erudito had spent so much gold to get the boy into his academy and didn’t even bother to send someone to protect him? Shizen was looking forward to returning so that he could give the bronzed-face man a firm earful.
It really was a cold evening. Shin didn’t know if it was a sign of things to come, but the youth felt as if there was a hole in the back of his body. He wasn’t sure if an Umbra or worse still, a Black Mask would creep up on him while the soldiers rested. Hence, Shin wasn’t in any mood to lay with his eyes closed.
“Are we going to ascend the tower with the White Knights?” A throwaway comment. No one really knew who said that but everyone fell deep into thought.
In some eyes, there was fear and uncertainty. Well, that was to be expected. A Payirci was as foreign as the Uncharted Wilderness itself. The dangers of the floating tower have never been documented, and who knows how many Umbras were roaming inside? Though, for others, the mission to climb the tower was as alluring as a call to adventure. Suji and Natasha, the two battle whores, were shivering. Not because of their fear of the unknown, but because of their expectations for what resides within the Payirci.
On the battlefield, they had seen Tier 3 and 4 Spirit Beasts. However, at the odd hour, there would be a Tier 5 or 6 that emerge from the shadows, forcing Spirit Lords to descend from their observation beacons to dirty their hands. If the Payirci truly was designed as a tool to train cultivators, it made sense for the tower to possess an array of Umbras, and according to the Blacksmith’s League President, there was a high likelihood that the Payirci would be divided into segments to house the Spirit Beasts.
In theory, Tier 1-3 Spirit Beasts would stay in the lower levels of the tower, Tier 4-6 Spirit Beast would guard the middle section, and the strongest Spirit Beasts would stay near the core, the top of the Payirci to protect the structure from any harm. That theory was further confirmed when a team of White Knights were sent deep into the Payirci for a scouting mission. Due to their innate abilities to evade detection, the veteran team managed to climb up over half of the tower before they were forced to retreat. However, during the short time that they had inside of the Payirci, they managed to get information on how the layout of each floor worked, what Spirit Beasts could be expected and finally, what traps were in store.
Naturally, with Shin and Suji’s group being talents that had to be nurtured for the future, they weren’t allowed to be the first teams to enter into the dangerous structure. Elite White Knight cells, all manned by at least one Spirit Emperor, would lead the charge with their weaker compatriots following soon after. Then, the Alliance Army would send in hundreds of troops to secure the lower floors and assist in the White Knights’ retreat if things went south. As for the youngsters that were here to gain experience… Commander Martha hadn’t made a decision yet.
“I think it would be better if we just laid low,” Emma suggested. “We had fought enough. We’re originally here for just a scouting mission, and now we had been dragged into this full-blown conflict between the Black Masks and the Alliance. Entering the Payirci is far too dangerous now.” The bob-haired maiden snuck glances at Shin, whose bright azure eyes twinkled with the light from the campfire.
Emma’s motive was quite clear. She didn’t want the young man to continue chasing this path of vengeance. The last time Shin met with Junius, he was almost forced to use his fourth spiritual ability, which could potentially cripple him for the rest of his days. If not for the protection of Meijing Bingying and Elder Baobiao, there was no guessing if Shin would have been lying in a coma or not. Time and time again, Emma has seen Shin bringing self-harm to himself just to bring Junius in once and for all, and time and time again, the maiden has seen Shin coming inches away from death.
“That’s a weak mindset.” Suji spat out. His eyebrows slanted and his pupils burning just like that campfire before him. “We should never spare our enemies! The Black Masks have killed so many and caused so much harm! We should be honoured to fight in the frontlines, not cower away like some cowards!”
“…” Emma didn’t dignify him with a response. Her worries were targetted right at Shin, not at the barking dog that played second fiddle here.
“Emma… We have gotten this far.” Shin tightened his grip on his fingers and turned to the young maiden. “Don’t you want to see Junius brought to justice? After all that he’s done to us? After all the people he killed?”
“That’s the end of this discussion. If Commander Martha says that we can ascend the tower, we will.” Standing up from his shaky log chair, the youth cracked his neck. The fire in his eyes was now burning as brightly as the morning sun. Though, he knew that if he remained here, the argument would evolve into the next stage. Therefore, he opted for an early retreat. “Excuse me.”
Shin walked away. His toned back was as firm as a rock, but everyone present could feel the myriad of complex emotions that he hid deep within. Kanari got up, ready to move to comfort her man, but a gentle hand was placed on her shoulders, bringing the maiden to an abrupt halt.
“Isadore?” Kanari glanced over and saw a placid-looking silver-haired youth. His eyes were gentle and gaze warm. Shaking his head, Isadore gave Kanari a simple piece of advice.
“We should really leave Shin to the twins,” the boy said. “They’re the ones who know the most about Shin and Junius’ relationship. We shouldn’t get in the way of them.” At the same time, Isadore turned around and gave Emma and Ella a nod, hinting that it was for them to chase after his distraught friend. Though stunned at first, the twins smiled at Isadore’s consideration and immediately made a beeline to follow their elder brother.
“Right…” Kanari dropped her shoulders, falling into thought. Isadore had a point. After tomorrow’s mission, there was a high chance that Junius would be taken into custody. It was a goal that Shin had been chasing for six years now. Day in, day out, his hardcore training, the blood, sweat and tears that he expended, were all for that one moment. And as much as Shin liked Kanari, the only people who had the right to stand by his side were the ones who were there from the very beginning.
“I’m going back to my tent…” Kanari said as she pulled Isadore’s hand off her shoulders. The female butler that protected her silently followed, not daring to breathe a word. Just like Shin before her, Kanari’s back seemed to be so distant, so lonely at the moment.
‘Hah… The two of you are really perfect for each other…’
When Isadore saw how emotional the two of them were, the elfin man heaved out a deep sigh. With the nucleus of their team all retreating, Elrin, Shizen and Isadore felt no need to remain breaking bread and roasting marshmallows at the campfire. Like dogs that had just awakened, the youngsters stretched their muscles before departing as well, leaving Suji’s team scratching their heads over what had just transpired.
Darkness. It was all darkness from what Shin could see. The evening vanished while the early night began. Twinkling stars began to take form beside the luminous moon, and the chirps of katydids completed the sonorous chorus of the night. However, only the sound of the insect could be heard from where Shin was standing. After the battle in the morning, the terrain had been changed as trees and boulders were demolished. If there were any remaining wildlife surrounding the Payirci, Shin would be amazed. Though his mind wouldn’t wander in that direction.
Mounting himself upon the battlements, Shin watched the nightly sky surrounding the floating tower. It was completely black, and no light whatsoever was being beamed out. If Shin didn’t know better, he would have thought that the Payirci was an oddly shaped mountain. But because he knew what it was… Because he knew who stood at the top of the tower… Shin couldn’t keep his eyes off of it.
“So you were hiding here!” Two puffing voices rung in the youth’s ears. The twins, who had been searching high and low for the young man over the past ten minutes, brisk-walked forward with reddened faces. “You sure can disappear quickly!”
“Haha, sorry about that.” Shin smiled. He looked at Emma, the girl who had raised her doubts about entering the Payirci. After some time to himself, Shin reflected on his actions and realised that he had been abusing the kindness of the twins for his own cause. Emma and Ella were both part of the orphans, and they both had a spectacular relationship with Junius. It made sense for them to have their reservations about fighting the man they used to call their brother.
“Sorry… For everything… If the two of you don’t want to join in tomorrow’s mission, I can understand. I’ll just tell Sister Bingying to leave someone here to protect you while I…”
“That’s not it!” Emma cried out. “I don’t want you to continue hurting yourself, Shin! We can’t afford to lose another one of our family!” The girl grabbed on Shin’s arm as tears formed at the sides of her eyes. “Things are good, aren’t they? We have settled down in the Capital, you have started a relationship with Kanari, and all of the orphans have their own respective careers now! Yes, we may have had a rough start, but now, what’s there to complain about?”
The girl wailed out. If you looked at things from her perspective, one could understand the woes that Emma had. They had been kicked down, spat on and finally broke apart. But the orphans continued to weather through all the trials and tribulations that they had to ascend to their current status. It was all smooth sailing from now. So long as they weren’t burdened by their past and continued to look forward, the orphans would potentially lead happy lives for the rest of their days.
However, it was easier said than done. Could Shin really forget the deaths of Ariel, Lily and Linus? Could Shin really forgive and forget Junius, the man who murdered his loved one right before his eyes? No… He couldn’t.
“Shin, Emma just fears for your life,” Ella spoke out. Similarly, her eyes were bloodshot, and her speech was muffled by the tears. “You have attained so much! Just forget the past and bask in the light of your future! We don’t want to see you injured or even worse…”
The one word that the twins, no the entire orphans feared. Shin has placed all of the burdens of their group onto his back. He firmly believed that it was his duty to bring Junius back to Chilyoja Waypoint and Frie Mountain to atone for his sins. But truth to be told, many of the orphans would rather their brother stay safe and sound, away from the dangers of the Black Masks.
“You guys…” Shin’s mouth went dry, and the words failed to escape him. The twins were just concerned for his safety, and they didn’t want him to suffer anymore. It was tempting. To halt all actions against Junius and to live happily ever after with the orphans and Kanari. Alas, some things were just too hard to let go.
“I’m sorry…” The young man brought the two crying girls into his embrace, comforting them while warming his frosted soul up. They were family. His family. But so was Ariel. So was Lily. So was Junius… Shin couldn’t just give up now. Not when Junius was literally just a stone throw distance away.
“I’m sorry, but… I have to finish it…”