After the touching reunion in the garden, Riko and Marshall accompanied Shin up to meet with Mayor Nadeo, who was playing the role of a host for the returning orphans. They sat around the principal office of Yakkyoku Clinic, with Shin and Lady Seph leading the talks. Mayor Nadeo, Riko and Marshall sat on the opposite side of the round table, each one grinning from ear to ear.
Mayor Nadeo was the first to speak. “Shin, you’ve really grown up quite a bit! Even from this remote corner of the Empire, I’ve heard about your accomplishments in the Capital. You’re really the pride of the Chilyoja Waypoint!” The man smiled. Whenever he welcomed distinguished visitors from all over the country, one of the first things that they would ask was whether Shin really spent his adolescent life. Most of the times, they would even question what Shin was like as a child.
The mayor didn’t have much to do when it came to developing the young genius, but it felt good to be in a position where high-ranking officials and even nobles would grovel at his feet, just to learn a little bit more about Shin Iofiel.
“It’s really nothing.” Shin blushed slightly and flailed his hands in the air. He could never get used to the reverence being sent his way.
“Haha, I’m sure that your parents would be really proud of your accomplishments!” Mayor Nadeo said, his face never breaking away from a smile. “Are you planning a visit to Awter Lake? If you are, I’ll be glad to escort your around.”
Mayor Nadeo was a long-time friend of Errol Awter, Shin’s biological father. If the tragedy of the Awter Clan had never happened, perhaps Mayor Nadeo would have been Uncle or Godfather Nadeo to Shin. Still, no one could change the past. Shin shook his head.
“When we travelled here, we took a break at Awter Lake.” Since he was visiting the west once more, it made sense for him to return to the place where he was born.
Twenty years had passed since the Awter Clan fell. The expansive infrastructure that would match any massive family clan had been sunk into the lake, and much of the area had returned to nature. When Shin visited, there was only weeds and flowers dominating the land. Any hints of civilisation had been reduced to nothingness, and there was nothing there for Shin to reminisce about. Fortunately, there was a stone slab erected by Mayor Nadeo himself, honouring the brave and bold that perished that fateful night. So, Shin spent two hours paying his respects and mourning the deaths of the family he never knew.
“I see… That’s great.” The middle-aged man leaned back in his chair, relaxing his shoulders somewhat. However, after a brief moment, his face quickly turned sombre as he pulled out a yellow parchment. The paper had been rolled and unfurled many times as its creases showed its age.
Curious, Shin asked: “What’s that?”
Mayor Nadeo sighed and handed the paper over. “The Frie Clan’s reply to your request.”
“!!!” Shin immediately jolted awake and received the letter with both his hands. He spread open the paper with extreme speed all while Mayor Nadeo narrated its contents for the others to hear.
“They have agreed to let you visit the graves of those fallen. However, there are some limitations. You must be out in an hour, and can’t come into contact with any of the other Frie Clan members except your guides and can only bring along one guardian, in this case, Venerate Seraphim. You must not deviate away from the guide under any circumstances and...” The mayor coughed twice. “You can only spend five minutes at the graves.”
“That little time? How can anyone pay their respects in just five minutes?” Elyse and Fionn were the first to be outraged. Back when Junius ordered the strike, Ariel jumped in front of Elyse to protect her from the spears. Linus, the Second Elder’s grandson, did the same for Fionn. Unlike Lily, who was essentially Max’s custodian at that point, the two Frie Clan talents didn’t have to throw their lives away for the orphans.
When the orphans paid their respects to Lily, they had spent a full morning picking out flowers, burning incense and kneeling at her tomb, chatting about their lives after leaving the waypoint. Five minutes just wasn’t enough to cut it.
“I tried to talk some sense into them, but...” Mayor Nadeo looked Shin in the eye. “There are still some members in the Frie Clan that blame Linus and Ariel’s death on you guys. Initially, Enfen didn’t even want to consider the possibility of letting you back, since it would potentially trigger those dissidents to act against you. So, that one hour is the best that she could do. For your safety and theirs.”
“It’s fine.” An air of despondence flowed out of Shin’s mouth as he rolled the letter back. “As long as I can see her once more, I would be satisfied.” Shin didn’t notice Kanari dropping her head, hiding the bitter expression that she had. After all, who would be happy to see her loved one talking so fondly of another, even if she wasn’t in this world anymore?
“When can we visit Frie Mountain?”
“Anytime,” replied the mayor. “All I need to do is inform them that you’re coming. If you want to, I can schedule a visit tomorrow.”
“Yes, let’s do that.” Shin then turned to the Mushinkei pair. “Sister Riko, Senior Marshall… Follow us back to Frie Mountain. There are many things that I want to ask you, but most importantly, I need you two to meet up with Senior Ines and the Instructor.” Thinking back to the possible allies that Shin had in the modern Frie Clan, the young man picked out those two Spirit Lords. Even after all of the drama, the pair still stuck with the orphans and had even attended the funeral of Lily.
“Yeah...” Riko chuckled as her posture relaxed tremendously. “Let’s do that...”
The Himmel Empire. Frie Mountain. The Main Gate.
Travelling to Frie Mountain was easy. The aether car congregation raced through the newly built roads between the Frie Clan and Chilyoja Waypoint. After the Black Mask attack, Enfen Frie, the Clan Master, had made the decision to end the clan’s backward turtling policies and opened up trade with the neighbouring powers. The Frie Clan had supplied talented manpower and resources to the Imperial Army at Aldrich’s Keep, as well as opening up new trade routes so that other clans could travel easily to the remote mountain.
Through her hard working ethics, Enfen had torn down the two faction split between the First and Second Elder and unified the Frie Clan under her own banner. She doubled the commerce value by increasing trade with the now dominant Chilyoja Waypoint and opened up the borders. Initially, when Shin first moved to Chilyoja Waypoint, it took him about half a day or more. Now, all it took was an early morning drive as he enjoyed the crisp air of dawn.
Shin stepped off the car and stared at the nostalgic gates at the foot of the mountain. Believe it or not, the youth had only seen the entrance about half a dozen times. Twice when he left for his harvest mission, once when he was forced out of the mountain and twice when he arrived late during the Black Mask attack. Shin had lived on this mountain for ten long years, and he had only visited this gate five times. No, now it would be the sixth time.
“I never thought I’ll be back here so soon...” Shin thought out loud. There was always the plan to visit Ariel’s grave once he got powerful enough so that the Frie Clan couldn’t ignore his existence. However, Shin had always thought that it would take him two or three decades to reach that stage. Never in his wildest dreams could he have imagined that five years would be enough.
“Yeah… Frie Mountain…” Ryner, the oldest of the bunch, stared blankly at the gates. Back in the day, the young man was a brash youngster that was quick to anger and harsh words. Looking back, there were many things that Ryner wished he never done or never said. At the very least, the orphans would have experienced a few less bullying incidents when they were growing up.
“This is the place we all grew up...” Lia marvelled. Entering the Capital had opened their eyes to what possibilities were there in the world, especially for Shin. He had seen buildings as tall as mountains, trees that never wither, citadels that levitated in the air, towers that spawned monsters and even Tier 9 Spirit Beasts that were as strong as any Spirit Saint. Shin had even had six Spirit Saints fight over him during the Summit!
As a kid living on Frie Mountain, he had heard that Spirit Saints were indomitable beings that never mingled with the common folk. The Instructor had once told him that seeing a Spirit Saint was as rare as waiting for the blood moon. Oh, how very wrong they were. To put it simply, Shin was the frog at the bottom of the well but had now transformed into the dragon that mingles in the skies.
Still, even after all of the mystical things that Shin had witnessed, he found this simple-looking mountain to be the most mystifying of them all. His eyes turned blurry as he started to see images of his past self running along the stairwell with Ariel in tow. The memory of Junius’ injury when the Second Elder sent assassins to take Shin out came to mind. Remembering all those thoughts placed a tear in the youth’s eyes.
“Shin, you okay?” Kanari, who was standing right next to the boy, asked as she tightened her grip on Shin’s hands.
“Yeah… Just feeling a little nostalgic.” Shin wiped his tears with his silk handkerchief and regained his composure. Three womanly figures were descending from the stairwell at this time, so he couldn’t show his broken side. Not yet, at least…
The first woman was an elderly lady who seemed advanced in her eighties. Her wrinkled face and grandmother-like smile soothed any who laid their eyes on her. The second lady wore a thin veil over her face to complement the pure white robes that she had to wear. Shin could faintly see her expression, and it wasn’t particularly friendly or hostile. Finally, standing in between the two ladies, Enfen Frie gave out her most politician-like smile.
“Welcome, Master Lady Seph, Young Lady of Highgarden and...” The Frie Clan Master looked at the orphans, still grinning from ear to ear. God knows what emotion was hidden behind that impeccable mask. “Welcome back, Shin, Ryner, Lia, Ella, Emma, Max, Elyse, Fionn… Jacob.” Enfen listed out all of the orphan’s names, showing no sign of memory deterioration.
“Thank you for allowing us to visit.” Shin was the first to stand out. He wasn’t the same young man that would cower behind his master’s back anymore. He wanted to visit Frie Mountain, so he’ll be the one to do the talking.
“Wow, the rumours are true...” The Chief Librarian’s eyes shone for a split second as she scanned the boy from head to toe. “You really did become a Spirit Spectre at twenty...”
“...” Though the Shrine Maiden’s face was obscured, her flinching shoulders told everything that Shin needed to know. No one had anticipated Shin to become such a tremendous talent. Back when he was still a youngster, there were some hints of greatness, but no one really could predict that Shin would be the most exceptional talent of his generation.
‘If we had played our cards differently… Would Ariel and Shin still be part of our Clan? Would we have two super talents?’ Enfen’s poker face still remained, but her mind was in the same state as her bosom friend. ‘No… I shouldn’t think about that now. Shin’s in a different dimension to the Frie Clan…’
It was true. The Frie Clan was at best a juggernaut entity in their area. However, if they were to be compared with the clans of the Capital or the entire Alliance as a whole, their forces didn’t mean shit. Even Suji’s Lasgeor House or Natasha’s Aldana family line was a far bigger entity than the Frie Clan. Shin now had ties with the Highgarden Duchy, the Imperial Family, the Longyu Clan and was even a close friend of the Kori Federation’s Dalgeom Sect. If the man wanted to, he could just ask any of them for a favour, and the Frie Clan’s life would become hell.
Mentally sighing, the woman walked towards the suave black-haired man, thinking back about the short instances she shared back with Shin when he was just a child. If she had known what he would become, Enfen would have most definitely changed how she treated him. “I apologise that we can’t give you more time to pay your respects. There is still some opposition in the Clan that don’t think you should even step foot into the clan. Five minutes is the best I can give you.”
“It’s okay...” Shin shook his head. What mattered the most was that he got to visit Ariel. “Please lead the way.”