The courtyard rang to the song of birds and cicadas.
Frie Mountain was usually a boisterous place. During the times where they were turtled in, the clansmen would frequently trade with one another, and their children would roll in the dirt, training to become the next hero that would lift their clan out of obscurity. When Shin was younger, he would often complain about how packed the courtyards were outside of the Orphan’s Lodgings. Most of the time, he would sneak away with his friends to quieter locations, to escape from the hustle and bustle of Frie Mountain. Yet, as Shin walked down memory lane, there was barely a soul in sight.
Enfen noticed Shin’s confusion and softly explained: “We’ve been expecting your arrival, so I’ve ordered all of the Frie Clan members to stay within their compounds. I’d also sent multiple guards to keep those dissidents I mentioned at bay. However, there may be some outliers that hide their anger towards you, so I would suggest not straying too far from my pre-planned route.”
“What about the Second Elder?” Ryner stepped forward with his chest puffed out. Among all of the Frie Clan members, there was one that had caused the orphans more harm than anyone else. Who could forget the time when the Second Elder tried to take Shin’s life because he had awakened the Sovereign Koi? Or the multiple times he goaded the juniors of his factions to cause trouble for the poor youngsters that wanted to just live their lives. If there was one threat that the orphans should look out for, it was the Second Elder.
“H-He...” The Frie Clan Master swallowed her words as she looked visibly shaken for the first time. Enfen hid her deep breath by turning away and soon returned back to her placid expression. “You don’t have to worry about him. He won’t cause you any trouble.”
“...” Ryner didn’t believe her but opted not to press any further. That brief pause in her speech suggested that something was off about the Second Elder, and it wasn’t in his place to pry.
Enfen led Shin and the others straight into a gorgeous holding room. Ornate tabletops holding on to elaborate tea-sets and scrumptious snacks were laid out for the visitors to taste. Osmanthus jellies, water chestnut cakes and even luxurious candies that were rare in this region had been prepared for Shin’s group. Even though they were only here for an hour, the Frie Clan wanted to show as much hospitality as they could, possibly to butter up to the Prince of Water and the future Duchess of Highgarden.
“Please wait here for a short moment.” Enfen Frie smiled and showed them to their seats. “We will have to increase the security around the graveyard and prepare the necessary materials to help you pay your respects. Is there anything you need? Incense? Offerings of food?”
“No, that’s fine...” Shin shook his head. The orphans did the same. They had discussed this beforehand. There was no need for traditional customs, especially since they were only given five minutes. “We just want to talk to them.”
The Clan Master examined Shin’s eyes. She had seen that look only a few times before. Enfen once had a love that passed, and she had seen that look in the mirror for a year since. ‘I see… He still has such strong feelings for Ariel… Five years have passed, and he still likes that lass.’ The Clan Master thought, sighing.
“Alright, please enjoy the deserts we left out for you while we prepare your visit. It should take a few minutes.” Enfen turned to Lady Seph and bowed. “Master Lady Seph, I have prepared your favourite Oolong tea, exactly as you like it. I’m sure that you’ll find it satisfactory.”
Back in the day, Lady Seph had taught Enfen when she was still an up and coming star. Just like she was with Shin, Lady Seph had drilled many things into the poor maiden’s habits, one of which was the art of tea-brewing. Enfen may not have reached the standard of Shin or Kesyl, the young healer apprentice that Duke Mesyl had sent to Lady Seph, but she was still quite proficient.
“Stupid lass.” The Divine Healer chuckled and poured herself some tea, while the trio slowly left the room. However, before she left, Enfen’s brows jumped a little as four hefty presences were making their way into the holding chambers. It took her a while but eventually, the Clan Master peered back into the room and said:
“Oh, and it looks like we have someone here to serve you. Come on in.” Enfen opened up the wooden doors to its maximum capacity, allowing the four shadows to breeze inside.
Shin and the other orphans all jumped to their feet. Who could forget that muscular build that towered over any man, woman or monster? For the first ten years of Shin’s life, his body had been trained to the limit by the monster that stood right before him. Following the training regimen that the colossal man had personally crafted, many of the orphans’ current fighting habits could be traced back to that very man.
“Instructor!” They all exclaimed, majority of them wearing radiant smiles.
“Kids! You’re back!!!” The Instructor leapt into the chambers, as Ines, Riko and Marshall followed his steps. The two Mushinkei employees had a head-start and entered Frie Mountain a few hours early. Then, they approached the two Frie Clan members that Shin and the orphans wanted to see the most. During their time on Frie Mountain, the Instructor and Ines had treated the children like they were their own flesh and blood. Never reneging on any promises or holding back on their resources, the two Spirit Lords protected them with all their heart.
Even when Lily passed, the Instructor had begged on his knees, hoping to send off the orphan whom he saw as a daughter. Ines as well. She gave her all, stood up for the orphans when they were bullied, took on the Second Elder’s greatest asset, Bates, just to protect the younglings. Shin knew that no matter how much the Frie Clan would have changed, no matter how much they hated the orphans and wanted to see their guts spill out, the Instructor and Ines would always welcome them back with open arms.
Kanari was wide-eyed at Shin’s jubilant face. It was the first time she had seen the boy so upbeat about meeting a Frie Clan member. Kanari has heard many stories of the Instructor from Shin. So she was curious to finally meet him in the flesh.
“Lou, make sure to keep them happy.” The Chief Librarian, who was the Instructor’s mother, ordered him with a wide smile. “We’ll be back in a short while.” Saying that the three top women in the Frie Clan left the orphans alone with the Instructor and Ines, moving off to tend to ensure the safety of the cemetery.
Ines squinted her eyes and observed the spiritual energies being emitted from the array of youngsters. Among the orphans, only three of them, barring Shin, had broken through into the Spirit Adept realm. Naturally, to be crowned as members of the young hero party, Ella and Emma were the ones in the Spirit Adept realm. Ryner barely managed to scrape through as well, due to his extended hunting expeditions. The rest of them were all hovering around the Spirit Core realm, with Jacob and Max trailing far behind, still stagnating at the realm of a Spirit Apostle. However, since they all had different professions to tend to, no one blamed them for being a little slow in their cultivation. Not to mention, they were still quite young and had plenty of time to play catch up once their careers were set in stone.
However, two youngsters really caught her eye. The aura that they were emitting far surpassed anything that the other teenagers had, so much so that it was just a little shy of the Instructor and Ines’ own power.
“Shin… You really broke through into the Spirit Spectre realm?!” Ines cried. She had heard the rumours, but ultimately, seeing was believing.
The Instructor snapped his head towards the youth as well. Suddenly, all of the eyes in the room were now on Shin’s body. Scratching his cheek to hide his embarrassment, the youth replied: “I had some good fortune.”
“My God! You really achieved that?!” The Instructor held both of Shin’s shoulders, tempted to flail him around like a doll. “Hahaha! One of you guys had actually become a Spirit Spectre at the age of twenty! HAHAHA!!! What joy!!!” It has been ages since the Instructor had ever relieved himself emotionally.
When the orphans had left for the Capital, the Instructor returned back to his combative days. Taking on missions that were given by the Frie Clan, the bald muscle man had been fighting non-stop. Whether it was repelling a beast horde or hunting down hints of the Black Masks, the Instructor would never rest and would rarely return to the mountain. Why would he? There wasn’t anyone waiting for him back home.
The one he loved had been torn away from him during the war with the Awter Clan. He numbed himself by training the orphans to become great warriors, treating them as if they were his own children. But they left him, chased away by the elder he chose to serve. The empty bedrooms and silent training yards that the orphans had left started to take a toll on the mental health of the Instructor. So, one could imagine the Instructor’s joy when Shin notified the Frie Clan that he was planning to visit, alongside all of the youngsters that he had trained since young.
Watching a child grow was the most satisfying thing for a parent, and even though the Instructor wasn’t there for them for five years, his heart still pumped happily to see them achieve such massive growth.
“I’d always knew that you would achieve big things, Shin!!!”
The young man’s face softened. Gently slapping those massive bear hands away, the youth tip-toed and embraced the bulky man. “It’s good to see that you’re well, Instructor.”
“H-Haha… Yeah… I am now...” Lou was unable to hold it back any longer. His eyes and nose turned into broken dams, spilling all sorts of tears and snot onto Shin’s shoulder. The youth didn’t care. The Instructor must’ve been lonely, he thought. The faces of those within the holding room all lightened up. It was nice to see a touching reunion every now and then. It brought out the purest form of emotion there was.
Shin hugged the man for half a minute before finally letting go. There were many things that he wanted to say, but it could wait. What was more important now…
“How’s the First Elder?” Shin asked, his smile freezing up. When they left, the orphans weren’t exactly on speaking terms with the elderly man that they once relied upon. If not for the First Elder, there wouldn’t have been an orphan division, and Shin would have likely been chased out when he was just an infant.
The Instructor shook. It took him a while to give a concise answer. “He… The elder he has gone into reclusive training.”
“Is he trying to break through into the Spirit Venerate realm?” There were a few reasons why anyone would enter reclusive cultivation training, and they were usually things that had to do with one’s cultivation.
“No… That’s not it...” The man shifted his eyeballs from side to side, not knowing if it was wise to give out any sensitive information about the Frie Clan’s current state, especially in front of Kanari, an outsider from the Highgarden Duchy.
“Tsk, let me answer him.” Ines clicked her tongue and pushed the hesitant Instructor away from Shin. “The First Elder he… has lost everything that he had ever wanted. When his son and daughter-in-law died, he entered a similar state. He wanted to seal himself in, ridding himself of all mortal affairs. However, the elder still had Ariel, and he still had the orphan division to run. So he continued to do just that.”
“In the end… Ariel still passed away, and you guys were chased away by him. With nothing left to live for, the First Elder did what he wanted to do in the first place. He sealed himself up, kept forever in a meditative trance until...”
Ines didn’t finish her statement, but everyone knew what the end point was for the elderly man. Essentially, the First Elder had dug himself an early grave. Spirit Emperors like himself could go for years without food or water. At his state, he could even go for decades without seeing the light of day. However, no mortal could escape mother time. Especially at his advanced age, eventually, the elder would pass away silently in the cave he settled in, never to lay his hand in the material world ever again.
“The First Elder… He...” The orphans couldn’t find the words. The man that they used to respect the most. The man that they once thought was invincible. The man that they revered as their benefactor and… The man that had pushed them out of the mountain… Was this the end of his story? To die quietly in a cave?
“What about the Second Elder?” Ryner jumped out with his own query. “When I asked the Clan Master about it, she said that there was no need to worry about him. What did that mean?”
“That...” The Instructor looked at his three Frie Clan members as if communicating telepathically. Then, he sighed. “She’s right… The Second Elder will never cause you any troubles anymore. After Linus died right before his very eyes, the Second Elder had lost his mind. Adding on to the mental toll he had sustained through the anguish of losing his son and the guilt of trying to get another clan’s help to usurp the Clan Master, he… Became retarded.”
The orphans could hardly believe their ears. The man who had caused them so much suffering throughout the years, had become mentally disabled?
“Right… Now, he’s permanently wheelchair-bound. He would gaze into space and would drool like an infant. We have tried all sorts of treatment, but nothing helped. In the years since Linus’ death, the Second Elder had only been regressing and regressing. His skin had withered, and his muscles had degenerated. The only thing that’s keeping him alive is his superior cultivation level.”
Shin looked at the sadness in the Frie Clan member’s eyes. The two pillars of the clan had fallen from grace. For better or for worse, the two elders had been integral to the lives of the orphans. Yet, both of them were about to meet their end, quite anti-climatically, in fact.
‘In the end… There was no need to seek revenge for the Awter Clan… The Frie Clan had just self-destructed by themselves.’ Shin reflected inwardly. ‘Really then… What was the point of all that struggle? Why did we have to suffer so much if this was the outcome? Was all of the conflicts, wounds and death really worth it?’
As Shin watched the peaceful birds chirp happily in the garden outside his holding room, he continued to ponder on the journey that both clans took and eventually… Was this ending the one that they really wanted?