The Himmel Empire. Imperial Army Headquarters. Officer Cadet School.
The morning had dawned clear and cold. The headquarters of the most powerful military base in the Himmel Empire was just a few kilometres south of the equator, meaning that the soldiers here could train all year long, without worrying about the intense summer heat or the chilling winter cold. It was a heaven for the top officers in the land, and hell for the new recruits that aim to rise through the ranks.
Even before day broke, thousands of shirtless men and lightly robed women did their rounds, running kilometres every day and performing an array of intense exercise routines. Oddly enough, there weren’t any ranking instructors spurring them to torture themselves physically. Hiding a burning fire in their eyes, the new recruits flew through all of their exercises with astonishing efficiency, really highlighting their cream of the crop status.
Of course, not every soldier was hard at work in the early mornings. One uniformed young man sat in a remote tentage, far away from the daily hustle. His brown attire consisted of a dozen badges, each one shinier than the other. His thinned out hollow cheeks were concaved enough that a small coin could be stuck within its gaps and his tall stature that would dominate every single man he came across seemed so small at the moment.
“You’re saying… Kanari’s has begun a relationship with Shin Iofiel...” The man fingers trembled as his elbows collapsed on the table.
“Yes, and she’s going to accompany him to the Lantis Republic...” Charles couldn’t look his distraught friend in the eye. “Fred… Just give it up. She never wanted to be with you in the first place.” The young aristocrat placed a cup of water right in front of the bulky officer, hoping to ease some of his tension.
After Fred Newton, the most devoted lovebird in the Himmel Empire graduated from Imperius Academy, he turned down any and all offers from the dozens of noble houses and wealthy families that wanted to solicit his talents. Fred never gave up on Kanari, and the thought of being separated from her for the rest of his life shattered his heart into a million pieces. Yes, after her first year in the academy, Kanari claimed that if Fred ever approached her, she would take appropriate actions to cripple his cultivation. But that didn’t mean that the man couldn’t admire her from afar. So, to stay as close to the maiden as he possibly could, Fred took the best job that was close to Imperius Academy. Enlisting in the Imperial Army.
Being a rare talent who graduated from one of the most prestigious institutions in the nation, Fred’s military career went exceedingly well. When he enlisted, Fred was instantly given the rank of a Second Lieutenant, and in the years since, the man had risen to the position of a Captain, making him one of the fastest rising commissioned officers in the army. However, that wasn’t the man’s goal at all.
Often times, Fred would make up excuses to return to the school, just to catch his monthly dose of Kanari. Even after everything he’d been through, Fred still remained loyal to the woman that strayed further away by the day. However, now that she was finally in a relationship with someone else…
“That fucker… THAT FUCKER!!!” Erupting like a volcano, Fred slapped the cup before his hands straight onto the ground, sending shards flying all over the remote tent. His base was a training ground for prospective officers and Fred was just filling the role of an instructor. Thus, there weren’t many people around to witness his fit of rage.
“I should have killed him back then! I SHOULD HAVE KILLED HIM!!!” It took two hands to clap, yet Fred was only blaming the black-haired boy, not the beauty that haunted his dreams. Not done with his destructive tendencies, Fred slammed the table under him into smithereens and stomped his way to the exit.
Charles grabbed his friend’s wrist, stopping him from doing anything rash. “Where are you going?”
“To kill that asshole!” Fred replied the veins on his forehead popped and his face all red. “I’m done playing passively! I’ll kill him and get Kanari, by any means necessary!”
“And how would you do that?” The young noble played the voice of reason. “Shin is surrounded by at least two Spirit Venerates, one a Divine Healer, another an expert in defence. Both the Himmel Empire and the Lantis Republic are going to shelter him no matter what, and he probably has dozens of experts watching over him at every turn! Also…” Charles gulped. “As he is right now… Shin Iofiel might be more powerful than you.”
“I’m not joking! You know how powerful he became after the Summit four years ago! Now, he’d even broken through into the Spirit Spectre realm, matching your own cultivation level! God knows how much more powerful the Prince of Water has become with his fifth spiritual ability… Against his Spirit, Fred… Your Spirit is just a terrible matchup.”
Fred was a warrior through and through. His Iron Giant Spirit was powerful, no doubt, but the man had focused on going down the body enhancement path. If Shin were to sit back and spam water attacks his way, Fred would be downed in a matter of seconds.
“So… Are you telling me to sit back and do nothing?!”
“Not nothing...” Charles sighed. Glancing over his shoulder to confirm that there weren’t any shadows lurking or any spies watching them, the aristocrat stepped closer into Fred’s comfort zone. “What if I told you that you could achieve everything you ever wanted. Shin would disappear from the world and Kanari would stay in your arms from now till the end of time.”
“How would I do that?” Intrigued, Fred raised his brows and lowered his voice. He could tell that Charles wanted this matter to be kept under wraps.
“Before I tell you how, I need you to commit.” The handsome young man placed his finger on his lips. “Are you sure of your commitment, are you desperate in your desire and… Will you swear yourself into secrecy?”
Fred scoffed. “Is there a need to question that? You should know me by now. If you can get me Kanari, I’ll do anything that you want.”
“Right!” Charles smiled, his eyes closed, hiding its evil glint. “I do know you. So, I can trust you with this.” The man reached into his robes and took out an object wrapped in a luxurious cloth. Fred could tell that the object had been treated with the utmost respect.
‘It’s light,’ he thought. Judging from its size, the object seemed to be wearable, and as Fred slowly unwrapped his present, his jaw dropped so wide that an apple could fit inside his mouth. Why? What Charles had handed him… What his long term friend of over half a decade had given him… Was the one thing that the Alliance had been trying to fight off over the past four years. It was the object that Fred had trained his officers to hate and kill.
It was a Black Mask.
“Yes, Fred. I am part of the Black Masks...” Charles confirmed his friend’s suspicions. Just like many of the superpowers had feared, the Allfather had an influence that spanned further than anyone could have anticipated. Aristocrats like Charles, who was said to be the lifeblood of the Himmel Empire, had even defected to the criminal syndicate. “Join us, Fred! Pledge your soul to the Allfather, and he’ll grant you with power the likes of which you’d never felt before! And also… He’ll give you the power to take Kanari for yourself.”
“...” Never has Fred’s mind been more clear. All his adult life, he had only one goal. Bringing Kanari to his side. He had tried being the nice guy. He’d sent flowers, turned down all sorts of advances from other women. Fred had even respected her wishes to stay as far away from her as possible, while he attempted to reforge their sour relations. However, nothing he did had worked. Kanari still went into the arms of another.
“So… What’s your answer?”
“Do I even have a choice?” Fred caressed the Black Mask in his left hand and held it firmly in his right. Even if he wanted to run away to report to his higher-ups, the Iron Man was confident that Charles would have killed him by then. Fred’s two hands kept the Black Mask close to his chest.
“How do I join?”
The Himmel Empire. Chilyoja Waypoint.
Spring in the west of the Empire was always warm and cosy. Even with the comfort of the aether car, Shin preferred to roll down the windows to experience the crisp air of nature, which never failed to calm his nerves. Over the past few days, Shin had been doing much more travelling then he was used to. From emptying his wallet in Yado Inn while Shizen and Isadore chomped down everything they could lay their hands on to visiting the Highgarden Duchy to settle the issue regarding Kanari. So, it was a nice change of pace to just sit back and relax, while others chauffeured him around.
Feeling a squirming life form on his lap, Shin looked down at the sleeping beauty that seemed incessant on staying in the Garden of Hypnos for the rest of time. Kanari was in complete bliss, enjoying the rare lap pillow that Shin had given her. Her pouted lips and inflated cheeks tempted Shin to tease Kanari awake. Alas, since they weren’t alone in the car, Shin held back his mischief.
Bingbing snuggled on the youth’s shoulders as well. Snot bubbles expanded and contracted from her nose while she slept comfortably throughout the journey. Being separated from the young man for almost half a year, the snowy white gerbil decided to spend as much time as it physically could with the boy. Fortunately for the Tier 8 Kamaitachi, Lady Seph had ordered her to stay next to Shin in the foreseeable future, especially as they moved to the Lantis Republic where everything was foreign.
“Master,” Shin called the blonde woman, who was still in the middle of reading her latest research topic. Lady Seph didn’t bother to lift up her head as she flipped to the next page and replied:
“What is it?”
“Is this the first time you’ve been back to Chilyoja Waypoint since we left?”
Lady Seph’s fingers stopped for a brief moment, as she glanced up at the young man. However, she quickly lost focus and looked down at her book once more. “No, I’ve been back twice. Once to handle some issues regarding the succession of Yakkyoku Clinic and another time because I wanted to check on your sister’s grave. What about it?”
“No, I’d just thought that you seemed awfully casual about returning there.” Shin smiled. Before Shin met Lady Seph, the woman lived in secret for decades, hiding under the broken down hut that was the old Yakkyoku Clinic. One would think that the Spirit Venerate would feel a little sentimental about returning, just like Shin, but she was as calm as a summer sea.
“There’s nothing to be excited about,” said Lady Seph. “It’s just a place that I stayed in for a while, that’s all.”
Shin’s thoughts of Chilyoja Waypoint was far different. After being chased out of Frie Mountain, that small town with a population of less than ten thousand was the place he called home. Some of his best childhood memories were from that modest place. Chilyoja Waypoint and Frie Mountain were both places he cherished dearly in his heart. So… He had to visit them both before he left the Himmel Empire.
“Venerate Seraphim, we’re almost there.” The driver turned over his shoulder and informed the passengers.
A bubbling joy crept up the Shin’s heart as he hung his head out of the window like an excited puppy. High stone walls, polished down till the stone glistened, stood firmly in the distance. Powerful sentries kept watch from the battlements while thousands of cheval de frise surrounded the walls, guarding against any cavalry or beast horde in the world.
‘It changed,’ Shin thought. Chilyoja Waypoint was never this fortified in the past. However, that was before Field Marshal Egarsha took over the region. She heavily militarised the western frontier, starting with the waypoints that guarded their supply routes. Trained soldiers took over duties of constables in the town, and new defences were being built by the day.
However, as Shin noticed the usual hustle and bustle outside of its Eastern Gate, where impatient merchants argued with the poor chaps who were operating their stations, the young man couldn’t help but break a smile.
‘Yeap, Chilyoja Waypoint is still the same.’
Taking a deep breath in, the youth turned his attention to the south, to the place he was all too familiar with. Shin hasn’t been back for five years, how much would the mountain have changed? He wanted to find out. But more importantly…
‘Ariel, I have to visit you one more time...’