Chapter 47: The Paradise Heart (1)

With Kanari gone, Shin was left to sweep up the other forces of the Black Masks. Isadore, Suji and Natasha were doing their best to keep the Tier 6 Minotaur at bay while Shizen and the twins were fighting off the spawned Umbras and the remaining Shudras. Leafy vines sprung about as icicles flew, keeping as many foes as they could at bay. Hundreds of divine beads broke out of Elrin’s Rosary of Eternity and bound as many Umbras as they could.

At another corner, Danroy’s Bangeo Rhinoceros phantom rushed through the Shudras as if they were bowling pins, thinning down their numbers even more. They were fierce, the twenty-year-olds. Although they were outnumbered, the youngsters from the Imperius Academy were capable of at least holding their ground against the full might of Junius’ forces. A rare sight indeed, but that would only hold true if the three Vaishyas were kept at bay. And that task was solely depended on Kanari and Shin.

“We meet again, you fucking brat.” Craig circled his arms, sending out loud resonant cracks. He had been battered black and blue by Shin once before and the humiliation he sustained never subsided. Also, it didn’t help that Junius further punished him when they got back to the Crypts of the First Men, for attempting to murder his younger brother. If not for his lack of men, Junius may have cleanly cleaved off the miscreant’s head for backstabbing him not once, but twice.

“I see that your chest is well healed.” Shin entered his combative stance with a witty quip.

“No thanks to you.” It was like pouring cold water onto an open wound. The last time they fought, Shin had heavily injured the Vaishya multiple times by targeting his broad and open chest. If not for Susan continually healing his wounds, that fight might have gone in an entirely different direction.

Shin squinted his eyes as he felt the burning hostility being emitted out from Craig’s bulky body. There was resentment pulsating out from every pore of the Spirit Spectre’s body. However, there was one more emotion that Shin could feel by watching the monkey man’s expressions. And that was frustration. Most likely, Junius had laid down yet another order not to harm Shin, only to knock him out. Thus, the Vaishya was limited in his movements.

‘I could use this to my advantage…’ Shin thought. Loosening the grip on his spear, the Prince of Water allowed his weapon to turn into a puddle, stunning his opponent. A fighter dropping his armament before the battle even started? What did that mean?

“You…”

“I’ve beaten you once before. So I don’t have to use my best weapon.” Shin took a deep breath in and recreated yet another water spear, this time with a serpentine tip. Slowly, he manipulated the water molecules within the weapon to freeze it entirely. Unlike the Spear of Aiglos, this weapon wasn’t wholly coated with an icy frost. Instead, it was glazed with a mossy green, making it seem more unsuspecting. “Shape-Style Technique, Spear of Visam. I can beat you with this lesser weapon.”

“You fucking brat!!!” The Vaishya’s face turned red hot, and steam started to flow out from the depths of his ears. The black winds that encircled his hands like wristbands accelerated violently, ready to tear Shin apart, limb from limb. “Susan! Give me all of your boosts! I’m going all out to teach him some manners!”

‘He fell for it!’ Shin cheered in his heart. He knew how impulsive Craig was after that one battle with him earlier in the month. Playing with his emotions, Shin managed to make the Vaishya erupt like a volcano. A clear mind would often make rational emotions. An angered mind, on the other hand…

BOOOOOOOOOOMMMMM!!!

Craig sped forward like a prized stallion with the wind behind his back. He wanted to push Shin back with all his hurricane might and eventually, wring his body for all to see. Though, Shin wasn’t going to make it that easy for the Vaishya. He anticipated the violent charge, and instantly cast his ‘Aegis Bubble’ and ‘Arcane River’ techniques. The barrier protected Shin from the explosive wind pressure while the ethereal river slowed Craig down significantly. From the depths of the river, thousands of water droplets emerged and created a false starry sky within the chambers. It was as if the milky way had made its appearance known once more.

It took less than a second for Shin’s first attack to land. ‘Meteor Shower’, a variant ability that Shin created after getting some inspirations from Kanari’s Lunar Beam, violently sped down like heavy water raindrops. Sonic booms and thousands of dust clouds flew about when the attack landed, but Craig remained unfazed. His spinning whirlwinds had protected him from any harm.

However, Shin’s combination wasn’t complete. Taking advantage of the Vaishya’s lack of focus, the ‘Arcane River’ that laid under his ankles began to bubble, bringing forth small, minor mines that would detonate at any second. Shin wanted to cast Mines of the Ocean, but he knew that it wouldn’t damage the Spirit Spectre whatsoever. Thus, Shin improvised and used the mines to hold the Vaishya in place while he prepared to launch his newly created ability.

‘Hit him! Mystic Geyser!!!’

The Arcane River congregated itself into a tremendous dense water ball and erupted with the violence of a thousand rampaging bulls. It was an attack that would rip apart armies and destroy limbs from any average Spirit Beast. Unfortunately…

“That’s all you got?” Emerging from the steam, Craig looked bored after being attacked multiple times by Shin’s created water. His apeman body continued to hold firm, with not a single scar or bruise in sight while the black whirlwinds spun rapidly, causing winds that sounded like dragons whistling. The Temporal Chains that were attached to Craig’s body continued to beam out mana, keeping him at maximum endurance and health.

“You still think that you can beat me?” The Vaisya scoffed.

“Easily.”

“You fucking…” A vein popped in Craig’s forehead, and he bolted forward with everything that he’s got. After being underestimated by Shin for the thousandth time, the Vaishya didn’t care about Junius’ order. He was now out for blood.

In his Spiritual Body Enhancement mode, Shin likewise moved about like an agile cheetah, swerving his thickened body from side to side. The Spear of Visam spun to the back, with its hilt pointed forwards. The first punch that Craig threw missed entirely, allowing Shin to have an opening to strike the man’s chest. Not one to miss an open chance, Shin struck with everything that he had, bypassing the black whirlwinds that coated the man’s body.

SLLLLIIIICCCKKKKKK!!!

The serpentine tip tasted blood for the first time this battle as Shin’s swing managed to land a little slice on the bottom of Craig’s left nipple. It wasn’t a deep wound, and it only served to anger the Vaishya even further. Craig crossed his muscular arms together and unleashed even more black winds, pushing Shin’s lean body as far away as possible. The Temporal Chains stuck to his back continued to shine in radiant light and closed the wound that he had sustained just a second prior.

“I told you! It’s useless!!!” Craig’s face grimaced, and his mana continued to spike.

“That stung…” That hit was heavy. Shin picked himself up only to taste iron flowed out from the corner of his mouth. He hadn’t faced such a brutal attack since Mychael’s Seismic Combinations. However, instead of feeling discouraged, the young man brimmed a bright smile. A bright golden-cerulean light emerged from his core and healed all of his injuries in a jiffy, just like how Susan did for Craig. “But I’ve tasted worse.”

“How fucking arrogant! I’m going to teach you a lesson on behalf of your brother!”

Shin pointed the Spear of Visam down and bent his knees. A dozen water spheres orbited around him like they were moons to his sun and his ankles were covered with similarly dense orbs. Shin smiled. “I would like to see you try.”

The battle waged on. Blood spilt and skin tore as the two apex predators continued to trade blows. Shin had analysed and studied Craig’s martial arts extensively and was able to exploit the weaknesses that he had with relative ease. On the other hand, the Vaishya’s explosive power and dark whirlwinds hammered Shin down with pure brute force. It was like watching a gladiator fight a tactician. Craig would use his overwhelming might to land brutal strikes on Shin while the young Prince of Water would use smart movements and planned timed attacks to wear the Vaishya down.

And to wear down, he did. After a few minutes, Craig felt that his punches had turned sluggish and his muscles were tensing up. Everything seemed to turn into fantasy through the vision of Craig, and his eyes were glazing over.

‘What’s going on?’ The Vaishya wondered. His mind had always been centred on demolishing Shin, and yet, everything had just turned blurry. Though, it wasn’t just Craig that felt the burns of battle. Shin was shivering as well. His healing abilities were top-notched for someone his age and his body has grown accustomed to repetitive breakdowns. However, taking the full might of a boosted Spirit Spectre while trying to trade blows with him proved to be too much, even for a prodigy like Shin.

‘But it’s all worth it.’ Shin laughed internally, desperately trying to stop his trembling hands. Continuously casting heal, Shin looked over at Craig, the arch on his lips creeping up in pure bliss. His crude plan had actually worked!

‘I’m…’ Before Craig could figure out what happened to him, he collapsed onto one knee, fighting off the throbbing aches that pulsated through his entire body. His veins were now on full view as they turned purple in colour and his inflated muscles had finally contracted. The fur on his body disappeared as Craig returned to his human form. His tongue was twisting, and his eyes inflamed. There was no denying it, the Vaishya was down and incapable of battling anymore.

“Craig!” Susan immediately flew down and placed her rough palms on Craig’s chest. There weren’t any visible injuries since she had healed them all so it could only mean one thing. “He poisoned you!” Susan gasped. They weren’t told that Shin held any capabilities of using poison!

‘P-Poison?’ The man couldn’t talk, but he could hear and think. Instantly, his mind wandered back to the mossy green spear that Shin had called a lesser weapon. If one had a level-head, would one really think that Shin would use a weaker weapon to battle a Spirit Spectre? No matter how arrogant he may be, Shin wasn’t a fool. ‘H-He tricked me!’

There was no way that the Spear of Visam was a lesser weapon. Yes, it may have less durability than the indestructible Spear of Aiglos, and it may be blunter due to its unique shape. However, the Spear of Visam was Shin’s specialised poison weapon laced with a toxin that was capable of killing ten adult elephants within a matter of minutes. It was a testament to Craig’s resilience that he was able to last this long, but just like how the sun always sets, once poisoned, there was only one destination for the doomed Vaishya.

“Damn it! Stay with me, Craig! I’m going to try to detoxify you now! Don’t-!” Susan was unable to complete her sentence before she felt something protruding out of her left breast. At the same time, Craig felt something intruding his left nipple. Looking down, the pair of Spirit Spectres saw a green pole connecting their bodies, and not in a good way. Shin had taken advantage of their confusion and launched a final thrust, piercing both their hearts in one strike.

“Never leave your back open to the enemy. Didn’t Junius or the Allfather teach you that?” Shin scoffed as he added more force to the inserted spear. He instantly willed for the Spear of Visam to melt, injecting the Vaishyas with even more deadly poison.

Now, there was literally no hope for the Spirit Spectres to leave alive. Even if Lady Seph were here, the only thing that she could do was ease their suffering before they headed for the afterlife.

“Craig… I…” Being one with the weaker constitution, Susan was the one who closed her eyes first. Falling into the embrace of the bulky man, the female Vaishya took the final plunge into the darkness.

Craig was unable to work out any rebuttal. He had lost and in a convincing manner. Shin outplayed him, outsmarted him, used his emotions against him and finally, systematically decimated him all. Even if he were to rewind time and do it all again, Craig was sure that Shin would kill him all the same.

“…” The Vaishya had kept his eyes open, but he couldn’t see anymore. His organs were failing, and his mind was in an absolute mess. The punctured heart had stopped pumping, and his mind was in shambles. There were no more words that could be formed from his mind or mouth and all that was left was…

Total darkness.

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Chapter 46: Junius (3)

“Damn it!” Shin’s ankles left the chilling water puddle that Junius had left him in. The Spear of Aiglos turned like a windmill, giving him a little balance. Shin wanted to charge at the Minotaur before it attacked any of his comrades, but his efforts were all in vain. Dust flew down his soiled robes as a heavy wind pressure stopped any hopes Shin had of advancing.

Tap… Tap… Tap…

Junius’ slow footsteps were all that Shin could hear. The odachi in his hands had made a full swing sending out a violent gust of wind. Still bearing that smug smile, Junius continued to bar Shin’s path back to his teammates, who were facing the threat of the Black Masks and the Umbras created by the Paradise Heart. Shin was about to say something to hopefully distract Junius, but before he could get out a single word, a glimmering silver line was already right before his eyes.

CLANNNNNNNNNNKKKKKKKKK!!!

Shin was once again pushed back by the tremendous force of Junius’ strike. It was as if he were wrestling with a bear. The only thing that Shin could do was defend and pray for the best. Physically that is…

As Junius struck his young brother, tens of rapidly swirling orbs that Shin had left behind pounced up like straight needles, violently bending the air around it to its will. Junius noticed the change a little too late and was slow to deploy the barrier that his Legendary-Grade Odachi had, enabling some of the water pillars to collide upon his body. Junius spun around in the air like a ballerina after being hit, negating the impact that he sustained and regrouping his bearings in the air.

Shin didn’t stop there. With Junius in the air, there were many more angles that he could exploit. Stretching his two arms out wide, Shin created hundreds of water spears and imbued a dense amount of mana into a destructive rotating orb. Using a simultaneous attack, Shin combined his ‘Spears of Sparta’ and ‘Meteor Shower’ together.

‘Wow… So this is how much you’ve grown.’ Junius was amused by his younger brother’s growth, but his face remained neutral. After all, the target of those gruesome attacks was none other than himself. ‘However… That’s not enough, Shin!’

The gem stuck inside of Junius’ odachi shone out like a diamond in sunlight, bringing out an invisible barrier that protected his flesh from Shin’s desperate attack. Those mighty strikes, the water attacks that destroyed thirteen Spirit Adepts in under five minutes, were basically beads of raindrops when they hit Junius’ shield. Shin’s lower lip started to bleed, and his eyes turned bloodshot. Those two strikes were the strongest that he had in his arsenal other than his fourth spiritual ability, and they barely made a scratch on the barrier created by the Spirit Armament.

“Are you going to hide behind an artefact all day?! Where’s your pride?! Where’s your honour?! Don’t you want me? Come out and get me fair and square!!!” Shin opted to play a little mind game to coerce Junius to come out from his shell. However, all that it got was a small giggle from the part of the viridian-haired man.

“Oh, Shin. Your thinking sure is adorable.” The madman laughed. “Like I told you. I’m not playing around anymore. Just be a good boy and let me knock you out. When you open your eyes, you’ll be in paradise. I assure you that.” Junius had eaten more salt than Shin did rice. He knew what the youth was trying to accomplish. So Junius wasn’t going to play into it. The Vaishya waved his right hand and torrent of dark spiritual energy burst forth like a tidal wave, pushing Shin back once more.

‘Tskkk, change of plans!!!’ Shin immediately improvised. Generating immense amounts of water, Shin spun his hands around with the motions of a rising tide and formed a rapidly spinning whirlpool around his body. At the same time, hundreds of deadly weapons appeared overhead as water tendrils and chains lead the way to protecting his body. Shin had to reunite with his team if he wanted to have any chance to deal with Junius’ impregnable barrier and to do that, he had to create a distraction. Or in this case, multiple distractions.

BANNNG!!! BANNNG!!! BANNNG!!! BANNNG!!! BANNNG!!!

Hundreds of sonic booms destroyed the peace in the cold throne chambers. The humidity of the room rose rapidly as hot, white steam burst forth from the ground. A blurry figure moved through the mayhem like a rapidly speeding stead, hoping to catch a glimpse of a greener pasture. However, not all things were meant to be. Junius took notice instantly and descended to intercept Shin like a falcon diving in on its prey. Shin spun around waywardly to avoid the plunging attack and was barely able to evade the spinning odachi.

Shin raised a high kick with a trail of water following him. It soon turned into a crescent blade that was as sharp as any weapon that Shin could create which managed to push Junius even farther away from his body. Using that momentum, Shin turned his left foot upwards and coated it with a dense water bubble. BAM!!! BAM!!! The globule burst with tremendous pressure, pushing Shin flying back to his teammates in a blink of an eye.

“Shin! Are you okay?” Kanari was the first to reappear in Shin’s vision. Her nine tails and two fluffy ears twitched while her eyes glistened with worry.

“Yeah, I’m fine… How’s the Minotaur?” Shin had no time to rest. He had to bind together with his comrades to face the Black Masks altogether if they wanted to have a chance in escaping.

“Isadore, Suji and Natasha are dealing with it. The rest of us are pushing down the number of Umbras and Black Masks. However, that Vaishya duo is causing us some headaches.” Kanari explained, her eyes shifting to the monkey man and the masochistic healer. “I caught glimpses of your fight with Junius. It looks like his barrier is negating all of your water attacks.”

“Yeah… Who knew that he would have such a dastardly artefact?!” Shin complained, gripping his Spear of Aiglos tightly. He had trained desperately in martial arts and his created water abilities. Yet, they were all negated by that one defensive barrier that Junius had.

‘If I could use the shard, maybe…’ Shin’s mind went in an unsafe direction for a brief moment but was immediately brought back by the image of Meijing Bingying. ‘No, it’s far too dangerous… Damn it! If I had known better, I would have never had assimilated with that shard!’

While Shin was still recovering, yet another wave of darkness sped right at him from Junius’ direction. Kanari’s brows knitted together while her lips trembled with red hot fury. Sending out hundreds more Auroras, Kanari created a wall of blue flames, blocking out any attack that Junius sent forward.

“Girl, you’re in my way.” Junius spat. He didn’t know Kanari, and he most definitely didn’t care. All he wanted was for Shin to come by his side. “Move or die.”

“You talk a big game, though you’re just a mere mongrel of the Black Masks.” Kanari wasn’t intimidated. In fact, she was livid that Junius continually attempted to knock Shin out right before her eyes. The young maiden cracked her knuckles as the glorious pearls on her wrist brought out a perfect sheen, rejuvenating Kanari from all sorts of fatigue.

“Shin, let’s trade. You fought with the monkey man once, I’m sure you can deal with him again. I’ll keep Junius busy until you’re done.” Everyone present knew that the top dog was Junius. His moniker as the Blade of Death was well-known throughout the Terre Continent, and it showed with the hefty bounty on his head. Kanari was taking a risk, fighting the Vaishya alone.

“Fine… However, take this…” Shin removed the amethyst pendant that hung around his neck. His palms were sweaty and his pupils shivering. It was a decision that tore him apart internally, but he knew that it was the best thing to do. Quickly placing the flawed jewel around Kanari’s milky white neck, Shin chanted a few words, infusing the pendant with a gold-cerulean light.

“Shin, you…”

“That necklace has been by my side for six years now. It has been exposed to my healing mana and has been serving as my guardian faithfully. I added my own ‘heal’ into the crystal. It will protect you when you’re fighting with Junius.”

“But… This is…”

“I know…” Shin placed his index finger on Kanari’s lips. “If you somehow kill Junius, I want the pendant to be with you.” He continued to smile. “Though, I do want it back so…” Shin leaned in a gave a silent whisper, one that only the two of them could hear.

“Don’t die…” It was a wish. No, a prayer. However, only those who knew of Shin’s history understood how many emotions the man must be going through right now.

“Don’t worry…” Kanari replied as a crystal bead fell from the side of her eye. Heat waves radiated out from her body while a devastating gale spun through the flat chambers. The ten fingernails that she had were transformed into monstrous claws, and her canine teeth grew.“I won’t.”

“How touching. I guess you’re one of the girls that are aiming for my little brother’s heart, huh?” Junius scoffed at the ruby-eyed maiden.

“No, I’m not…” Kanari grasped the amethyst pendant in the same manner that Shin always did. She had observed Shin for five years now. Kanari knew how much Shin treasured this necklace, and she knew what it meant to him. So for Shin to give to her, it could only mean one thing.

“I’m the girl who has already won it.”

BANNNNNNNNNNNNGGGGGGGGGG!!!

The ground shook, and air boomed when Kanari leapt into the air. Her two Kumiho claws were now coated with pale blue flames, and her Spirit Spectre soul enabled to reign in the skies with aerial dominance. The air around her begun to turn blurry as an illusion of a full moon began to form. Opening her ruby eyes, Kanari locked on all of her senses on the stationary Junius, who wore a smug face as usual.

‘I’ll make you pay for hurting Shin!’ Kanari declared as she unleashed her wrath.

BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOMMMMMMMMMM!!!

Kanari’s lunar beam connected cleanly, this time with more force than any other Lunar Beams she discharged in her life. Clouds of dense dust smoke and heaps of molten rock flew out from Junius’ location. Everyone stopped what they were doing just to watch the aftermath. Even the illustrious Black Masks, who had fought hundreds if not thousands of battles, were holding their breath. For once in their lives, Craig and Susan feared that their boss would have perished.

Alas, nothing in life came that smoothly.

Junius had raised his odachi in a commander’s salute, kissing the hilt and bringing out the most solid barrier that he had. His happy smile had turned into a wordless frown. The light in the odachi dimmed a little, but Junius added enough mana to supplement its loss before anyone noticed it.

‘She’s dangerous.’ Junius now understood one thing. The maiden before him wasn’t a mere child that he could defeat with one stroke of his blade, but an equal that had to be taken seriously.

‘Just like another Ariel… Haha, Shin you really have outdone yourself.’ Junius chuckled internally. Though he didn’t let anything show on his exterior. Showing a moment of weakness in battle was the most rudimentary mistake a warrior could ever make. Junius took a deep breath in before lowering his knees and centring his body. Two hands on the hilt, the swordsman raised the blade above his head, ready to pounce like a panther.

Kanari was similarly taken aback. That Lunar Beam should have at least taken off a chink in Junius’ armour and yet, the Vaishya was utterly unfazed.

‘No, he’s reacting now. He’s planning to fight at close quarters.’ Kanari could tell by the shift in Junius’ stance. Though it would be in her best interests to keep firing Lunar Beams to wear the menace down, completely depleting her mana before they found a way out seemed to be a dumb thing to do. Thus, Kanari answered Junius’ gauntlet of a challenge with her own movements.

Descending to the ground, Kanari’s two hands continued to burn blue. Kanari spun around twice, creating dozens of Auroras and Foxfires, which threatened to burn the entire chambers to the ground. Junius reciprocated in kind by coating himself in an aura of darkness with the help of the Allfather’s mana.

Black versus Blue.

It was time for the two titans to collide.

Chapter 45: Junius (2)

“Where did they go?!” A sharp shriek deafened the emptied first floor of the Payirci, bringing all movement to a halt.

Just a second ago, Meijing Bingying could see Shin, Kanari and the rest of the youngsters grinding down as many Umbras as they possibly could. Yet, in just a blink of an eye, the Umbras, as well as the young heroes all disappeared from sight as if they weren’t even there in the first place. Bingying leapt forward with her Spectral Reaver Blade sparkling with all its icy glory. It was the fury of a Spirit Spectre that had just lost her beloved younger brother, but alas, there was nothing that Bingying could vent it on.

“Illusion?” Elder Baobiao’s face arched into a deep frown. His eyebrows were knitted together, and his wrinkles became ever more prominent. He was a Spirit Venerate, a pretty good one at that. There weren’t many things that could fool his eye and yet… This happened. The elderly man started to feel enraged, but there was a hint of awe in his fearful voice.

“There’s someone that can create such a strong illusion among the Black Masks? My god…”

“Elder Baobiao! What are we going to do?” Meijing Bingying hollered out in complete fear. Her eyes were trembling, and a seemingly bottomless pit had formed within her stomach. Their mission was to keep Shin safe until he returned to the Lantis Republic, and yet, they allowed the boy to disappear right before their eyes.

Likewise, the other guards were panicking. Those that disappeared were all prodigies and talents slated to inherit the continent. Especially the guards from Spion, who needed to protect Kanari and Isadore from any form of harm. They needed to find the group as soon as possible, lest any sort of damage befalls upon them.

“We find them, of course!” Elder Baobiao’s face shuffled around, giving life to an expression that he had buried away decades ago. “They mustn’t have gotten too far! Search every nook and cranny of the first floor! Huanyuan, you go out and get Jingyu Qiang here! His destructive capabilities are needed for us to break through any walls here!”

“Yes, sir!” Immediately obliging, the young teen leapt straight at the exit, not wanting to waste any time. Now, every second was golden. If they were just a minute late, who knew what the consequences would be?

Meijing Bingying looked at the floor where Shin used to stand, and a flurry of melancholy hit her soul. She felt as if her heart was being wrenched from her body, and her blood had run cold. Nothing must happen to Shin!

‘Please be safe!’

❖❖❖

Shin, Kanari, Isadore stood together on one side, while Suji, Natasha and Danroy held the left flank. Shizen and Ella took the middle ground like they always did and Elrin and Emma stood right at the backlines. It was the standard formation for the seven young heroes, just that three additional youngsters were joining the mix. So, why were they standing in such a combative position? The answer was quite evident.

Junius sat upon the obsidian throne, with the Vaishyas Craig and Susan standing by his side. At the foot of the throne, dozens of Shudras wielded their arms ready to pounce at a moment’s notice. They weren’t severely outnumbered but who knew what contraptions the Payirci would have. They did just got duped by an immense illusion that fooled a Spirit Venerate after all. Thus, Shin broke the ice.

“How did you do it?”

“Do what?” Junius playfully replied, his cheekbones raised and lips twitching.

“Don’t play dumb! The illusion! The door! How is it that all of the White Knights, hundreds of the best men and women the Alliance has to offer! How did you fool all of them?”

“Hehe… Your inquisitive nature still remains the same, Shin.” Junius continued to chuckle. There was no urgency in his words, and neither was there any fear. In Shin’s books, that hinted to one thing. Junius was absolutely confident of his ability to keep Shin and his team in this chamber.

“It’s quite simple, actually. What do you think a Payirci is?”

“…” The youth went quiet. How could he answer? Not even Commander Martha or the Blacksmith’s League President Ingram knew much of the Payirci, let alone Shin.

“Haha, from that face, I can tell that you don’t know.” Junius removed himself from the throne and stepped down the steps, the two Vaishyas following his every move. “Let me educate you, my precious little brother.”

Suji, Natasha and Danroy turned to Shin, their brain stuttering for a minute, not knowing of the words to say. Shin hadn’t bothered to explain his relationship with Junius to anyone other than his immediate circle of friends. Thus, the revelation came as a complete surprise to his classmates of five years. Shin completely ignored those stares as his eyes were still fixated on the descending Junius, who was loosely holding on to his Legendary-Grade Odachi.

“Spirit Immortal Dream once had this vision. A place where war was eliminated and children would never grow up knowing what’s it like to have lost both parents to carnage. However, humans are weird creatures. We call ourselves sentient beings, but ultimately, we’re animals at heart. We have basic animalistic instincts. We hunger, we lust, we fear, we greed… So no matter how much we grow as a civilisation, the world would still embroil itself with war.” Junius looked up at the ceiling, his hands behind his back.

Shin didn’t understand why Junius was going off on such a tangent, but he played the fool. The more he explained, the more Shin would come to understand the Black Masks and their motivations.

“So Spirit Immortal Dream had this wonderful idea. What if… What if there was a place where human could vent all of their primal needs. Thus, she tried to make a Utopia, a heaven on earth, you might say, where every single structure was built with the sole purpose of denying war from its borders. That was the true motivations behind the Land of Dreams. And well, there was one structure, one invention that she really needed to add so that the need to go to war would be relinquished.”

“The Payirci…”

“Exactly.” Junius smiled. “If humans had a place to fight, if they had a place to conquer, there wouldn’t be a need for them to duke it out with other humans on the battlefield. Here, everything is being controlled by the Paradise Heart. A place where humans can grow without overly risking their lives. Brave warriors won’t die and leave orphans behind. And also…”

Junius snapped his fingers. A garden of flowers, each one coloured with a different hue that would attract an assortment of bees, appeared right before the group’s eyes. It was completely surreal. The bedrock that hadn’t had the slightest of cracks were now blossoming with floras. Shin looked up at the plasma orb that was embedded in the monolith wall and saw that it was glimmering twice as much as before. With squinted eyes, he looked back at Junius.

“It’s a place where dreams come true.”

‘I see… So that’s the core, the central nervous system of the Payirci…’ Shin thought. Looking around, he could tell that the brighter members of their group all shared the same sentiment. Junius was no fool. He knew that his blatant display would draw suspicion, but he didn’t bother to hide it anyway. In fact…

“The Paradise Heart. It’s an invention that Spirit Immortal Dream never publicised. Bringing together a variety of aether rocks, she was able to force a fission reaction to create a concentrated form of plasma. It just so happens that this Payirci holds a little more mind-elements than the others, so tricking your Spirit Venerate bodyguard wasn’t as difficult as it sounds.”

“This one?!” Isadore jerked violently, his face as white as chalk. The grip on his spear soon faded out as his fingers spasmed, forcing him to drop the weapon entirely. “There’s more of these towers?”

“Did you honestly think that the Allfather would fight against the combined might of the Alliance without the appropriate resources? Know your place, you brat.” Junius scoffed and waved his hand at the silver-haired youth. His expression was completely different from the gentle and tender one he gave to Shin.

“Shin, I’ll ask you one last time. Ella, Emma, you guys too… Come with me, and I’ll spare your friends. I’ll have you know, once you enter the Chambers of the Paradise Heart, there’s no escaping unless I personally let you out. So… What’s it going to be?” Junius raised his extensive odachi in their air while the Black Masks following him all summoned out their Spirits. Craig had already merged with his monkey Spirit while Susan had attached her Temporal Chains onto his body. They weren’t messing around like the last time Junius met Shin at the waterfall.

Shin would be lying if he said that he wasn’t tempted by the offer. After all, his friend’s were risking their lives for the sake of him. However, before Shin could even issue a response, he caught the eyes of all of his comrades. They were burning with an intense fire, ready to hop straight into battle. Even Suji, Danroy and Natasha were feeling it. It was as if they were possessed after being underestimated by a mere Vaishya.

Sighing, Shin said: “Guys… I’m sorry for dragging you into this.”

“No worries.” Isadore chuckled. Now that there were no Alliance members around, Isadore could finally summon out his silver spear, without fearing that someone would recognise his Spirit. “We’ve been doing this forever after all.”

“The Blade of Death is mine, Shin!” Natasha, the warmongering swordmaiden screamed out, her face flushed and Starlight Blade pumped with mana.

“Hmph! Who does he think he is? Spare my life?” Suji argued with disdain. “Natasha, I’m going to kill him, don’t get in my way.”

Shin wanted to laugh, but he knew that it wasn’t the time nor the place. He cast his Spiritual Body Enhancement and summoned out a dozen water golems as well as bringing out the healing mist for his team to rest in. At that moment, a soft touch grasped his roughened skin, bringing all his attention back to the ruby-eyed maiden that always stood by his side.

“Let’s avenge Ariel,” Kanari whispered.

“You’re right…” Shin felt the burden on his heart being lightened. There was no need for him to shoulder everything anymore. He had comrades that he could trust now. Swinging the Spear of Aiglos around, Shin spiked his mana and brought out even more of his created water to threaten the Black Masks that stood before him. Unlike the last time he met Junius, this was a fight that he could most definitely win.

“I see that you want to do things the hard way.” A cloud of sadness drifted out from Junius’ mouth. He didn’t want to resort to force. If Shin were to get injured during the scuffle, how was he to answer to the Awter Clan members back home? However, if Shin wasn’t going to listen, Junius wasn’t going to hold back.

“Capture my younger siblings. Kill the rest.” With that order, Junius immediately jumped straight down the stairs and charged straight at Shin. The last time they met one another, Shin managed to escape due to his poor management and fluctuating emotions. However, this time, Junius was wholly focused on the goal at hand. This time… He was the feared Blade of Death.

Shin was barely able to ready his battle stance before Junius was already just inches away from his face. The odachi swung in a huge arc and landed right on Shin’s spear. Heavy… That was all that Shin could think about. Without even knowing, his arms gave way, and the odachi completed its powerful stroke, sending Shin flying off in the other direction.

“You!” Kanari was the first to react. Already in her Spiritual Body Enhancement form, she pivoted her ankles and sent a roundhouse kick flying at Junius. However, just as she was about to land a clean hit, a fist coated with a black wind came flying over. Kanari reacted quickly by changing the direction of her kick, colliding it with the bastard’s punch.

“You’re fierce.” Craig gave a word of praise. “Maybe we could have some fun before I send you to the nether realm.”

“Fuck you,” Kanari spat. An intense rage burned in her heart as the Aurora domain become more prominent within the chambers. Taking one cursory look at the monkey man, Kanari knew that he was being supported by the auxiliary Vaishya that stood a few metres back. Taking on a Spirit Spectre that was being supported by another Spirit Spectre wasn’t always a good idea. So, to fight fire with fire… “Elrin! Boost me!”

“Here!” The white-haired maiden did her usual and sent out dozens of gorgeous pearls and gave Kanari ‘Sacramental Boost’ and ‘False Armaments’. At the same time, she protected herself with ‘Eternity Paladin’. Shizen once again used his Adivinar Tree to its maximum potential covering the hard rock ground with fresh verdant roots and vines.

“Hoh… I guess I’ll need to call backup…” Junius laughed at the futile resistance and snapped his fingers once again.

The Paradise Heart instantly turned dark for a moment as if an entire thunderstorm and been trapped within the compounds of the orb. The very next second, twenty blobs of dark matter fell out from the globe and reforged itself from the ground up. A three-metre-tall butterfly, imbued with the darkness element from one pile of goo and from another a five-metre-long serpent.

However, the one monster that stood far and above all of the others was that one humanoid creature that wielded a one-handed axe and stood as tall as a house. Created with the legs of a horse, a body of a man and the head of a bull, the Umbra instantly forced the youngsters to take one step back to reassess their situation.

“A minotaur? Tier 6?” Emma shrieked. A Tier 6 Spirit Beast was as powerful as a Rank 50 Spirit Lord. That was the rank that their Instructor back on Frie Mountain was at!

Shin gritted his teeth and glared right at Junius, who still carried the smile of a jester. If the Paradise Heart could keep churning out Tier 6 Spirit Beasts like it was nothing, the young heroes were bound to lose this fight!

“Like I said, Shin… You’re coming with me.”

Book 8: The Mercenary’s Promise || Chapter 44: Junius (1)

The night came and went by in a flash. Shin sat on the battlements throughout, wondering how the Payirci continued to float, even with all that weight pile up inside of it. Emma and Ella had asked him to at least get some shut-eye before the new dawn approached, but their advice had fallen on deaf ear. No, even if Shin took their advice, the youth seriously doubted in his ability to fall into the Garden of Hypnos.

He was so close. They were so close to Junius. How could he sleep? So Shin continued to wait. His eyes never leaving the floating tower. At times, he would converse with the sentries that stood watch over the forts. Other times, Shin would scrutinise every corner of the Payirci, hoping to get even a single clue which might help in his final assault against it. And well, though he didn’t find anything of use, this sleepless night did prove to be fruitful as Commander Martha personally visited him to deliver the good news.

Once the White Knights had secured the middle sections of the Payirci, Shin and his team were given the green light to enter the foreign structure with their guards. Many raised voices about the safety of the Payirci, but eventually, if the young geniuses wanted to grow, they had to be exposed to a certain degree of danger. Who knows? Maybe their short trip into the relic of Spirit Immortal Dream might bring more benefits than drawbacks?

That added news only served to keep Shin’s young blood boiling even more and to keep his heart and soul going for more hours to come. He couldn’t wait for the dawn to approach, and he couldn’t wait to enter the Payirci. Once Junius was caught, one of his major objectives would have been fulfilled. A goal that he had worked so hard for over the past six years. Shin wasn’t going to squander this opportunity.

And just as Commander Martha had said, early the next day, when the sun was still hiding under the horizon and the moon still fading away, Commander Martha had ordered a full-on assault into the Payirci. Using Cikai Mirrors, the Alliance Army was consistently able to monitor the conditions that the White Knights were facing. For the most part, the ascension up the tower was going swimmingly. There were slight hiccups where a bunch of Tier 5 and 6 Spirit Beasts would block the road the peak, but it was nothing that the White Knights couldn’t handle. After all, they were led by at least one Rank 70 Spirit Emperor and a plethora of Spirit Kings and Lords.

Commander Martha watched the Cikai Mirrors furiously, hoping to catch even the slightest sign of trouble. They were still in phase one of reclaiming the Payirci, and everything had to go smoothly for the next mission to commence. Bit by bit, the White Knights within climbed through the early and middle segments of the tower and were on the precipice of reaching the final stretch. Now, the Umbras had been upgraded, with Tier 6 and 7 Spirit Beasts being the norm.

The battles became more ferocious as blood started to spill on the side of the humans. Commander Martha was even tempted to order the withdrawal of her troops, just in case something unexpected happened. However, ultimately, she decided to keep her faith. It was a hard thing to watch, seeing her beloved friends and comrades getting injured through a virtual monitor. But Commander continued to grit her teeth and pray. Fortunately, after three long-drawn hours, the White Knights had already climbed up all the way to the last ten floors of the Payirci.

For some reason, after the White Knights broke through the middle segments, the Umbras stopped chasing after them, giving the wounded and fatigued warriors a comfortable place to rest. Though they didn’t know why the Payirci behaved that way, Commander Martha would be damned if she didn’t take advantage of it.

Finally, with the White Knights almost at the apex, it was the Alliance Army’s turn to move in. Securing the escape routes, the Alliance Army killed off any Umbras that dared to spawn and ensured that there was safe passage for the White Knights, should things go awry. She had even sent a few Spirit Kings disguised as mere foot soldiers, just in case of an enemy attack. It took the White Knights one full hour to rejuvenate their strengths and for the Alliance Army to secure the area.

All while Shin watched from safety.

“When are we going in?” Natasha gripped on her Starlight Katana, hopping about in place. Her fingers were tingling, and her soul bubbling out in excitement. They were promised a place in the onslaught against the Black Masks. As long as she was concerned, the sooner they got in, the better.

“Soon.” Danroy lazily replied. He looked around and saw Commander Martha biting on her fingernails while alternating her gaze between the Cikai Mirrors and the Payirci. It was probably a matter of time that they would be tapped in to help the Alliance Army. “Just prepare yourself. Use the restroom if you have to. Once we enter the Payirci, who knows how long we would remain inside?”

“You underestimate me, Dan.” The swordmaiden succinctly replied. “I was born ready to take down those scum that plagues our lands.”

“That’s good to hear.” The fat man gave a wry smile. His team was already set. If they were to move into the Payirci right this moment, Danroy was certain that Suji and Natasha would trailblaze their way through the Umbras and take down a Black Mask or two. However, the other team that they were partnering with, on the other hand…

Shin was standing right in front of everyone, with the Spear of Aiglos already summoned out. Isadore and Kanari stood right by his side, and their eyes were filled with uncertainty about the things to come. Shizen and Elrin were sitting back, lazing about as per usual, while the twins hadn’t looked Shin in the eye even once now. Evidently, something went wrong last night, but Danroy didn’t know what. However, it was not his business to go in between another team, so he remained silent. Fortunately, the order that would break the silence finally came.

“Commander’s orders. You’re joining the next batch of soldiers that are marching into the Payirci. You have five minutes to prepare.” One officer read out the transcript that had been sent out to him and hurriedly made his way to the next area.

Natasha and Suji leapt up from the comfy chairs like panthers ready to pounce. It was finally time to put their skills into action.

“Let’s go,” Suji commanded. There wasn’t even a need for a bathroom break or a short warmup. The team had been prepared from the very second they arose. Bolting straight towards the frontlines where the next battalion was ready to depart, the youngsters hyped themselves up for the eventual trip. Though, one pudgy young man stood behind, watching over Shin’s team with a gaze of worry.

“Are you guys okay?” Danroy asked.

“Yeah… Just give us a minute. We’ll be there soon.” Isadore replied in place of the dazed Shin.

“Alright…”

Elrin, Shizen, Emma and Ella all closed in the significant gaps that separated them from the vanguard trio. Even a blind man could tell that they were wary of Shin’s reactions. The man’s fists were clenched up, his fingernails digging deep into his palms, forcing out the crimson liquid of life within his body. His superhuman healing potential allowed the wounds to fade away quickly, but there were still marks on his pure white ice spear.

“Shin…” Kanari wanted to say something, but Shin raised his right arm in defiance.

“Six years… I have waited six years for this.” Shin’s voice echoed out. It was soft, but the words penetrated deep into the young heroes’ souls. They were all brave warriors, brave cultivators in their own right, but not one of them could match the heroic spirit that had been cultivating in Shin’s soul. Junius was now a cornered rat. His Payirci was just hours away from being seized, and there was no route of escape for any of the Black Masks. If they did attempt to run, the three Spirit Venerates waiting outside would decimate them before they could even count to three. So, it really was the end of an era for Junius. Today, by hook or by crook, the Blade of Death would come into the Alliance’s hands.

“I have cried so much. Bled so much. Worked so much… All for this moment.” Shin turned around. His team visibly gulped when they saw the glistening azure pupils that lay dormant within his sockets. At this moment, they felt that Shin had undergone a considerable change. It was as if… He had become a legendary hero of old. Never relenting, never wavering. Shin had his mind set on one prize and one prize only…

“Junius is mine.”

❖❖❖

Shin entered the Payirci with his team and all of the guards that protected them. Meijing Bingying, Xunyu Huanyuan and Elder Baobiao followed Shin to defend him. Kanari had her own guards from Spion. Elrin had a few Spirit Kings brought over by the Zedcris Conglomerate while Isadore’s secret defenders all remained in the shadows. It was perhaps the most overqualified team to keep watch over the lower floors, but no one was complaining. The Spirit Lords, Kings, Emperors and even Spirit Venerate all spread out their forces while keeping watch as Shin and his team killed off as many Umbras as they possibly could.

Sending the water elements into a complete frenzy, Shin decimated the moist and humid dungeon walls with his strikes. Dozens of Umbras fell with his Spears of Sparta while his Mines of the Ocean cleaned up the corpses. At certain times, it would be a one-man show due to how effective Shin was within the Payirci. Unexpected given that Kanari was the only Spirit Spectre in the group.

Well, Kanari was severely limited by her ability to create fire, in fear of setting the entire cramped floors into a pit of fiery doom, so it only made sense that Shin was the one to wreak havoc throughout. Suji watched over the whole scene with a certain degree of derision, scoffing every time Shin did something massive. However, he wasn’t one to be looked down upon either. His lightning was capable of charring bodies and wiping out entire floors on his own. Just as Kanari was restricted with her fires, Suji was as well with his lightning. That was the bane of those with overwhelmingly powerful abilities.

Piercing the Spear of Aiglos through the heart of another bird-like Umbra, Shin looked up at the ceiling, and his mind started to wander.

‘Has the White Knights met the Black Masks yet? Have they arrested Junius already?’

And his queries weren’t limited to himself, the other brave warriors on the first floor too looked up in hopes of finishing the Payirci quickly. The best case scenario was that the Alliance arrests the Black Masks and takes them into custody while preserving this priceless relic. However, from what the Alliance knew of the Black Masks, there was no way that they would hand over the Payirci that easily. If the vanguard White Knight team managed to climb all the way up to the apex, Commander Martha had her suspicions that the Payirci would self-detonate, bringing all those inside down with them. That’s why she allowed Shin and Junius’ team to only remain on the first floor, where the exit was just a few metres away.

“Guys… Don’t you feel that there’s something amiss?” Shizen shuffled his fingers around his knuckles as he stepped forward, hunchbacked and fearful.

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t know… It just feels so fuzzy now…”

“Fuzzy?” Those who knew Shizen knew that he was perhaps the most acutely sensitive person in Shin’s team. The fact that he felt something was wrong, it could only mean one thing…

“Guys, huddle up!” Shin hollered out, keeping his Spear of Aiglos tucked in. Hearing their leader’s orders, the youngsters all halted their attacks against the Umbras and retreated to Shin’s side. Even Suji, Natasha and Danroy felt something was odd and jumped to their location. Shin then turned to the only person that could protect them, the Spirit Venerate bearing the Obsidian Xuanwu, Elder Baobiao. However, when he turned his back around, the Elder was nowhere to be seen. No, all of the guards that the youngsters had brought all seemingly disappeared in a puff of smoke.

“What’s going on?!” Elrin resisted the urge to scream.

“We’re probably under some sort of illusion.” Being the only Mind-Element user within the team, Kanari gave out her hypothesis. “The mind elements are going haywire now… It’s frightening… Whoever is behind this attack must be powerful.” Kanari warned while casting her Spiritual Body Enhancement. At the same time, she unleashed her Aurora domain, in hopes of protecting those who were weaker in their group.

“Guys! Look!” Emma cried out, pointing her index finger straight into the distance. A semicircle door of light, highly reminiscent to that of a portal of fable, called out to those who laid their eyes on it. Shin felt himself being drawn to the unknown door as if it had a magnetic pull, though he didn’t know why.

No… He did know. Shin just didn’t want to admit it.

“Guys, I’m going in.”

“Wait! That’s far too dangerous!” Emma shrieked. “We should wait here until the illusion runs out! We shouldn’t risk our lives going into something we have no clue about.”

“No… I can feel it.” Shin shook his head. “What I seek. What we seek lies through those doors.”

“…” There was no rebuttal. There was no need for consideration. Why would there a door leading to a mysterious place appear right on the first floor, and it only made its presence known when Shin stepped foot in the Payirci? The answer was quite evident.

Shin had been chasing him for six years now. Through those doors, lay his prize. Was he about to give up? Absolutely not.

“I’m going.” Shin didn’t care if his friends followed him or not. He was going to fulfil his destiny and rewrite the wrongs that had been inflicted onto him so many moons ago. But alas… Would Shin’s team just leave him be? Though unwilling, they all traced Shin’s footsteps into the gate of light. Even Suji, Natasha and Danroy joined in on the party.

The portal led them into a chamber of pure stone and rock. There were ominous carvings on the wall and hundreds of hand-crafted sculptures, each one designed in the shape of a distinct mythical beast. Hundreds of swinging flames from the ceiling gave the dark chambers its light. The air was crisp, and the smell was mild. It was as if Shin and the group had entered a regularly maintained laboratory of a famous scientist. However, just one look at the central throne in the room would change that opinion in a heartbeat.

The gravel stairway climbed eight metres high each step embedded with their own ancient hieroglyphics. At the very peak of the stairwell, an aristocratic throne made with the most luxurious of obsidian dominated the room with its presence. And that wasn’t all, at the very peak of the chambers, at a height where no man could touch, there was a massive orb of glowing plasma, embedded halfway through the walls.

They were all spectacles in their own right, but the only thing that Shin’s mind was focused on was that one person seated on the throne. His viridian hair hasn’t faded one bit, and his sharp toned features were aspects that any man would die for. On his right hand, a large odachi danced its tip around the solid stone floor while the gem within its handle glistened playfully.

Even now, after everything that he had been through, the man still wore a joyful expression when he laid his eyes on Shin. Though, the same couldn’t be said about Shin. Spinning the Spear of Aiglos around, Shin peaked his mana while calling out dozens of his trusted water tendrils and spheres.

It was finally time… It was finally, time for Shin to settle this.

Book 8: The Mercenary’s Promise || Chapter 43: I Am Ascending (5)

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?”

“But Shin!”

“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?”

“Emma…”

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…”

Dead.

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…”

Book 8: The Mercenary’s Promise || Chapter 42: I Am Ascending (4)

BAMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM!!!

Five whale-shaped Umbras collided onto the bloodied floor, sending out large chunks of dirt and debris flying in all directions. At the centre of the thick, weighty necks, sharp ice spears, each one bearing ends akin to that of an eagle’s talons or a leopard’s claw. The fallen Spirit Beasts had joined a legion of its dead brethren that were piled up against each other. Some of them had a fine line splitting their bodies in half, while others had a plethora of different weapons sticking out as if they were a porcupine. The thick stench of blood and mud tickled all of the soldiers’ noses, forcing them to improvise by covering their lower faces with a thin handkerchief.

It wasn’t much, but it was enough to keep them going without fighting the urge to spill their guts. Though not all warriors needed that luxury. Shin continued to pierce through each and every Umbra that crossed his path. It had almost become reflex at this point. If he sensed malicious movement, Shin would circle his Spear of Aiglos and bring out thousands of ice arrows to protect himself.

Meijing Bingying also joined the fray. Merging with her Enigmatic Narwhal, the frosty maiden swung her Spectral Reaver blade and danced her way through the hordes of beasts as if she was performing on an ice skating rink. Due to her sending the ice-elements into an absolute frenzy, Shin found it much easier to cool down his created water and manipulate ice. All of his regular water-shaped attacks became much more deadly when transformed into a steadier form, and Shin massacred his way through the rocky fields.

Isadore wasn’t a slouch either. With Elrin’s Sacramental Boost and False Armament, the young elfin had turned into the silver flash of the battlefield. His thick thighs acted as springboards, and his slim and lean body shape facilitated his aerodynamic movements. One swing of his temporary spear pushed away a Tier 4 Spirit Beast as if they were a child’s teddy bear and each thrust he threw, tore through thick tendons and shattered massive bones. Up till this day, Shin didn’t understand how Isadore could pack such force in such a thin body, but for the moment, Shin was just glad that the spear wasn’t pointed his way.

Standing just twenty metres away, a tall and sinewy young man watched as the trio damaged all of his prey without his permission. It wasn’t gratifying at all, seeing someone do better than himself. Suji was nicknamed the Son of War after all. So what if Shin was better in him in one-on-one situations? Killing enemies in a warzone was supposed to be his speciality. Ignoring the sore muscles and exhausted spiritual energies in his body, Suji swung the hefty Guandao in his hands and summoned out even more coils of lightning. His trusted stead that had turned faint before sparked back into life and neighed with pride as it stood on its hind legs.

The elements continued to dance wildly as the young cultivators opened a kilometre deep into the Payirci. The veteran warriors of the field all steered clear with convivial smiles and allowed the younglings to do their thing. Ah, youth… Many of them thought. They could continue on with all they had, but it would just steal the thunder away from the ‘elite rookies’ that had been dispatched for their mission. Thus, they slowed their movements and preserved their strengths. Their goal was to drive the Umbras back into the Payirci. It didn’t matter who did it and how. As long as they got the job done, it was sufficient.

“Is there no end to them?” Shizen complained. His Adivinar Tree released thousands of knife-like razor leaves, injuring any Spirit Beast that came near to him. Ella, who covered his back, took advantage of weakened Umbras and continuously bombarded them with icicles when they were still bleeding through every fraction of the skins.

“I don’t know!” The maiden shouted back. They had been exterminating the Umbras as if they were cockroaches from a garbage box at a breakneck pace. Yet, just like the pests that they were compared to, the Spirit Beast would continue to march out of the Payirci. It was as if the levitating tower was truly an infinite well that spat out new Umbras each time a pack had perished.

“Let’s push back as many as we can.” Ella continued. “If we can force them all the way back into the Payirci, the Spirit Venerates can attempt to blow them all up once more!”

“I think we would run out of mana before that happens!” Shizen scoffed while thousands of vines swirled around him.

It has been ten minutes since they first jumped down from the forts and they had been continuously grinding down the number of Umbras since. On their side, there were about five hundred trained men and women, each one assigned to their own respective units. The vanguard had a mixture of shield bearers and lancers while the backlines consisted of competent Houyi-type archers. Auxiliary Spirit Users would continue to supplement the lost mana while healers focused on treating minor wounds so that their brave compatriots could return back to the battlefield.

Controlled chaos. That would be the aptest way to describe their current situation. Speeding right in the frontlines, Shin was creating hundreds of ice weapons while hurling beasts into the air for Bingying or Isadore to finish off. Right behind them, Kanari was using her Spirit Spectre abilities to full effect. Gorgeous luminous Auroras surrounded the young maiden, and her ruby eyes glistened in the same crimson hue as the blood that flowed underneath. Fear wasn’t a known emotion in the darkness-imbued Spirit Beasts mind, but even they couldn’t resist the urge to retreat when the Auroras hit them.

Foxfires ran rampant as if they were grass while strong gales drew the Umbras towards Kanari as if she possessed magnetic properties. Her supple white arms flowed in a rhythmic symphony like a conductor of a concert and the pale blue flames that she created followed suit. Bouncing from Umbra to Umbra, the Foxfires incinerated the beasts to their bone.

‘Her abilities have really shot up…’ Shin gaped in awe as Kanari took down a hundred Umbras in just one minute. She didn’t even have to move from her position to annihilate the enemies. Anytime a foe crept up near her, Kanari’s domain would burn all of them out of existence as the Auroras doubled her Foxfires’ effects while weakening the Umbras significantly.

‘I really have to create a domain for my next spiritual ability.’

Now that Kanari had promoted, all eyes were now directed at Shin. He was at the peak of Rank 37, and it would probably take him about eight to twelve months for him to reach that final threshold. Just like the maiden, Shin had already planned what his next spiritual ability would be. Joining the ranks of Meijing Bingying and Qilong Hu, Shin was preparing to create a domain ability that would bolster his water creation ability. With a domain, Shin would be capable of doubling the power, speed and spiritual denseness of his created water all while weakening all that dared to step within his path.

However, that was a discussion for another time. Right now, seizing Junius from the Payirci was the highest priority.

Badddukkk… Badddukkk… Badddukkk…

The ground rumbled heavily, shaking the brave warriors on the field off their feet. Spirit Spectres rose to the skies, while those who could not fly stayed close to the ground, lowering their centre of gravity to remain stable. As if their central nervous system had gone haywire, the Umbras all waywardly bolted back into the floating tower. That sudden movement stunned the Alliance members for a brief moment. They planned to force the Umbras back into the Payirci and yet, they were now willingly running back?

“What are the Black Masks planning?” Commander Martha thought out loud, her eyebrows furrowed and her lip arched down into a frown.

“Whatever the case, them retreating back into the tower plays right into our plans.” A middle-aged man took one step forward and watched the retreat of the Umbras. He wasn’t a tall man. Not particularly striking either. If he walked in a crowd, not one soul would ever acknowledge his presence. However, Jingyu Qiang, the Lantis Republic’s Spirit Venerate, anything but weak. At Rank 87, he was the closest entity to a Spirit Saint that Commander Martha’s army had.

“So who’s going to do it first?” Yet another man who looked no older than forty emerged from the shadows of the forts. His bald, crystal head reflected the glaring rays from the sun while his broad, muscular chest twitched out of reflex. Unlike Jingyu Qiang, the Kori Federation’s Spirit Venerate, Gundla Barak, was as striking as can be. Smacking his lips, the man stood up straight and gave a small flex to make himself look more prominent. He asked: “You? Me? Or the Duke?”

“Shouldn’t I get the first try?” The final man, Duke Cyanjaw from the Himmel Empire, cracked his tensed-up neck while strolling forward. His eyes piercing, and his expression grim. Duke Cyanjaw had been sitting around for the longest, and the man wanted to stretch off the lethargy that he accumulated. “I was the first to arrive, I have the right to land the first hit.”

“Early bird gets the worm, huh?” It was easy to debate the man, but neither Spirit Venerates cared that much. Though they were from different countries, the trio were now fighting under the same banner. There was no point in arguing over useless matters.

“You heard the man, Commander Martha. Retreat your troops.”

“Alright…”

The White Knight Commander hid her loathing frown while blowing the whistle for her troops to withdraw. She was a seasoned warrior, a commander that was slated to become a general, a famous tactician and most importantly, the leader of the current army. Yet, even with all those credentials, Commander Martha still had to take orders from the three Spirit Venerates. Such was the nature of the cultivation world. No matter how marvellous you were at your job, those with a higher cultivation level still had the power to command you.

Duke Cyanjaw didn’t bother to wait for the troops to completely withdraw. Once he saw Kanari and Suji’s team retreat, the Spirit Venerate leapt forward while two metallic gauntlets covered both his hands. Bronzed with a touch of grey, the heavy gloves bore several sharp spikes and were wrapped with earthen chains that seemed to restrict its terrene might.

The man’s biceps swelled up to three times its original size while his thin robes were torn apart. Brown light flowed out from his pores and filled the area with a dense mana field. A few seconds later, a colossal bronze phantom appeared behind of Duke Cyanjaw. All of the men and women retreating came to a halt as they watched the titan, who seemed just as big as the Payirci itself, raise its mighty fist with the same gauntlets that Duke Cyanjaw had. Like a boxer, the phantom placed its leading foot forward while it prepared to release the ultimate drilling jab. Large pieces of rock and dust floated up into the skies and joined the Rinfermar Gauntlets in the charge-up, increasing the weight of the phantom punch. In just ten seconds, the strongest attack that Duke Cyanjaw had been locked and loaded, ready to wreak havoc on the poor Payirci that stood in his path.

BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOMMMMMMMMMMMMM!!!

The Spirit Venerate unleashed his wrath and launched the punch. A sonic explosion, hundreds of times louder than the strongest thunderclap, devastated the land, forcing those with weaker cultivations to fall down and cover their ears. Even Shin and his fellow Spirit Adept friends felt crimson liquids flow out from the depths of their ears. Luckily they had Shin’s healing water to treat their ruptured eardrums. Otherwise, they would have been rolling on the floor like everyone else.

“Holy shit!!!” Shizen remarked. All of the land before the colossal phantom had been ripped to shreds leaving nothing but dust and dirt behind. Any poor Umbras that hadn’t made it into the Payirci had been brutally turned into black powder, and all of the elemental spirits stayed clear from the desolation that the one punch. Just from the sound being generated by that attack, thousands of mighty warriors fell. So one could imagine what

‘So this is the might of a pure-offensive Spirit Venerate.’ Shin stood stupefied. Elder Baobiao’s Xuanwu’s Yawn was definitely powerful, but even that ability paled in comparison to Duke Cyanjaw’s. However…

“My god! It’s still standing!!!” Watching the smoke dissipate, Emma cried out in absolute horror when the Payirci remained to levitate up high in the air. The attack that Duke Cyanjaw threw, the power that could bring down any fort like a kid kicking through sandcastles, was utterly useless against the defences of the mighty Payirci.

“Your Excellency, it looks like you squandered your chance.” Gundla Barak from the Kori Federation floated over with a mocking smile.

“Oh yeah? Why don’t you try then?!” Snorting in derision, Duke Cyanjaw released the titanic phantom and folded his arms together.

“Now, now. We shouldn’t really be fighting.” Jingyu Qiang smiled bitterly as he arrived next to the rivalling Spirit Venerates. “If the Payirci’s defences are capable of withstanding Duke Cyanjaw’s ‘Wrath of the Rinfermar’, it should be able to hold up against both of our attacks. If we want to damage the structure, we should all combine our might.” The Spirit Venerate from the Lantis Republic explained patiently.

“Hmph!” Duke Cyanjaw turned around and flew straight back to the makeshift forts. He didn’t even bother to consider the neutral Jingyu Qiang’s opinion.

“He… Hah… Has there been some bad blood between you and him?” The Kori Federation and the Himmel Empire weren’t exactly the best of buds before. With Gundla Barak being from Dragon Tiger Gate and Duke Cyanjaw being the owner of a prominent Duchy, it wasn’t surprising for the two Spirit Venerates to have locked horns in the past.

“A tale long passed.” Gundla Barak turned his head, unwilling to narrate a story that occurred decades ago. Right now, they had a bigger fish to fry. “I’m going to strike. If you want to join in, do it quickly.”

Just like Duke Cyanjaw before him, Venerate Gundla Barak summoned out a phantom as well. However, instead of taking the shape of a humanoid phantom, it was muscular, lanky Goldhorn Elk. More robust than any steed in existence, the Goldhorn Elk was covered with halcyon fur, and its two antlers were shining like a white gold lunar branch. Standing up on its two hind legs, the Goldhorn Elk congregated all the light elements around it into a concentrated sphere, ready unleash heaven’s wrath on the floating tower before it.

Sighing, Jingyu Qiang brought out an avatar of his Spirit, the Colossal Leviathan. It had a long serpentine body with thick squid-like appendages twirling all about. Its beady black eyes glowed ferociously, and sharpened shark’s teeth glistened while it brought the fury of the oceans with it. Water split out from the Colossal Leviathan’s mouth while thousands of ultramarine particles congregated within the opened jaws of the avatar.

“Three…” Gundla Barak begun the countdown.

“Two…” Jingyu Qiang continued it. The light within both their Spirits increased exponentially, like a beam waiting to be released.

“One!!!”

BBBBBBBOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM!!!

At the final second, both of them released their abilities and sent two calamitous beams, each a thousand times more potent that Kanari’s Lunar Beam, crashing into the Payirci’s body. Any structure in the world, barring Deus Citadel, would have collapsed under the joint powers of the two prominent Spirit Venerates. However, everything that the Alliance forces had learnt thus far was about to be thrown out of the window.

“H-How is it still standing?” Shin choked on his words. How could a Payirci sustain such massive defensive capabilities?

The two Spirit Venerates frowned. Even their combined attacks were unable to even place a mark on the relic that the Black Masks had made. Jingyu Qiang bit the bottom of his lips and turned towards the bald man that floated beside him. Now that their initial plan had failed, they were forced to resort to their backup one.

“Looks like we have to ascend the tower…”

Book 8: The Mercenary’s Promise || Chapter 41: I Am Ascending (3)

The skies were as blue as can be, bearing white milky clouds which resembled that of cotton candy. Some clouds were so large that it covered half of a man’s vision, blocking out the blazing white sphere above. Make no mistake, the sun may be covered by clouds, but its light continued to stun the world into submission on this early summer morning. Birds flew up from their nests, decorating the skies with a little bit of life. Their chirps acted as sonorous songs that told the time. Which was convenient for the army assembled right before the Payirci.

It was two hours after mid-noon. Thousands of men had left their positions in the encampment and their watchtowers to join in the march. Commander Martha had pushed into the ten-kilometre radius and sent legions of warriors to push back the Umbras. As she had envisioned, the combined might of the Alliance forces were too much for the weak Spirit Beasts to bear and they drove all the way back to within a two-kilometre radius of the floating tower.

Tasting victory, her men continued to mow down every Umbra that they saw, no matter how small or large it was. Riding in on their Pegasus, the White Knights rained down havoc from above, while the foot soldiers thinned out the numbers accordingly. There was nothing that the Black Masks could do. Even if they wished to assist the Umbras, the elite White Knights flying above would swoop down and decimate their forces within minutes. They couldn’t even use the World Serpent’s power to resist the attacks, as at least five Spirit Venerates were waiting outside, courtesy of the Alliance and the Highgarden Duchy. Essentially, for the Black Masks, the only thing that they could do was to wait for the Alliance to barge into the Payirci and hope for the best.

But Commander Martha wasn’t going to give the criminal syndicate that mercy. After pushing the Umbras back into an acceptable range, she ordered her forces to hold their grounds and to quickly create makeshift forts that could hold up against an impromptu siege. They had the advantage when it came to their numbers and quality of forces. What the Black Masks had the edge in was the unpredictability of the Payirci. Thus, Commander Martha had made the wise decision not to play with the Black Masks in their game. Yes, it was imperative for the White Knights to launch an attack to ascend the Payirci, but they didn’t have to rush it.

By creating a temporary fort surrounding the floating tower, the army could take their time to replenish resources while killing as many Umbras as they possibly could while small elite teams of White Knights scouted the foreign structure. There was no need for Commander Martha to put all her eggs in one basket. She could afford to wait it out. Furthermore, having her soldiers kill hordes of Umbras was good for combat training.

Shin and his team were watching warriors slice down a menacing swarm of killer dog-sized bees from the safety of the earthen fort with approving expressions. The forts behaved like walls of a prison that kept the Umbras and Black Masks in, enabling the ‘jailors’ to bring down their prisoners numbers through brute force alone. Standing right by them, numerous archers and long-range ballistae fired out deadly projectiles to assist in the ground troops’ defence. Elemental energies kept the warm summer morning cool and breezy as each explosion sent shockwaves throughout the reinforced forts.

Legions of warriors dropped down from their positions to replace those who had been fatigued while dozens of arrows whizzed by. It was common practice for the soldiers to attack in waves. That way, those who had been in the frontlines could have a chance to replenish their strengths while the pressure being mounted on the Umbras continued to pile on. Though not everyone shared Commander Martha’s sentiment.

At the centre of the beast horde, a sinewy young man rode his lightning mare into battle, burning the flesh of all of the Umbras. Shin didn’t even understand how their blackened skin could get even more charred, but Suji showed him that anything was possible when the lightning element was involved. Each swing of his Purple Dragon Crescent Blade sent thunderbolts flying all over the battleground, and each time his prized stallion rode into a pack of Umbras, their skins would moult while their eyes would melt.

It was almost fitting. The Son of War riding a lightning horse raining down terror wherever he went. Now, Shin understood why the Lasgeor family was known for only their military exploits. The Purple Dragon Crescent Blade was unquestionably most suited for riding into the battlefield.

The only question was, how long could Suji keep this up? He had been swinging and hacking for almost a half hour now, and there were no signs of him slipping up. Furthermore, his auxiliary teammates were supplying him with mana while Danroy and Natasha protected his flanks. It was as if Suji could continue on for hours without tiring, something rare to see for someone of his mana pool and flashy techniques.

“When is he going to stop.” Shizen made a complaint, his smooth and silky complexion riddled with wrinkles as he frowned. “We’re supposed to take his place, but he just keeps on going!”

Just like the soldiers before them, the seven young heroes were assigned to replace their classmates when they were exhausted. Due to a certain maiden’s clinginess, the team had arrived at the battlegrounds a little later than their compatriots, forcing them to play second fiddle and watch Suji wreak havoc on the floor. Though, Kanari wasn’t feeling any regret. If anything she was giddily whispering intricate details to her fellow young maidens at a corner, bringing all of their faces into a tomato blush.

Usually, Shin only had to deal with the reverent gazes that were shot his way from the regular soldiers of the army. Now, he also had to resist the urge to smack those three coltish smiles that the other girls had. It was a challenge, yes, but Shin ultimately tuned them out as he huddled up with Isadore and Shizen, all while seeking the counsel of Meijing Bingying, Xunyu Huanyuan and Elder Baobiao.

“What are Commander Martha’s plans for the afternoon?” Shin asked.

Xunyu Huanyuan opened up a notebook and flipped to the page he bookmarked. “The Alliance will build thick walls to keep the Umbras in. At the same time, all units are to push the Spirit Beasts back into the Payirci. Quite a simple plan if you ask me.” The young man repeated what he read, word-for-word. “Nonetheless, it’s quite impressive for the Alliance to build so many forts in this little time. Now, all that’s left is for us to push the Umbras back into the Payirci.”

“Why don’t the Spirit Emperors and Venerates strike?” From the corner of his eye, Shin could see a variety of well-dressed men and women, folding their arms and watching the battle unfold. They all possessed a certain air of dignity, one that could only be obtained through years of hard work and experience. Whether it was Spirit Venerate Kikyo or Commander Martha, they were all-powerful beings that could effortlessly bring thousands of Spirit Beasts to heel.

“They’re saving their strength.” Meijing Bingying interjected. “Once the Umbras are pushed in, those above the Spirit King realm would pool their powers together in the hopes of crashing down the Payirci with one strike. It might prove fruitless, but Commander Martha believes that it’s worth a shot.”

The cold maiden raised her head to stare at the floating tower. Before, she believed that the Black Masks were a problem for the Terre Continent to handle. Yes, there have been some attempts by the syndicate to invade the Lantis Archipelago, but the inferior galleys and piss-poor oceanic beasts were no match for the greatest navy the world has ever seen. However, Bingying’s opinion changed when the Payirci was introduced to the world. Not many people knew of this in the present day, but the Lantis Republic had once invested in Spirit Immortal Dream when she had created her own country.

As a once in a million years genius, the ideas that Spirit Immortal Dream had were as maniacal as they were fantastical. She spoke of floating towers that could house an infinite amount of Spirit Beasts, resounding lasers that could obliterate the strongest of walls within a matter of seconds and even creating an energy source that could power a billion homes from now until the end of time. At the time, they seemed to be the crazy ramblings of a mad scientist, but after Spirit Immortal Dream had proven herself time and time again, the Lantis Republic decided to become her first investor.

Before Spirit Immortal Dream went crazy and murdered all of her people, that transaction paid off massively for the Lantis Republic. First, all of their vessels had been upgraded into a more modern fleet. Now powered by aether, their ships didn’t need to rely on the rocky waves and unpredictable winds anymore. They were even equipped with state-of-the-art cannons and harpoons. There were even talks of making a submersible ship that could move unnoticed by the human eye. Through Spirit Immortal Dream’s help, the Lantis Republic had undeniably solidified their place as the world’s top navy.

So those in the Lantis Republic, particularly those belonging to the Eight Ancient Clans, knew how miraculous artefacts that Spirit Immortal Dream designed are. The Payirci was once an outlandish concept that Spirit Immortal Dream had. Yet, the Black Masks had made it into reality. Now, even those in the Lantis Republic should be panicking. Who knew what other artefacts the Black Masks and the Allfather had in store?

“Shin, let’s attack them!” The adrenaline flowed to Meijing Bingying’s head. She didn’t want to be relegated to the sidelines anymore. Her place was down there, in the middle of the battlefield.

“But our orders are to replace Suji when he comes back!” The young man rebutted, his eyes shifting from Commander Martha’s position and his own.

“Are you her subordinate?” A loud response came flying back. “You’re an heir of the great Longyu Clan! The Prince of Water and the Black-Haired Tyrant! If you really want to fight, just go down there and wipe the floor with those bird-brained monsters!”

‘Aren’t you giving me an order as well?!’ Shin debunked Meijing Bingying’s word mentally as his brows arched downwards. ‘But she makes a good point… Suji has been going at it for quite some time now, and his mana pool should be exhausted soon. Forcing him to come back up is not an option, so I guess assisting him would be the next best thing.’

Shin stretched his right shoulder and got onto the platform of the fort. A wry smile crept up Isadore’s face when he saw that resolute expression of his friend’s. How many times has the elfen man seen that? There was no need to share words. Just like Shin, Isadore got up onto the same platform with a loaned spear.

Before anyone could ask him what his plan was, the young man took the leap of faith, stunning Meijing Bingying and his fellow companions that were still chattering away. Isadore followed suit right after. They were about thirty metres up from the ground, but the young heroes didn’t care about breaking bones or wounding flesh. Shin created two water bubbles to act as a cushion for their descent while dozens of spiralling water spheres, laced with a silver hue graced the dry air of the battlefield.

“Flow-Style Technique, Arcane River.” As Shin made his landing, the water spheres turned into voids that vomited out gallons of astral water, cleaning up the crimson-red waterlogged soil and replacing it with the tears of the divine goddess.

The sudden appearance of a river filled with angelic sparkles confused every being on the ground, friend and foe alike. But that didn’t stop Shin from casting his next ability. Using the mana-infused water he splattered around, the Prince of Water created dozens of water golems with swords and hammers as hands. At the same time, in various locations littered behind the Alliance forces vanguard, small pools of healing water dug deep into the ground. It took some time, but the water began to boil and released a foggy mist which rejuvenated all that stood near it, bringing back their lost strength and power and allowing the valiant warriors to fight yet another battle.

Not stopping there, Shin spread his arm out wide, creating a thick spear of water, which gradually crystallised into something much more sinister looking. Spinning the Spear of Aiglos around like a windmill, the temperature surrounding Shin dipped drastically as the water-elements began to heed his call. Hundreds of ice arrows appeared overhead and dashed out immediately, piercing any Umbras that tried to push forward in resistance.

The side of Meijing Bingying’s lips crept upwards when she watched her teachings being placed into practical use. Unsheathing her Spectral Reaver Blade, the young maiden laughed as she leapt down to assist her mentee. Finally coming to their senses, the rest of Shin’s team followed suit with their own Spirits being called out. Kanari merged with her Kumiho while Ella and Shizen dropped down together on vines, creating their own unique duo combination. Only Elrin and Emma stood back because their high vantage point would prove to be much more beneficial to the team as compared to the middle of the flat rocky plains.

Shin’s flashy entrance didn’t go unnoticed. Suji glanced back and snorted derisively. They should have waited back in camp, the man thought. Though he was angered, Suji didn’t dare to slack on his duties. The Guandao in his hands continued to dance and electrocute any that stood in his way. Suji really looked indomitable. His savagery was far beyond his years, and the seemingly inexhaustible mana pool continued to impress all of his peers. Nonetheless, after a half hour of endless bouts, there was bound to be a few cracks shown in his defence.

For a split second, a Praying Mantis Umbra managed to thread the needle and move in close to the sinewy young man while he was busy engaging three other beasts. Suji wanted to react, but the Umbra was far too quick. A praying mantis was known for its explosive speed after all. The only thing that the muscular man could do was defend with a swing of his Guandao.

SLLLLLLCCCCCCCKKKKKKKKK!!!

But the anticipated attack never landed. Before the blades of the praying mantis could reach Suji, ten vicious spears pierced through the Umbra’s body, sending flying far away from the succulent flesh of the toned young man. Shin flew forward using the Dance of the Valkyrie and landed right before his classmate’s eyes.

“Are you alright?” Offering a hand, Shin asked the man.

“I didn’t need your help!” Suji scoffed and slapped Shin’s hand away. Taking a few seconds to compose himself, the muscular juggernaught spun his lightning Guandao around before turning to Shin. “Our bet still stands! I’ll definitely beat more Spirit Beasts than you!” The veins in his muscles began to pop as the young man barged into battle once more. Hacking down yet another praying mantis Umbra, Suji continued to wreak havoc like a berserker on a mission.

“Hehe, Suji really is quite proud.” Isadore caught up and opened with an obvious observation. “So, Shin. Are you going to let him win again?”

“Not this time…” Shin shook his head. Staring up at the tall levitating tower, the youth wondered if Junius was up there somewhere, glancing down at him from his lofty throne. If he did, then Shin ought to put on a show, just to lure that asshole out into the open.

“I’m going to go all out…”