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…”

Book 8: The Mercenary’s Promise || Chapter 40: I Am Ascending (2)

The Kori Federation. The Estrella Region. Junius’ Payirci.

Junius was standing at the very precipice of the floating tower, binging down columns of written reports brought forth by his loyal subordinates. Though he was known as the Blade of Death and an assassin of the night, Junius’ primary role was that of a trained officer. It didn’t matter if they were an organisation in the dark or the light. No man could escape paperwork as they climbed up the corporate ladder. During times like these, Junius actually wished that he wasn’t the outstanding executive that he was. Just as he read the last of the documents, yet another Shudra climbed up the tower with another pile of reports from their scouts.

“Vaishya Junius! These are last night’s scouting reports!” The Shudra said.

“Right. Leave them there.” He wanted to frown and scream, but Junius kept his cool. Pointing to the adjacent desk using his feathered pen, Junius finished signing that last document before standing up for a stretch. He had been seated for the entire night now. If Junius were back home, Shia would have offered to release all of the stress from his tensed up body. Physically and mentally. Alas, he was almost an entire continent away from the Uncharted Wilderness…

“Tell me. Has there been any attempts by the Alliance to attack us?” Watching the sunrise from the peak of his tower, Junius sipped on a goblet of wine and casually asked.

“Not yet! Though, there have been some movements by their Commander to push into the ten-kilometre radius. Some scouts even predict that their attack would come within the next few days!”

“That sounds about right…” It was within Ao’s calculations that the Alliance would figure out the trick of the Payirci in about a week. The Alliance now had almost ten times the firepower than they did before. They had recruited Spirit Venerates and Spirit Emperors, alongside a standing army that would decimate any of the Black Masks’ forces. Losing to them was inevitable. Though, if one looked at it through the lens of the Allfather and the ultimate plan that he had, what the Black Masks had accomplished here wouldn’t be a loss, but a resounding win.

“We’ll stick to the original plan. Once the Alliance forces march in, we will withdraw all of the Umbras into the Payirci. Then, we’ll escape using the route that Senior Ao had created for us. Remember! Your safety is the most paramount! Don’t go risking your lives for a tower that we’d already abandoned!”

“Yes, sir!” The Shudra clicked his boots and gave a firm salute. His zealous face brimming with patriotic light. Junius’ eyes dilated as his subordinate disappeared from sight and returned back to completing his mundane tasks. The die had been cast, and it was time for the final minutes of the game. Everything had been set in stone. Whether Junius would emerge victorious from this conflict would solely depend on the actions of his younger brother.

“Shin… Oh, Shin… Please take the bait…” The Vaishya begged as he watched the sun awake from its slumber. It was a new dawn, but whether the light was shining in the Alliance’s or the Black Masks’ favour, only time would tell…

❖❖❖

Sunk deep into the luxurious feathered bed that was meant for a family of eleven, Shin counted the jagged grey rocks, wrapped with verdant plant life above his head. Those majestic crystals that lit up the entire chambers had dimmed drastically in quality, and they were now as bright as a broken firefly. In spite of that, there was still enough light to make the dome-shaped cave a comfy place for rest and a romantic tryst. Five, six, seven… Shin’s pastime hobby turned wearisome a few minutes after he started it and thus he turned to the only person that could end his misery.

“Ermmm… Mistress Kanari?” Shin pivoted his head to his right, where a young maiden was lying comfortably on his extended arm. The rubies within her pupils beamed brighter than any of the dimmed crystals that were hanging overhead. Like a spoilt kitten, Kanari purred at her name being called as she tunnelled out of Shin’s armpits and touched the weighty neck of the young man. Moving her lips close, Kanari laid down a small peck, leaving a little red mark on the neck that she loved so much.

‘She really loves kisses…’ Shin thought. They had been making out for hours now, and yet, the maiden still wasn’t satisfied.

“What is it, Master Shin?” Kanari played along with a blissful smile. They were both lightly robed, so Kanari could gawk over the toned chest muscles that Shin had trained all his life. She was tempted to continue touching them, but Kanari could tell by his expression that Shin wasn’t in the mood.

“How much longer must we keep this up?” Shin asked. “We have been here for a few hours now, and I think that people would be suspicious if I don’t return soon.”

“But I’m not done claiming my prize!” Kanari pouted and complained.

After Kanari’s successful promotion into the Spirit Spectre realm, many came over to congratulate her on her success. There was even a feast prepared for her by the men and women from the Highgarden Duchy, where almost all of the esteemed members in the camp attended, even if it was for a short while. Many prominent faces lined up to shake Kanari’s hands, and some even brought extravagant gifts to applaud her achievement. While those presents were great, there was only one true prize that Kanari had her eye on.

When the dust had settled, Kanari handed Shin a note, asking him to visit her chambers early in the morning, a few hours before the sun rose and when the misty cold still remained. From then on, the two had shared the bed, cuddling and kissing as many couples did on their honeymoon period when everything was seen through rose-coloured lenses. However, even the most dedicated connoisseur would get bored after tasting the same thing over and over. Their bodies had been intertwined for almost four hours, and Shin had enjoyed his fill. Kanari, on the other hand, was still unsatisfied and she continued to cling onto the man as if she were a koala bear.

“I know, I know. But I really have to leave soon. Me being alone with you is already a stain on your reputation. If word gets out…”

“So what?” Kanari didn’t care one bit. She had been chasing Shin for almost five years. Now that she finally obtained him, there was no way she’s letting him go that easily. “Let them talk! It’s not like it’ll bother me anyway!”

‘But it would bother me!’ Shin retorted mentally. Kanari was by far, the most sought after maiden in the Himmel Empire. The list of her potential suitors was as long as the World Serpent itself, and each one of them possessed tremendous amounts of power and influence. Even without being in a relationship with Kanari, Shin had been getting threats from nearly every organisation under the sun. Just imagine if the news broke that the pair had been cuddling and kissing for hours on a bed. The whole world would be sent into an uproar, and a bounty would be placed on his head, one that wasn’t inferior to that of Junius’. Oh, and who could forget Fred? That devoted lovebird that nearly killed Shin when he and Kanari were still friends? How would Fred react? Shin didn’t even want to think about it.

Kanari was still in a delirious mood after Shin’s confession, and the man couldn’t bring himself to throw cold water at her. Thus, he remained silent. Recalibrating, he thought of a different approach that would appeal to the young maiden.

“Let’s just ignore that for now. The Commander said that there may be a plan to attack the Payirci today, so we ought to be prepared.”

“Really?” For the first time, Kanari’s eyes sparkled at something that wasn’t Shin-related. Climbing up the man’s chest, Kanari pushed herself closer to Shin as her right thigh released its hold over Shin’s waist. As she rose from the bed, a flowery fragrance followed and filled the lungs of the man lying beneath her. “Tell me more.”

Kanari had been busy planning her promotion into the Spirit Spectre realm for the past five days and hadn’t caught up on the happenings in the encampment. And boy, were there developments. The investigation into the Payirci continued to push out new information by the hour. Its internal structure, how sturdy was it, the amount of Umbras it could potentially create before it maxed out… All of these were mysteries that had been unravelled.

The three offence-oriented Spirit Venerates from each superpower had taken turns to test the toughness of the Payirci. The lights from their savage attacks sent the world into disarray. Each time they struck, the terrain changed. From rocky contours to open flat land. From flat ground into a lake of clear liquid. From a lake to nothing but dust and smoke. Everything changed in the godforsaken area. Everything, but the Payirci itself.

It was a defeat for the entire Alliance. How were they supposed to beat an artefact that could reflect the best attacks in the three superpowers? Not even the Imperial Castle in the Himmel Empire could bolster such an effective defence. So what could the Alliance do?

Well, luckily for them, they possessed a maniac in the Blacksmith’s League President, Ingram Ragnar when it came to relics from Spirit Immortal Dream. Searching through his own personal research library, Ingram had brought forth an idea of how the Payirci’s blueprint may look like. It may have been modified by the Black Masks, but there was no doubt in Ingram’s mind that the Payirci still possessed the base features that it was intended for.

Ingram toyed with the Umbras and sent scouts to test his hypotheses during the brief period that he had. Some were debunked, while the majority of his theories were confirmed. The Payirci behaved much like a dungeon from folklore, where the heroes party had to dive down deeper and deeper to reach the dungeon core. Though, in the case of the Payirci, it was the other way round. Spirit Immortal Dream was known for her fixation of opposites after all.

It was just a theory for now, but Ingram believed that to clear the Payirci, one had to ascend the tower and reach its peak, breaking down the final obstacle and claim their prize. At outlandish thought, many said. Some even questioned the Blacksmith’s League President’s motives. Maybe he just wanted the Alliance to keep the Payirci intact so that he could replicate it in the future. But as time went by, the evidence brought back by the White Knight scouts confirmed a large chunk of Ingram’s speculations.

Soon, the operation to contain the Payirci had evolved into a mission to conquer it. Commander Martha had sent small teams of White Knights to test the waters by barging into the first level of the Payirci, and they had managed to ascend the tower, bit by bit. As more information began to surface, the Alliance had gained confidence in their plan. They readied their weapons and drew up new plans each day. Learning from their earlier mistakes, they had even made contingency plans should things go south within the Payirci. Now, even if the entire structure came crashing down when they were inside, the Alliance knew how to escape unscathed.  

“I see… So are they planning to carry out the operation today?” Kanari asked.

“Unclear. That’s why we have to return back to camp! Your ascension yesterday had boosted the morale of all the soldiers in the camp. So it wouldn’t be that hard to believe if the Commander wanted to carry the momentum forward and lead the Alliance to victory.”

“That makes sense.” The maiden fell into thought.

For a slight sliver of a second, Shin could see the rational Kanari that he adored return back from her slumber. However, as Shin got up from the bed, the right side of his robes fell from his lean shoulders, giving Kanari a full view of his right nipple and broad chest. At that moment, the logical Kanari faded into oblivion as the love-drunk Kanari took her place once more.

“Just one more hour!” Hearts could be seen in the maiden’s pupils as she dunked the man down on the bed once more. It was hopeless. Shin should be thanking his lucky stars that Kanari’s noble modesty was keeping her from going all the way. Otherwise, based on how needy Kanari was when her switch was flipped, perhaps it would take just a few weeks before a mini-Shin would be baked in the oven…

Book 8: The Mercenary’s Promise || Chapter 39: I Am Ascending (1)

The time, high noon. The place, deep inside of the Estrella Region. After Shin and Kanari performed their own unique version of a coital dance, the young man made his way out of the narrow cave and went down to the viewing party that was at the foot of the hill. There, the seven young heroes, as well as a mixture of prominent spectators such as Suji’s group and a few White Knights, waited patiently as the young maiden made her final preparations.

Ascending into the Spirit Spectre realm wasn’t a sight that many got to see often. Whenever a cultivator made their attempt, they would be sure to invite hundreds of their closest friends and family, to watch over them in their success. And this situation wasn’t that different. Kanari may not be in the Himmel Empire where she could draw in thousands of eyes to congratulate her, but there were still many in the region that wished to witness history being made. Even Spirit Emperors and Spirit Venerates from the Alliance forces were curious and freed an hour of their busy schedule to watch the girl make her attempt.

When it came to Kanari’s promotion into the Spirit Spectre realm, no one doubted that she would succeed. What they were interested in was her new spiritual ability, and how dominant she would be in the next realm. The flaps of the makeshift pavilion fluttered wildly with the immense wind while the spectators waited patiently for the good or bad news. The three maidens from Shin’s group all huddled up together, their eyes never leaving the entrance of Kanari’s cave.

Shizen and Isadore were less concerned. Oddly enough, it was the two guys of the team that had the most faith in Kanari’s success. Isadore has known Kanari ever since he could walk and he knew what made her tick. Crossing the first barrier of mortality was a tall task, but for a monstrous genius like her, it was basically a walk in the park. Shizen felt the same way. Being the Freak of the Dundlewoods, the young man’s instincts were much more acute as compared to the ordinary cultivator. Shizen knew that Kanari was something special, a talent that was probably second to his favourite Shin. It was his honest opinion that if Kanari couldn’t make it into the Spirit Spectre realm, then perhaps no one could.

Finally, there was Shin. His expression was placid. Not overly zealous about the prospects of Kanari failing, but if one peered deep into his eyes, they could see a fragment of worry in the man’s soul. There was no such thing as an absolute in this world. Yes, Kanari was a genius. Yes, she had been preparing for this moment ever since she awakened her Spirit. However, no matter how much one is prepared, one could not predict the future.

With folded arms, Shin waited. There were dozens of men and women surrounding, each one more distinguished than the other. The heirs of the Lasgeor, Frithron and Aldana families sat on their wooden chairs and gave out the odd yawn, bored with the state of nothingness that was happening at the foot of the hill. Standing next to them, the high lords of the Himmel Empire that had been sent over as reinforcements stood by, merrily engaging in High Society socialising. Even the White Knight Commander, who should have been swamped with paperwork and planning for the eventual raid of the Payirci, was happily downing goblets of fine wine that had been sent over from the Highgarden Duchy.

Those bystanders treated Kanari’s attempt to break through as an event to kick back and relax, just as they did other functions. It made Shin’s heart, ache in disgust. Here he was, worrying about the possible consequences should Kanari failed, yet there were random people wining and dining, watching the show that was about to unfold.

‘You have to make it…’

A half hour has passed since Shin left the cultivation chambers. Taking into account how much time it took for Spirit Venerate Kikyo and the plethora of Registrars and Meisters to settle down within the cave, Kanari should be in the midst of her attempt. To protect the girl, the Highgarden operatives sealed the exit with a high-levelled talisman and guarded it with two Spirit Kings. Furthermore, a spiritual barrier formed of Venerate Kikyo’s own mana prevented any spiritual energies from escaping or infiltrating the chambers, keeping the spectators completely in the dark about the happenings within.

“How long does it normally take for someone to promote into the Spirit Spectre realm?” Emma scratched the bottom of her chin and asked Elrin.

“It depends on the cultivator. Sometimes it would take an hour while sometimes it would take a day. There really isn’t a clear answer,” replied Elrin.

“A day? It can take that long?” Ella interjected with her own worry. Just like Shin, the twins were worried about Kanari’s safety more than anything. It didn’t matter if she failed or not. The most paramount concern for them was for Kanari to emerge out from the ashes unscathed.

“That’s right. And there is no correlation between how talented the Spirit User is and the time it takes for he or she to advance.” The knowledgeable heiress continued to narrate off her own experience. “I’ve seen geniuses take forty full hours to advance while run-off-the-mill cultivators take just five. It really depends on a variety of factors so I can’t give you an answer on how long it would take for Kanari to emerge from her chambers.”

“I see…” Emma nodded her head. “I just hope that she’s alright.”

“You guys really don’t have to worry! The Highgarden Duchess had been preparing for this moment for Kanari’s entire cultivation life! She even got Venerate Kikyo, the best auxiliary Spirit User in the Capital, to serve as Kanari’s protector. Honestly, I’m even jealous that she gets such treatment. My father has been inviting Venerate Kikyo to watch over my own ascension, but she has turned it down every time!” Pouting her lips, Elrin dropped back on her chair and continued to glare at the sealed entrance. Her eyes brimming with a passionate green fire, completely exposing her envy for the Highgarden heiress.

“Is she really that impressive? Venerate Kikyo?” For the first time since sitting down, Shin turned over his shoulder and asked the white-haired maiden. He had just met the Spirit Venerate once on his way up to visit Kanari, and his first impressions of her weren’t all that good.

“Of course she is!” Offended that Shin would even question her abilities, Elrin proceeded to educate the ignorant youth of Venerate Kikyo’s marvellous abilities. “Her control over a cultivator’s spiritual state is second to none! The Imperial Family even solicit her services during the Day of Spirits to awaken the Spirits of the royal descendants! Many request her services and are willing to pay a hefty sum to watch over their children attempt to cross the first barrier of mortality, but she always declines!”

“Is that so… So why did she agree to help Kanari?”

“That’s what I want to know!” Elrin pulled her hair, her throat hoarse from her raised voice. “I would do anything to get her to watch over me as I attempt to promote to the Spirit Spectre realm!”

“Do you have that little faith in yourself?” Suji, who had been listening in on the group’s conversation, chimed in with a raised chin and puffed chest. “As a cultivator that aims to be the best, you mustn’t doubt your own capabilities, even for a fraction of a second. Kanari shouldn’t have hired a protector if she really believed in her own abilities…”

“…” Kanari’s six comrades had their faces turn into frowns after hearing Suji’s harsh words. They wanted to rebuke the man, but they knew it would only fuel needless strife, something that they didn’t need to have at this moment.

“Suji!!!” Luckily for them, an exasperated cry screeched out on their behalf as a flabby arm covered the muscle man’s running mouth. “Sorry about that, Suji’s just bitter that Kanari has reached the Spirit Spectre realm before him. Don’t mind him.”

The brows on the sinewy face combined as Suji’s eyes shifted to the side and glared at his fat bosom friend. He felt betrayed that Danroy was taking another’s side and wanted to argue his case. Sadly, the chunky youth wasn’t interested in hearing it. Danroy pulled Suji out from his seat and moved out of sight to give the six youths some space.

“Hah… Suji really is a competitive bastard.” Natasha the swordmaiden, sighed. “I apologise for my teammate’s disrespect.”

“It really is getting annoying.” Elrin folded her arms and struck back venomously. “Can’t he just accept that Kanari and Shin are just better than him already? Must he hold on to that hopeless dream?”

“Haha… Right…” With a nervous laugh, Natasha ended the conversation, cursing Suji’s inelegance throughout mentally.

Rumble… Rumble… Rumble…

Just as the Elrin was about to bring up a new topic of conversation, the rocky ground of the hillside began to tremble slightly, shaking the cultivators off their bums and into high vigilance. Though they were celebrating Kanari’s attempt to enter into the Spirit Spectre realm, they were still in the middle of a war. A terrible one at that. If the Black Masks had taken advantage of this time to launch a surprise attack, they had to be prepared to defend.

All of the top cultivators expanded their spiritual sense, hoping to investigate the cause of the minor earthquake. However, after a few seconds, they all universally broke out into a beaming smile.

“Senior Baobiao! What’s going on?” Shin ran to the only Spirit Venerate that he could freely talk to. Right now, Kanari was in the midst of breaking through into the Spirit Spectre realm. If it really was an enemy attack, Shin would break every bone in his body, just to make sure that Kanari remained safe.

“Hehe, child there’s no need to worry.” The dragon-bearded man cackled. Releasing one of his wrinkled fingers from his right hand, Elder Baobiao pointed straight at the sky above the low hanging peak. “Look!”

All of the juniors’ eyes followed the finger and soon, audible gasps followed. Right above the cave where Kanari had claimed for herself, an aurora borealis coloured red, green and grey, graced the midday sky. It was an odd sight. A divine natural light beaming itself against the radiance of the sun. But no one could look away. No one wanted to. Though they didn’t understand how the aurora borealis formed, one could guess its origin.

“Don’t tell me…” A bubbling excitement fizzled up from the pits of his stomach as Shin stepped forward into the light. Due to Venerate Kikyo’s barrier, there weren’t any fluctuations in spiritual energies. Even the top Spirit Venerates seated below the cave could pry into the isolated cultivation chambers. Thus, they waited. Patiently? Definitely not.

All of the spectators left their seats and hurried forward out of the shade. They wanted to be closer to the cave and witness the grandeur of the successful ascendant. They wanted to be the first to congratulate the indomitable maiden that would unquestionably write her name in legend. They wanted to see how the Witch in the South was as a Spirit Spectre…

And well, they didn’t have to wait for long. Minutes after the beautiful lights graced the skies, the talisman at the centre of the cave’s entrance unfurled and crumpled itself into a ball. Its restriction lost, the boulder blocking the exit rolled open, with a little help from the Spirit Kings guarding it. The barrier surrounding the cave opened holes in itself like a honeycomb and eventually broke down into pieces, leaving nothing behind. For the more sensitive cultivators in the viewing part, they could tell that the elemental energies within the cave had been entirely sucked dry.

“They’re coming out.” Elder Baobiao remarked.

As if on cue, a few shadows emerged from the darkness, each one with their own unique expressions. Venerate Kikyo’s green eyes glistened, with a little pride in her smile. The acclaimed Registrar’s wrinkled face was free of any sweat or oils as if he had just sat back and done nothing for the entire time. A female bodyguard, who donned on a butler’s uniform like many who came before her, walked into the sunlight with her flat palm above her eyebrows. Though Shin had never seen the others, that guard was one that he was familiar with. Being Kanari’s personal attendant, there was no way that the butler would leave her mistress unguarded. Thus, her exit from the cave meant one thing…

“Kanari…”

Emerging out like a mermaid from the depths of the ocean, the maiden displayed herself for all to see. Her white priestess gown had been slightly drenched with a little sweat, sticking itself to certain parts of her body. The weak-willed men drooled as they watched the decanter-shaped waist move from side to side while the women awed at the picture-perfect figure that they hoped to achieve. Her every step seemed to bloom a garden of flowers in her wake, and her playful actions of tucking her ink-black hair behind her ear made the barren cave look like a runway.

‘She looks younger…’ Shin thought.

The youth had spent hundreds of hours next to Kanari, and he was familiar with nearly every wrinkle, every mark and every blemish that the maiden had. However, after emerging from the cavern, Shin felt like Kanari had morphed into a different being. Her face was a little smaller, her figure seemed to become more toned than before and finally, there was a mystifying air to her every step.

Kanari absorbed the gazes of everyone present and chuckled. There were many eyes, but there was only one pair that she genuinely cared about. Not wasting any more time, the maiden decided to give the spectators what they were waiting for.

Spreading her arms out wide, Kanari released a tremendous spiritual pressure, one that forced those below the Spirit Spectre realm to grimace in discomfort as they heavily resisted the urge to bend their knees. There wasn’t any malice in her actions, though. It was just purely a side-effect of the spiritual energies being poured out from her soul. Gorgeous Aurora lights embellished the air around Kanari and spread out far and wide. Each light contained elemental greatness, and just by feeling it brush over their skins, the spectators felt as if a thousand ants were crawling up their bodies.

“A domain…” One voice broke out from the crowd.

They were amazed but not shocked. Kanari was the Witch in the South after all. If anyone were to learn a domain as their fifth spiritual ability, it would be her. Nonetheless, it was still a breathtaking sight. A twenty-year-old Spirit Spectre with a domain. Perhaps one of the greatest achievements made by a cultivator over the past hundred years.

Ignoring all of the banter, Kanari gazed down upon the world, only to lock eyes with the man she wanted to see the most. The lights from her auroras brightened up her face to an astonishing degree, making her seem almost divine. Kanari smiled. Now, everything has fallen into place.  She was now a Spirit Spectre with a domain ability. The Highgarden Duchy had also sent an array of skilled Spirit Users to assist in the charge against the Payirci. Now, it was time to finally act against Junius and untie one knot in her loved one’s heart.

‘You gave me your oath, so I’ll give you mine… Shin, I’ll definitely bring Junius to justice!!!’

Book 8: The Mercenary’s Promise || Chapter 38: Kanari And Shin (4)

The entrance to the cave was narrow and wrapped with verdant ivy. Unlike the blistering heat of the outside, there was a smooth, moist cooling effect in its interior and Shin instantly felt rejuvenated as the cold fog touched his pores. Entrenched in nature, the cave was supposedly void of light as not even the slightest of sun rays could reach its core. However, contrary to Shin’s expectations, the cave was beaming with light as thousands of small luminous marbles stuck on every corner of the structure.

Each advancing step he took, Shin’s skin began to crawl and his spine wildly tingled. The musty air filled with earthen goodness enveloped every membrane of his expanded lungs, and the soft droplets of cave water calmed his tense nerves. Though it wasn’t the atmosphere that the cave naturally gave off that gave him sensations that would rock his entire body, it was the abundance of prosperous spiritual energies that permeated through his every pore and infiltrated his Spirit Core.

‘Such spiritual density!’ Shin cried out internally. He had his fair share of cultivation chambers back in the academy. Once, Principal Erudito had even brought over a ten-thousand-year-old fossil that was found deep in the ocean to aid in Shin’s cultivation. However, the young man was confident that this cave was far more spiritually dense than anything that he had ever encountered. And he wasn’t even at the core yet!

‘The Highgarden Duchy really pulled out everything for this…’

Now, Shin felt terrible for forcing the Duchess to send this many resources to the north. No matter how much she tried to spin her reasons, everyone knew that Kanari was attempting to cross the first barrier of mortality in the Estrella Region only because Shin wouldn’t return. For the first time ever, Shin apologised to the gorgeous unaging lady in his mind before making the final steps down the pavement and into the door of light that lay at the end of the corridor.

The bright, radiant light consisting of each colour of a rainbow burnt the virgin eyes of the young man as he finally emerged out of the pathway. What greeted the boy was a humongous dome that spanned almost twenty metres high. Littered all around its grey dampened walls, thousands of mana crystals, each storing record amounts of elemental energies, beamed with everything that they had.

And it wasn’t just the walls that were perfect. On the ground, rows of precious materials, each expensive enough to feed a peasant family for a year, decorated the otherwise mundane cave floor. For a cultivator like Shin, the resources kept in this cave were so tempting that he could organise a heist for the sake of taking just a percentage of it.

‘Sometimes… I tend to forget that Kanari is a rich girl too…’ Shin scoffed at his inferior mindset. Walking into the light, Shin noticed a bulky mattress, one large enough to bed a family of eleven, tucked silently in one corner. Three chromatic crystals enveloped the bed in the shape of a triangle, each one bearing their own unique powers.

The red one emitted an explosive heat, that soaked through the veins of any that crossed its path. The green one brought out a sharp aura with a cooling effect that spread throughout one’s bones. And finally, the grey crystal blurred the visions of any that dared to tread too close to its centre all while radiating out an emotional brilliance that saturated one’s soul.

Shin watched each one of the crystals and nodded approvingly. It really was a cultivation chamber fit for a High Noble. His mind freed, the young man turned his attention to the final being that completed the extravagantly distinguished room.

A young maiden, dressed in a pure white priestess robe, sat in the centre of her feathered mattress, eyes closed and legs crossed. Mediating, her ample bosom rose and fell as elemental energies from the crystals flowed into her slender body. When Shin walked closer, he could hear soft chants, akin to that of a monk’s prayer, echoing out of Kanari’s mouth. Was she cultivating? No way. Kanari had been cultivating for a decade, each day murmuring the same mantra over and over again. Kanari was doing something similar to any sportsmen who went on a tournament. The maiden was practising something routine just so that she was prepared for the final stretch.

Nonetheless, feeling another’s presence in her own personal chambers forced Kanari to break her train of thought and halting her chants. Opening up her gorgeous ruby eyes, the maiden turned to the black-haired boy, who had unknowingly reached the side of her bed. Flashing a smile, Kanari felt her bones crack as she straightened her back to address her visitor.

“Shin, you’re here.”

“Yes, I’m here.” Shin wryly chuckled. Though they had a minor quarrel and hadn’t seen one another for almost five days, Kanari acted as if nothing had happened. Her mind was focused on the task at hand, which was something that Shin greatly admired in a cultivator. Extending his palm to the edge of the mattress, Shin asked politely. “May I?”

“Please!” The smile on Kanari’s lips grew even larger as she stood up from the centre and shuffled herself towards the corner. Both now seated on the soft bed that the Duchess of Highgarden had prepared, Kanari nestled right next to Shin and was tempted to go in for a hug. However, being the prim and proper lady that she was raised to be, the young maiden held back her urges and coughed twice.

“I thought that you wouldn’t come. You were so against me advancing here.”

“To be clear, I’m still not convinced that you should.” The edges of Shin’s mouth twitched.

“Ah, I see…” Not expecting the answer she wanted, Kanari dipped her head slightly. Shin watched that subtle movement and heaved out a deep sigh. Bringing forth his hand, the young man stroked the luscious black hair of Kanari’s all while lowering his tone to sound as comforting as he possibly could.

“But, I can’t really say anything when you’d brought an entire royal procession here, can I?” The young man raised his hands, defeated. “Spirit Venerates, Registrars, Phoenix feathers, Elemental Crystals… If I were to deny you now, I’d be the dumb one.” Shin just took one glance around and was once again blown away. Even an Imperial Prince wouldn’t have the capability to afford such extravagance for his ascension into the Spirit Spectre realm.

“That’s right! You don’t have to worry! I’ll definitely cross the first barrier of mortality in one try! I have absolute confidence in myself!” Kanari puffed her chest out in pride. Sometimes, boasting would make someone seem pretentious. Yet, when Kanari bragged about her own talent, Shin could feel that she thoroughly trusted herself. Then again, who wouldn’t?

Kanari’s achievements spoke for themselves. Fastest cultivator to reach the Spirit Apostle, Core and Adept realm in the past hundred years. Youngest Spirit Apostle to take down a deluge of Spirit Core cultivators. The most dominating elemental user that created the ‘Mind Flame,’ a spiritual ability that could hypnotise the consciousness of any that had lower cultivations. If Kanari didn’t become a Spirit Spectre in one try, that would be the real travesty. Nonetheless, Shin still felt guilty that Kanari was about to take a risk that she shouldn’t have to.

“You’re… really going to do it huh?” A feeble voice crept out of Shin.

“Are… You going to try to persuade me again?”

“No… Not this time.”

Over the past five days, Shin had plenty of time to think. As the day crept closer and closer, his mindset had taken a one-eighty, and Shin had given up on trying to send Kanari back to the Himmel Empire, where her chances of ascension might be higher. Breaking through into a higher realm required a variety of factors. A spiritual ability to create was one. A firm cultivation base was another. However, those were just secondary factors at best. There was one variable that had to be set in stone for a cultivator to succeed in their promotion.

And that was to have an unwavering mind.

Kanari was about to face the first barrier of mortality, a bottleneck that was near unbreachable for a vast majority of the population. She knew that, and so did the Duchess of Highgarden. Why else would she prepare this many resources for Kanari to splurge? However, everything that Kanari had prepared, everything that the young maiden had struggled so hard for… It would all be for nought if the girl didn’t have a resolute determination to succeed.

So, if Shin continued to mistrust her… If Shin continued to let Kanari down… Perhaps it would just be detrimental to all. Putting his personal feelings aside, Shin had decided to wholeheartedly support Kanari through this monumental time in her life, no matter how uneasy he felt. Shin’s roughened palms stroked over Kanari’s supple white hands, gripping it in its entirety.

“I trust you, Kanari. I’m here to tell you that.” The young man leaned in, bringing the lychee-like arms of the maiden closer to his lips. Kanari’s face had instantly turned hot as her face became as red as a rambutan. “You’re the most prodigious cultivator I know. I’m confident that you’ll break through into the Spirit Spectre realm, taking one more step into immortality.”

“T-Thank you for that…” Flustered, Kanari pulled her hands away, albeit unwillingly. She wanted to reach back in, but that would seem too vain for a lady of her stature to do. Thus, she waited.

“Kanari… Do you remember our promise?” Unaware of the turbulence in Kanari’s heart, Shin’s mouth twisted into a frown as he sat upright on the bed.

“What promise?”

“The one where I said I would never belong to another organisation other than yours.”

A tale long passed. Back in the day, when Shin first came to the Capital and was relatively unknown, Kanari had cut a deal with him. If Shin wanted to be shielded by any organisations, the Highgarden Duchy must be the first one he considers. In the present day, those terms were obviously void, due to his affiliation with the Lantis Republic. Oblivious to why Shin had brought that promise up, Kanari cocked her head to the side while shooting the man an inquisitive gaze.

“What about it?”

“I think… I can make you another promise. One that supersedes that one.” With hurried breaths, the young man quelled his rapidly beating heart while swallowing down a mouthful of saliva.

“What is it?” Kanari sensed that there was something wrong with Shin. It was as if this decision of his was about to alter his life forever.

“Kanari… I promise you this. No, to you, I give this oath!” Not backing out now, Shin looked the gorgeous maiden straight in her eyes. Kanari’s watched as his azure-lake eyes glistened wetly all while her body throbbed with every passing moment.

“In this life, in the mortal realm. I will not belong to any other. I love Ariel, I still do, and I will always chase Yggdrasil to see her again! But I don’t want to lose you either! I know that this decision of mine is selfish and it might not be what you want to hear, but nevertheless, I will promise you this!” Shin didn’t falter one bit. Yes, this answer was to give the girl peace of mind as she advanced, but it was also part of Shin’s own self-acceptance by confessing to his own feelings. “I will not love another, Kanari. Not in this life. This is my oath… to you.”

“!!!”

A silent cry.

That was Shin’s answer for his heartfelt confession. Kanari’s shoulders trembled while her ruby eyes dropped sweet, translucent nectar down on her cheeks. To call it a sudden confession would be an understatement. Kanari had expected that Shin would try to convince her once more to return home and yet he came up with this curveball that brought sent her emotions into disarray.

“Say… Say that again.” Kanari didn’t even have control over her five senses. That’s how shaken she was. She had waited almost five years for those words. Five long years of painful waiting. Sitting at the corner while Shin yearned for his deceased partner, clenching on to the last relic she left him. Kanari had turned down stud after stud, heir after heir, genius after genius, just to wait for Shin. And finally… Finally, her patience paid off.

“Kanari, I love you.”

“Hiccc!!!” A sharp cry, far above the octaves reached by human speech, pierced through Shin’s ears as the maiden jerked back abruptly. It was hard for her to remain composed after the man she held so dear said those magical three words.

“Hey, Shin… You love me, right? And today is the day that I break through the first barrier of mortality right?” Kanari held the lid on her emotions from bursting forth as she tried so hard to retain her pure appearance.

“Yeah?” Confused as to why she was asking those questions, Shin widened his eyes, sending the two prominent brows of his up high.

“So… Can I be selfish? Just once more?”

“Hmmm? What do yo-!!!”

Before he could even complete his sentence, Shin felt his neck being pulled straight onto the bed as if he was a magnet being sucked down. Touched by the angel’s hand, Shin felt the nape of his neck being constricted by ten long fingers. It was a heavenly touch, completely unlike a murderer’s grasp. The pungent aroma of rose-scented lipstick crept up the opened nostrils of the young man and brought a tingling sensation down his spine.

“Just once more…” Kanari’s switch was flipped. Gone were the proper upbringings that her parents had drilled into her. The only thing on her mind was to replicate that memorable night that still gave her happy fantasies in the middle of her dreams.

There was no room for discussion. The ethereal beauty was going in for the kill. Shin’s heart beat faster and faster as Kanari’s hands pulled Shin’s face closer to her own. Shin knew that if he kissed Kanari once more, those emotions that he had kept buried, those primal urges that he hid when he kissed Kanari back, would come pouring out like a broken dam. He wanted to stop. But which man could say no to that enchanting white face with rich garnet lips?

Kanari took advantage of that brief moment of weakness and dropped the head of the man she loved, squarely on the tip of her lips. There was no resistance. Kanari’s tongue invaded Shin’s like a sea serpent, wiggling and twisting about in the motion of the waves. It squirmed, it pulsated, it pleased. Tasting the sweet nectar of a maiden’s tongue stunned the youth, as all of his senses were ripped clean from its rational faculties. Kanari wasn’t a prodigy for nothing.  After that one experience that she had, Kanari had dreamt of this moment every night. She had even ‘borrowed’ Elrin’s stash of books for reference. All that, for the next kiss that may share with Shin.

It took Shin ten seconds before he finally understood what was going on. His body laid upon hers on the gigantic bed, Shin saw a tender loving woman right under his chest, trying to get the most of her interaction with him. How shameful must it be? For a girl to initiate the loving kiss not once, but twice. Yet, Shin just sat back and took advantage of her feelings. Even now, Kanari was leading the kiss with everything that she had. No… Something had to change.

Removing himself from Kanari’s Medusa hold, Shin pushed his body up, both hands on each side of the maiden’s head. An erotic silver string connected the two mouths that had been slugging at one another, and the pair soon found themselves in a reverse position than they did six moons ago. Before Kanari was on top and now, Shin had taken hold of that place all for himself. The beautiful young woman felt reluctant that the kiss was that brief, but she couldn’t force something on Shin that many times. If he didn’t want to make out, it wasn’t wise for Kanari to pressure him into doing it once more. Just as Kanari was about to sit up and apologise, she felt a tremendous push strain down on her neck.

Shin opened the holy vault with his own distinct key, slipping down sacred liquids from above. Kanari’s eyes went wide, but Shin didn’t care. Forceful and dominant, the alpha male within the man awoke from his slumber and took hold of the woman beneath him. Like their tongues, Kanari and Shin’s bodies intertwined, as if they were two snakes performed a coital dance.

Once wasn’t enough. Twisting about until they were deeper into the bed, Shin released his hold on Kanari’s mouth to catch a quick breather and replenish his saliva. Second time’s the charm. While Kanari was still dazed, Shin went in for round two without any permission. This time, he already knew which pleasure points triggered Kanari the most. Attacking them with his dolphin-slippery tongue, Shin sent waves of tremors that could be felt at every corner of Kanari’s body, bringing forth a swimming giddiness that couldn’t be controlled.

Kanari felt that she was on cloud nine. She forgot that she was about to break through into the Spirit Spectre realm. No, Kanari had even forgotten that they were in the middle of the battlefield. Throwing all caution into the wind, the young maiden locked her legs on Shin’s waist breaking all sorts of modesty codes. But Kanari didn’t care. It was her moment. Kanari feared that Shin would leave and bring all of the feelings away, so she held onto him with dear life.

And well, Kanari got her wish. Though, not in the way that she anticipated. Awakening something even more primal in Shin’s veins, the young man got up once more and looked straight into her ruby eyes. Was he done? Definitely not.

Shin went in for the fourth, the fifth. Each minor kiss fell specks onto Kanari cheeks and neck, while the major kisses lifted both their yearnings for one another. For Kanari, it was as if angels were singing hallelujah at the side, celebrating her victory in the battleground called love.

The pair continued their waltz of kisses. Sultry, mucilaginous fluids dripped out from their mouths and stained the sheets of the luxurious mattress beneath them. Unrelenting in his attacks, Shin continued on dominating Kanari’s uvula like the tyrant he was. Many times, Kanari would choke on their amalgamation of saliva, but every time, she would just swallow it and acted as if nothing happened. The funny part was, she didn’t even do it knowingly. The primordial woman in her was screaming out actions, and Kanari’s body obeyed.

Alas, all good things had to come to an end. Playing around for almost ten minutes, Shin felt the lust and desire within him die down, as his logical brain took over. Kanari was just about to take on the most significant obstacle in her life thus far… Shin should really let her prepare.

Splitting off from the maiden on the bed, Shin sat up in hopes of having one final proper conversation. However, Kanari didn’t like their sudden separation. Jumping into his chest, the young woman nestled happily, rubbing her cheeks on his neck, longing for another kiss. A wry smile crept up Shin’s face while he stroked the smooth and long hair of the woman.

“I have to go.”

“B-But!”

“We can continue this another time.” Kanari tried to protest but was shut down by Shin’s authoritative finger. “What’s more important is that you cross the first barrier of mortality and ascend into the Spirit Spectre realm. When that’s done… I’ll be there for you again.”

“Hehe…” The maiden smiled. It wasn’t a dream. She wasn’t about to wake up horrified that everything had been just an illusion. Once Kanari ascended, Shin would be waiting right there, with the best present that she could ever receive. Kanari allowed her soft head to fall lightly onto Shin’s chest, whiffing up the manly musk that he emitted. “Right now… I feel like I can do anything!”

“That’s right!” Shin pushed the girl’s shoulders and looked her in the eye. “You’re Kanari Saniela, the Witch of the South and the future Duchess of Highgarden! You’re sure to succeed!”

“…” It was dreamy. To have someone having this much faith in her. Kanari was dazed for a moment but recovered quickly after.

“Right. Shin! The next time we meet! I’ll be in the Spirit Spectre realm! And when I do that…” Kanari went on all fours and crawled slowly until their noses were close to touching. But she didn’t stop there. Kanari’s soft and tender lips reached the side of Shin’s ear, and a faint whisper echoed through his cochlea.

“I will collect my prize.”

With that, Kanari separated from Shin, bearing the smile of a mischievous imp. For a moment there, Shin really felt that his life was in peril. Though, it was just a figment of his imagination. Or was it?

‘Oh… What have I done?’

Book 8: The Mercenary’s Promise || Chapter 37: Kanari And Shin (3)

Five days have passed since the Payirci made its appearance in the Estrella Region. True to his world, Alliance Head Raphael had dispatched an additional fifty thousand strong warriors from all corners of the region to join Commander Martha and her White Knights. Not only that, the three superpowers had all volunteered to send a dozen Spirit Emperors each to combat the foreign structure. In just five days, the Alliance Head had fulfilled, no surpassed Elder Baobiao’s first request. Other than the major cities, there was nowhere on Planet Earth that a more elite force existed.

Raphael was quick to accomplish the second request that Elder Baobiao had too. Scouring through the name lists of all who had studied the relics of Spirit Immortal Dream, the Alliance Head swiftly identified the best man for the job, and he was a name that many were familiar with…

The President of the Blacksmith’s League, Ingram Ragnar.

Initially, the Alliance Head was reluctant to bring this affair towards one of the leading figures in world politics as well as a prized Spirit Venerate that could prove to be vital in developing future weapons. However, while Raphael was brooding in his office, Ingram had gotten wind of the Payirci’s appearance and stormed into the Alliance Head’s chambers demanding that he be dispatched. The allure of learning something from the era of Spirit Immortal Dream had a magnetic appeal that attracted any who sought to innovate the world into a brighter tomorrow.

A Payirci, just like many of the relics of Spirit Immortal Dream, were long thought to be lost forever and enthusiasts had given up on ever seeing one in person. Nonetheless, some persevered through the ages, bearing the hope that one such relic would emerge from the shadows and take the world by storm. After all, they were talking about the most prodigious cultivator that had roamed the earth. Her innovations broke common sense, and her words were scribed into paper and resold for thousands of gold ingots.

The woman that introduced Aether to the world and shocked everyone by creating a nation that rivalled that of the three superpowers. Spirit Immortal Dream was both a legend and an enigma. If Ingram could just lay his hands on one completed blueprint that the immortal had left behind, the Blacksmith’s League would be able to create new structures that would change the dynamics of the world.

So just like that, Raphael had secured two of the three requests that Elder Baobiao had. On the other hand, the last request was far from being completed. Just as he promised, the Alliance Head had brought Elder Baobiao’s suggestion to the council, and it was met with expected backlash. No entity in the world would want to involve a Spirit Saint unless it was absolutely necessary. There were even some choice words headed to the Lantis Republic for even suggesting such a manoeuvre. Days passed, and it became increasingly clear that a decision had to made before the Black Masks moved to destroy the Alliance forces.

In a hurry, each one of the three superpowers nominated one pure attack-based Spirit Venerate from their ranks to join the fray. They would all take turns to take down the Payirci with their most powerful spiritual abilities. With strikes that could utterly obliterate countries with a single flash, if the three Spirit Venerates weren’t able to take down the Payirci from the outside, perhaps there was no possible way for the structure to be downed.

Of course, the Alliance forces on the ground weren’t idle during the past five days either. Securing the perimeter around the Payirci, the White Knights noticed something strange about the darkness-imbued Spirit Beasts. Unlike normal wild creatures, they weren’t allowed to roam past ten kilometres of the Payirci. Furthermore, they all marched in unison, much like a trained army rather than a savage beast horde and no matter how many beasts the Alliance killed, hundreds would pop up once more as if nothing happened.

After continuous investigations, the White Knights learnt that the darkness-imbued Spirit Beasts weren’t really living creatures at all. They were shadows. Copies of their original self. No matter how many perished, others would form from their residue light and take their place. On the surface, that fact sounded horrible for the Alliance as it essentially meant that the Black Masks could infinitely create Spirit Beasts with no repercussions.

Alas, creating a life outside of the cycle of samsara was never that easy. The darkness-imbued Spirit Beasts were much weaker than their original self, and a Tier 4 was barely as powerful as a full-fledged Tier 3 with years of experience under its belt. And here’s the kicker. The ten-kilometre radius that the darkness-imbued Spirit Beasts were limited to wasn’t some elaborate tactics to outsmart the Alliance forces, but a necessity to keep the beasts alive.

If the darkness-imbued Spirit Beasts strayed ten kilometres away from the Payirci, they would suffer the same fate as any shadow that strayed too far away from its caster. It would fade into nothingness, never to exist in the material realm anymore. That discovery shook the entire Alliance. They had finally found a weakness to exploit. And thus, the inspiration for the darkness-imbued Spirit Beasts was found. Umbras. Just like their names suggest, Umbras relies on the Payirci to exist. Take down the Payirci, you send the Umbras into oblivion.

Bit by bit, the mystery of the Payirci began to unravel. Ingram had arrived in the region and marvelled at the sight of the beautiful structure. Based on his knowledge, the Payirci was a tool developed to train the citizens of Spirit Immortal Dream’s country to become as combat-ready as they possibly could. Though the Black Masks had modified it, the core concept was still the same. Running on a significant amount of Aether, the Payirci was a battery that was bound to run out eventually.

Thus, the Alliance had two options. First, they could wait down the timer and watch as the Payirci turns into a hopeless pile of garbage. But there were a few problems with that choice. No one knew how long the structure will last. A week? A month? A year? There was no specified time estimate since no one had encountered a Payirci before. Next, by the time the Alliance waited for the structure’s energy tank to run empty, the Black Masks hiding inside would have long escaped.

Or they could go the other route. Based on Ingram’s research, the Payirci, just like any other object of that scale, always had a core. Reach the core, and the Alliance would be able to shut down the floating tower from the inside. It was much riskier since no one knew what dangers lay within the Payirci. Nevertheless, it was a risk worth taking. Should the Payirci fall, the Alliance would learn many details of the Black Masks, things that were never known in the four long years since the war had begun.

What was the Allfather’s plan? What ties did the Allfather have to Spirit Immortal Dream? How were the Black Masks able to procure this much resources to bring the three superpowers to heel? Why did the Black Masks massacre the Land of Dreams using a Tier 9 Spirit Beast?

There were so many unanswered questions, and the Payirci held the answers. However, the Alliance weren’t brash youths that would barge into every situation without a plan. Taking their time to craft a method of attack using all of the information that was readily available to them, the military strategists in the Alliance carefully plotted out their next move. How many forces were to attack the tower? What to do if the structure collapses? How to minimise the casualty count while ensuring the highest rate of success? These were all factors considered in the elaborate plan of the Alliance.

And among the chaos of the encampment, there were a select few that had their attention wholly detached from the entire situation. After learning that Kanari had reached the peak of Rank 39 and was about to cross the first barrier of mortality, Shin requested that their team withdraw from any operations until further notice. Naturally, Shin would love to be there for the final battle where Junius was finally apprehended, but that wasn’t of paramount importance right now.

Five days had passed, and the reinforcements sent by the Himmel Empire had long arrived. Initially, when the Duchess of Highgarden heard that Kanari was about to advance into the Spirit Spectre realm in a foreign land, the noblewoman almost wanted to kick her feet out from her throne to drag the young lady back to the Capital. However, after dozens of arguments through the Cikai Mirror, the Duchess finally relented and had sent a congregation of the best resources and personnel to facilitate Kanari’s ascension.

Among them, Spirit Venerate Kikyo, as well as a plethora of other well-known auxiliary Spirit Users, was on deck to protect Kanari should things go south. The Duchess had even requested a Registrar to watch over Kanari’s ascension. Adding together the precious materials like a one-of-a-kind Phoenix feather and the Holy Water from the Spring of Eden, there was no possible way for Kanari to be harmed even if she failed her attempt.

Through the power of the Highgarden Duchy’s connection, Kanari was able to pull some strings in the encampment and allow her to set up a makeshift cultivation chamber in a cave just a few hundred metres away. There, members of Spion worked overtime to make the environment as conducive as possible for Kanari to break through the first barrier of mortality. Crystals imbued with high amounts of Fire, Wind and Mind elemental energies were being littered all over the cave, giving Kanari the added bonus she needed.

One might ask how were the cogs falling into place so rapidly? Well, that’s because the Duchess of Highgarden had long prepared for such a scenario. When Kanari first departed on that long journey north, she was already at Rank 38. It wasn’t a stretch for her to breakthrough twice on the road and challenge the first barrier of mortality. In the event that Kanari was forced to attempt her promotion in a remote land, Spion would hand deliver the hundreds of priceless resources to her doorstep and the experts that the Duchess had hired would be immediately dispatched to Kanari’s location.

And that was precisely what happened.

Treading through the rocky path, a young man pulled his heavy thighs while observing the Highgarden guards that stood watch over the cave. Ever since their last meeting, Kanari had holed herself inside of her new cultivation chambers, in preparation for the eventual breakthrough. Due to how busy she was, Kanari wasn’t able to entertain any guests and Shin was no exception. Though there was a silver lining. Their time apart had allowed both parties to thoroughly reflect on their actions. One might say that they needed these five days to cool down and self-evaluate themselves.

So why was today special? Why was Shin being summoned up into Kanari’s private chambers that no Alliance member was allowed to step foot on? Well, the answer was simple… Today was the day that Kanari attempted to break into the Spirit Spectre realm.

Kanari’s groundwork was solid. Being the top cultivator of her generation wasn’t just because of luck. Many factors played into her rapid growth. Years of hard work. Two decades of careful planning. All lead to this moment. Kanari was more than prepared. As she said, it didn’t matter if she attempted to breakthrough in a remote cave or in the best facilities that the Capital could provide. Kanari was confident that she could become a Spirit Spectre. And even if she failed, experts were surrounding her that would save her and minimise the damage that Kanari might sustain.

Weaving up the rocky terrain, the young man was soon greeted by a five-metre tall Shinto Gate. An odd sight for something this far north. Shin squinted his eyes before a twirling wind blew his short fringe up into the air and blinded him temporarily. Before he knew it, Shin felt an ominous presence behind him, forcing him to spin around rapidly in fear.

“Hoho… Isn’t it the Prince of Water? The man that made me travel this far north!” A stentorian voice boomed, shaking the nerves of Shin’s eardrums. Recovering from the sonorous echo within his mind, the young man looked up at the woman that caused him that much grief.

Green eyes and lilac hair. That was the first colours that Shin saw of the lady dressed like a Shrine Maiden. She wasn’t a beauty, but she wasn’t a butch either. Looking at the petite, frail looking body, Shin wondered how she was able to release such a deafening sound from those small lungs of hers.

“You must be Venerate Kikyo. It’s a pleasure to finally meet you.” Shin ignored her comments of mockery and extended out a handshake.

“Well, the pleasure ain’t mine.” The woman pushed her chest out and slapped the boy’s hand away. Evidently, she wasn’t happy with the arrangement and wanted to vent out a little. However, Kikyo soon realised that it was too immature to bully a Spirit Adept that was many times younger than her and turned around. “Kanari’s going to start her attempt at noon. Her other friends have left so you’re the last one up. You have exactly an hour! Don’t take too long!”

Shin watched as the Spirit Venerate disappears out of his sight and into the rocky terrain, perhaps to a place where she could monitor the surroundings to protect Kanari from any other harm. As promised, Shin gets to spend a little time with Kanari before she prepares herself for the attempt to cross the first barrier of mortality.

‘Hah… Well, here goes.’ Composing himself with one deep breath, Shin dropped his shoulders and walked straight into the well-lit cave, where the young maiden awaits…

Book 8: The Mercenary’s Promise || Chapter 36: Kanari And Shin (2)

“Why won’t she listen?!” An exasperated cry echoed through the stable of the encampment. Brown mud littered with dirt all around flew up into the air while a young man continued to rampage about with his two feet. It was an odd sight. A handsome stud that was playing in the mud, uncaring about how many stains he got on his luxurious robes. Peering eyes of stablemen glanced over the walls surrounding the youth, but they were met with a piercing gaze from a silver-haired Eflin.

Isadore watched the spectators back away and made sure that their location was secure. With that, his shoulders dropped, and his eyes dimmed. Grabbing hold of his angered friend, Isadore handed over a flask of iced tea that he had prepared just for this moment.

“Here, have a drink. It’ll cool you down.” Isadore said.

“Hah…” Shin snatched the flask out of his good friend’s hand. After all that talking, his throat really was starting to dry. Placing the vial vertically from his throat, Shin downed the entire iced tea within seconds, quenching his thirst. Lost for words, the young man fell on a nearby haystack with a soft thud and threw his head back.

“Isadore, you’d known Kanari the longest. Is there a way to change her mind?” Clinging onto his last straws, Shin sought help from his silver-haired friend.

“Yes, there is.” Not changing his expression one bit, Isadore flattened his tone and replied like a robot. “It’s a surefire method that would return her to the Himmel Empire in a heartbeat.”

“Really?! Spit it out!”

“You promise to marry her if she listens to your request.”

“Pffttt!!!” Almost regurgitating the iced tea that Isadore had offered him, Shin’s head snapped forward with a crack, and his eyes bulged out of their sockets. He was appalled that Isadore had even suggested such a deed. Sending a death scowl, the young man rubbed the sides of his ears and retaliated. “Don’t ever joke about that Isadore! You know how serious this matter is!”

“I wasn’t entirely joking, though?” Not fazed by Shin’s glare, Isadore’s neck bent slightly, giving him an angle to stare back at his friend. He could now see the twitching right eye that Shin had hidden. It was an obvious tell and Shin knew that. A flying palm emerged and slapped Shin right on the cheeks to prevent Isadore from reading his expressions anymore.

“I don’t really understand it… Kanari likes you, and it’s quite obvious that your feelings for her aren’t that platonic. Especially after that kiss that the two of you shared. You know, Shin. We-…”

“H-Hold on one minute!” The young man raised his hands to stop Isadore from continuing. “H-How, did you know that we kissed?! I didn’t tell you that!”

For the first time in years, Isadore shot Shin the look that he was talking to an idiot. Cheekbones raised and lips pursed, the young elf-man squinted his eyes and shook his head as if he was watching a dog attempt to clean up after itself.

“People talk, Shin. Everyone among us knows. Even the two Moon Mercenaries that you brought along knows of that hot kiss you shared with Kanari under the precious moon.”

“W-What?!” It had only been two days since that emotional night, and its happenings had already become common knowledge? There were only two parties present during that kiss and Shin was sure that he didn’t reveal anything to his friends. Which meant that the leak could have only come from one person…

‘Damn it, Kanari! Why did you have to go and tell everyone else?!’

It was no secret that the girls in their team were much more into gossip than the guys. If Shin wanted to tell everyone something, he would often use Elrin as a loudspeaker to convey his message. So, Kanari was definitely not wise in telling the girls about the details of their tryst. Well, not that it matters now.

“Forget that! It’s not important for now!”

“You’re the one that brought it up…” Isadore mumbled, only to be met by Shin’s death glare once more. Exhaling deeply, the young man shrugged his shoulders and watched as Shin attempted to wipe clean the conversation using his crude tactics.

“What’s more important is for us to figure out a way to return Kanari to the Himmel Empire so that she can advance into the Spirit Spectre realm safely. The problem is, she won’t return if I stay. And I can’t leave since I need to be here to apprehend Junius.” It really was a conundrum that tore Shin apart internally. On the one hand, he could save a friend and a partner from risks that she didn’t have to take. However, if he obliged and left the Estrella Region, his one and only chance to bring Junius to justice, which was one of his two goals, would just evaporate into nothingness.

“Isadore, we have to think of a solution!”

“This seems like a love problem, and honestly, I don’t think that I’m that qualified to give you advice.” Leaning his back against the stable walls, Isadore positioned his head, downwards towards the young man. Though he had lived twenty-odd years, Isadore has never been in a loving relationship. He didn’t understand why there were so many complexities in the issue.

If one looked at the situation in a logical manner, all Kanari needed to do was to bury her stubbornness and return to the Himmel Empire. That way, Shin gets to stay, and Kanari wouldn’t have to take any risks. A win-win situation for all. But, love didn’t care about rationality. It made sensible people turn foolish and prodigies, stupid. Kanari was examining her advancement with rose-coloured lenses, and her mind didn’t want to consider any other options.

“Arghhh, what should I do?!” Not getting the answer that he wanted, Shin brought both his hands up to his temple and rubbed them rapidly. A wry smile crept up Isadore’s face when he watched the young man so torn on what he should do. His amusement wasn’t left unnoticed. Shin’s fingers crept down onto his chin and supported his toned head up once more.

“What’s so funny?”

“No… It’s just rare to see you in this state. You must like Kanari much more than I thought you did.” Isadore chuckled. “Well, I may not be a love expert, but I do know someone in our age group that have much more experience in relationships compared to you and I. Fortunately, he’s right here in this encampment.”

“Really? Who is he?” For a moment there, Shin’s eyes sparkled into life. A stark contrast to his earlier wavering expressions.

“He should be here any moment now… I called him over just a few minutes ago… Ah, there he is!” Isadore stepped out of the remote corner and looked into the crowd. In preparation for Shin’s consultation, the budding information agent turned to the only people that could give ample advice on love affairs. Finding his face from the densely packed assembly, Isadore flailed his arms wildly to attract their attention.

‘Danroy and Suji?’ Shin’s brows were raised when the two familiar faces presented themselves. One was as round as an enlarged ball while the other was so muscular that veteran soldiers were stealing gazes at the guns he hid beneath his thin robes. They were two contrasting specimens of men, but Shin was always under the impression that neither of them had any relationships. Thus, he was stunned that Isadore had even suggested that they gave him advice.

“Isadore? Are you sure about this?”

“Of course I am!” The elf-like man smiled, his face beaming with a noble light. “He may not look like it, but Danroy is quite the heartthrob. Ever since he came into the academy, Danroy has had a grand total of eleven girlfriends and has been on dates with dozens of women.”

“Wait, what?!” It really was hard to believe. Shin had never seen the young man with any girls, and he had never heard of any rumours of Danroy being attached.

“That’s right. It’s quite unknown since Danroy doesn’t date any of the academy’s girls. He always goes for single noble ladies in High Society, and they normally keep their liaisons secret, to prevent any spread of scandals. High Society relationships normally would become newsworthy events, after all.”

Most relationships that Danroy started were always kept under wraps with a tight lid. Since if word got out that the Frithron family heir was dating a noble young lady, articles would be written about a possible betrothal and their families would be forced to respond. Yet, Isadore seemed to have gained vital information even with the added protection that Danroy had enforced.

‘Sometimes I forget that Isadore’s a freak when it comes to information gathering…’ During times like this, Shin always wondered how much dirt does Isadore really have on him. Well, it wasn’t as if there was much for Shin to hide, but he couldn’t help but feel curious. However, that was a question to be answered at another time.

“Yo, Shin!” Danroy started off with a friendly greeting, while Suji stayed quiet with his arms akimbo. “What’s the urgent help that you need?”

They were told that Shin was in a bind, and their insightful knowledge was vital in breaking his problem. Being the amiable man that he was, Danroy immediately accepted Isadore’s plea and dragged Suji along in the hopes of bettering the two’s relationship.

“Shin was just having love troubles and needs your advice.” Their answer came from an unexpected place. Isadore unleashed the impish smile that he had learnt from Elrin as he readied himself to watch the show. It was a shame that popcorn wasn’t readily available in this land.

“Oh, scandalous!” No matter how highborn they were, gossip would always tantalise the souls of young men and women. Danroy rubbed his palms together with his knuckles like a maître d’ and leaned in with a smile. On the other hand, Suji was less than amused.

“You called us out here into these manure filled stables just to discuss love matters?” The muscle man sneered and dropped both his arms. He had better ways to spend his time, and he wasn’t about to waste precious time in the middle of a war to tend to another man’s relationship problems.

“Come on, Suji! It’ll just take a few minutes!” Danroy knew that Suji’s opinion of Shin was far from cordial, but he still wanted the two to get along. “You can just stand there and listen! You don’t even have to give your opinion!”

“Hmph! Whatever! Just make it quick, Dan. We need to train.” The Son of War turned his back to the wall and rested there with his eyes closed. He had plans with Danroy so he couldn’t really leave outright. Danroy chuckled and turned back to Shin with a playful grin. His eyebrows wiggled up and down as he asked the first question on his mind:

“So… Who is the lucky girl?”

“Let’s… Just call her Girl A.”

“Eh, what’s the fun in that?!” Danroy protested for a while before silencing himself. He was about to get Shin into uncharted territory. Danroy didn’t want to scare Shin away before he spilt the beans. Furthermore, he had his guesses on who Shin could possibly be referring to.

And so, the four young men stood alone in the narrow paths of the stable, all while Shin poured out his emotions. To save his embarrassment, Shin omitted specific details that would have exposed Kanari’s identity to Danroy and Suji. Nonetheless, he continued to explain the gist of the situation.

“I see… You want her to think for herself and to not put her own needs above your own, but she’s adamant of pushing forward, even though it might harm her in the long run.” Danroy stroked the smooth rounded chin of his and puckered his lips like a fish.

“That’s right… And I can’t just abandon my goal just because of her obstinacy. I had been chasing this goal all of my adult life. I’m so close… If she thought about this logically, everything would be fine! But she’s too unyielding!” Shin was this close to screaming. It was so frustrating. If everyone had a sound mind, it made sense for Kanari to leave while Shin stayed. Alas, feelings almost always clouded judgement.

“Wow, it sounds like you have yourself a devoted one,” Danroy remarked.

“So… What do you think I should do? Continue to convince her?”

“I doubt it would work. Whenever girls start to believe in something, they tend to stick to it for a long time.” Speaking from experience, the love guru continually shook his head. “I say you wait it out and come back to the situation again when things have died down and the heat of the moment is gone.”

“I can’t do that!” Shin cried. “T-There’s some sort of time-limit to it. I don’t have the luxury to wait until things cool off.”

“Ah, now that’s a problem…” Going back to the drawing board, Danroy thought of the best methods he used to deal with troublesome women. “Maybe try and talk things out with her female friends? Use them as a tool to help your cause. Normally, her friends’ words would have a much stronger pull as compared to yours.”

“That’s… impossible.” Once again, Shin shook his head. Kanari’s friends were his as well. Elrin had thrown her support straight behind Kanari while the twins were caught on the fence. Shin also didn’t want to complicate their relationship and didn’t wish for the seven friends to have a falling out over a matter shared between Kanari and himself.

“Can’t do that again? Hah…” Danroy sighed.

“I think that you’re looking at it the wrong way.” Before the pudgy youth could make another suggestion, a towering voice boomed from the side, drawing Shin’s eyes away from Danroy and to his stationary friend who had his eyes closed.

“Suji! What would you suggest?!” Danroy released an excited cry. Finally, the sinewy young man seemed interested in helping Shin.

“From what I understand, the girl won’t change her mind. She aims to help you achieve that goal that you had been chasing, and she would never let herself come in between that. Even if you chose to abandon your goal, she’d most likely persuade you otherwise.” Suji spoke from his heart. “Just give it up. There’s nothing you can do in times like this.”

“But… I can’t just let her risk herself!”

“Oh, grow a pair, would you?!” Scratching his tanned skin, the young man walked forward and stared Shin in his eyes. “If you think that she’s taking a risk, be there for her! Become the man that she loves and comfort her! Do everything that you possibly can to make sure that the risk is mitigated. She’s sacrificing something for you, so you should reciprocate the feelings! Be a man!”

“T-That…” Shin choked on his words. Kanari has done so much for him, but what has he done for her? Essentially nothing.

“Hmph!” Suji scoffed and stormed off the other way. He had said his piece, there was no point in staying. Caught in the middle of all this, Danroy let out a dry cough before turning to chase Suji down. However, before he left, the young man did leave Shin with one word of encouragement.

“You know, you should listen to Suji’s advice. He knows better than me. After all, Suji has been engaged for almost fifteen years.”

“What?!” It was the first time Shin had heard that Suji was betrothed. He had always assumed that they were all bachelors since no women were surrounding them.

“Yeah, Suji’s quite experienced in these matters and his wife-to-be is a real firecracker. So he’s probably faced this problem before.” Danroy chuckled. “Anyway, it was a pleasure to be of use to you. I hope you work things out with Kanari soon!”

“Thanks… WAIT!!! How did you…!”

“Ah, I got to go! See you later!”

With that, Danroy waved his hand and sped far away to chase after the speeding Suji. Stunned by those last words that the fat man had left him, Shin’s outreached hand fell in horror. Throughout their entire conversation, Shin hadn’t mentioned Kanari even once. He had even tried so desperately to keep her identity a secret. But it was all for nothing. Turning to his bosom friend for help, all that Shin could see were shrugged shoulders and a slanted gaze.

“Like I said… People talk.”