While the duo behind him was bickering over the smallest of issues, Junius had gone quiet as an uneasy feeling crept up his spine. Unknowingly, the young man looked around him for signs of any movement. His paranoia caused his companions to feel unsettled as well.
“Is something the matter?” Star Face asked while pushing Cyphia’s face away.
“No… It’s nothing. It must have been my imagination.” Unable to figure out the cause of his earlier jitters, Junius dismissed it altogether and focused on the more pressing matter at hand. “With Mort Bay now vacated, we can begin phase two of the operation. You two will play a much bigger role during this phase.”
“I know, I know…” Star Face laughed. “Speaking of our roles, in the mercenary circle, rumours are circulating that the Dalgeom Sect is looking for manpower. They might be hastening their plans to secure Mort Bay.”
“Now that’s a problem…” Hearing the news, Junius frowned in distraught. “With the Himmel Empire conducting a training exercise, we had kept a low profile thus far, slowing our progress to build a route from the sea to the Kori Federation. We’re in no way prepared to face the Dalgeom Sect…”
“Exactly! So what do you propose we do?” Cyphia, who had been quiet until now, spoke out in unrest. “Both of us have no means of defending against the experts from Dalgeom Sect. Should they find us, I’m sure our heads would roll.”
“Don’t worry. We don’t need you to fight in the frontlines… Just follow the plan, and you’ll be fine. There’s no need for them to suspect anything yet.”
Hearing the viridian-haired young man feeling so confident, a warm feeling crept up Cyphia’s hardened heart. For better or worse, Junius contained a specific type of charisma that helped soothe his allies uneasiness that wasn’t commonly found in people his age.
‘I had my doubts, but this boy is the real deal… If he were to lead the younger generation of the Black Mask syndicate, I’m sure that in a few years, the three superpowers would tremble at the sound of his name.’
Currently, there weren’t many Spirit Emperors or Spirit Venerates that aligned themselves with the Black Masks. The only true firepower that they had was the mysterious leader, that seemed capable of surpassing Spirit Saints, and the multitude of Spirit Beasts that somehow followed his orders. However, no matter how powerful the upper brass was if the Black Masks wished for longevity throughout the years, they had to invest in their fresh blood.
Just a few weeks back, Junius had advanced into the Spirit Adept realm and had finally earned his Shudra mask, making him the first cultivator in his early twenties to receive the coveted mask. Should his upward trajectory continue, Junius would undoubtedly become one of the greatest assets that the Black Masks would want to groom.
“That’s good…” Star Face eased his tense face before recalling something vital. “By the way, have you guys caught the rat yet? The one that leaked information to the Himmel Empire?”
No matter how hard they worked, everything would go down the drain if the informant that was hiding in the shadows decided to spoil their fun.
“We have. You don’t have to worry about that matter anymore. They have been properly disposed of.” Junius indifferently replied. “Naturally, as per our agreement, their share would be appropriately distributed to the both of you. Of course, you two must hold up your end of the bargain to get paid.”
“Hahaha! That’s music to my ears! Don’t worry! We will complete the job flawlessly!” Star Face bragged. At his side, Cyphia was wearing a similar expression. Once they completed their roles, they would be swimming in gold for the rest of their lives. At this point, they wanted to finish the job as desperately as the Black Masks.
“Then I shall continue to put my faith in you… Alright, I have pressing matters to attend to. Would you please excuse me.” Junius gave a simple bow before fading into the background. Having trained with the Black Masks for a couple of years, the young man was proficient in moving from the shadows and concealing his presence. Even Star Face, who was a seasoned veteran of a hundred battles, had trouble finding the direction in which Junius had disappeared into.
“Phew, now that that’s done, Cyphia we should return to the main hub.” Once Junius was out of sight, Star Face’s playful visage returned and pushed out his elbow to offer to escort his partner.
“Urghhh, stop doing that…” Not thrilled at the burly man’s actions, Cyphia rolled her eyes before returning to the cave. “We should make ample preparations before returning there. I’ve heard that Sword Tyrant Jimga had entered the Land of Dreams. Should he or anyone from the Dalgeom Sect find out our ties to Mort Bay… Our heads will roll.”
“Hehe, you’re too uptight! Didn’t Junius say that we aren’t in any danger?”
“And you completely trust the boy?”
At Cyphia’s sny remark, Star Face went silent. Although his smile was frozen, based on his deadpan eyes, the middle-aged woman could tell how unsettled he was when it came to Junius.
“Cyphia… You don’t have to worry. I have made preparations on my end to escape should anything go awry. Since we go way back, I wouldn’t mind you entering my protection.” Star Face replied with a deepened voice.
“Hoho, at what cost?”
“For you… Half.”
The moment she heard her partner’s words, Cyphia scoffed in derision. “Hah! Why don’t you ask for my four limbs as well? Dream on! I’m perfectly capable of protecting myself!”
“It’s your call…” The lanky man tilted his head and walked further into the cave. “But I should warn you, we’re facing the Dalgeom Sect. A true monarch of the Kori Federation. Once the Black Masks are done with us, they would throw us to the side like the vagabonds that we are. Without their protection, we would perish within a snap of a finger. Ultimately, the only people that can protect us is ourselves.”
“T-That! Yeah… I know.”
Cyphia was a woman of the night. She had no family and no true comrades. Even her trusted customers that once fawned over her as if they were a moth attracted to a flame had long left Cyphia as she grew old and wrinkled. Granted, she had her own connections that could shelter her, but none of them would agree to help her if they found out that their enemy was one of the Master Sects of the country.
“And can you really protect me if I join your team?”
“I guarantee it.”
“Hah… Give me some time…”
The Land of Dreams. Imperius Academy Encampment.
As the training exercise passed its halfway point, the excitement that the students had first came with slowly turned into dread as they missed the comfort of their luxury homes. There were some that even tried to skip on training only to be severely punished by the military leaders in charge. Fortunately for Shin, Isadore and Elrin, they were exempted from the harsh military drills that were enforced onto their seniors. Nonetheless, due to their constant movement, the trio shared the same fatigue as many from their camp.
Typically, after searching each location, Shin and the rest would collapse onto their bed to ease their throbbing thighs and blistered feet. However, this time, their destination was far different from the cosy atmosphere of the bunks.
“Madam Warulee, we have an issue.” Walking straight into the tent that housed the auxiliary department head’s office, Shin immediately voiced out his concern.
“What’s wrong?” The woman adjusted her spectacles as she examined the three younglings that had disturbed her peaceful hour. Drenched to the bone with rainwater and sweat, the trio looked like they had gone through a warzone to return home safely.
“Senior, we know that the training exercise is a front to hide the fact that the Imperial Army was ordered to investigate into the Black Masks operations.”
How did you know that? Was the question that Madam Warulee wanted to ask. However, after examining Isadore’s blank expression, she could guess where the leak came from. With a bitter sigh, the middle-aged woman controlled her twitching lips as she chided a particular bronze-faced scholar in her mind.
“What of it?”
“Over the past few weeks, we have been doing the same thing. Trying to find out more about the Black Masks. And we finally found out what their objective is…”
Shin hurriedly took out his map and pointed straight at Mort Bay. “We found activity at this location. Furthermore, we saw a known member of the Black Masks here! Although we have no clue on what’s going on there, we know that their objective is definitely at Mort Bay!”
“…” Madam Warulee fell silent. With furrowed brows, the woman glared at the trio that had barged into their office.
If it were any other students, she would have instantly given them an earful and brushed their claims off as a ludicrous claim. However, the three students before her were all beyond ordinary. One was the heir of the biggest conglomerate in the Empire, another was a talent that would shake his generation, and finally, the last one was an entity that even she didn’t dare to cross. Feeling that the ball wasn’t in her court, Madam Warulee decided to bring in foreign influence.
“Come with me.” Hastily standing up from her desk, Madam Warulee led the three youths into the heart of the encampment where the chief command lay.
Being a military encampment, Shin and the other’s had to follow the Imperial Army’s rules. Deferring to the highest authority in the land was perhaps the best option for Shin to take. Walking into the central command tent, Shin was greeted by a plethora of military personnel sorting papers and attending meetings. Even though it was just a training exercise, the men and women in the tent were working as if it were wartime, showing great discipline that was hardly found in ordinary organisations.
“Shin! What brings you here?”
Encroaching deeper into the heart of central command, Shin was approached by a familiar face. Seeing the insignia sewed onto his shoulder, many surrounding soldiers saluted the man as he walked.
“Brother Escred… It’s a long story.” Shin could feel the piercing gazes of Madam Warulee, Isadore and Elrin on his body, forcing him to turn the other way. “Madam Warulee is leading us to meet the commanding officer here.”
“Colonel Tychris?” Escred exclaimed. For a bunch of students to request, a meeting with the colonel was no mean feat.
“Yes, Major Escred. We apologise for the suddenness, but this is urgent.” Madam Warulee backed up Shin’s claim.
“Sure, I’ll go inform him. Follow me.”
With the help of a Major on their side, the group managed to move past security quite smoothly, and it wasn’t long until they got their audience with the highest commander in the encampment. Donned in his full military uniform, the smartly-dressed man stopped his paperwork and raised his heads in confusion.
“Major Escred, Madam Warulee? Is something wrong?”
“Colonel, we have gained some new information about the Black Masks.” Not wasting any time, Madam Warulee cut to the chase. “My students here had unearthed the fact that Mort Bay is being targeted by the Black Masks.”
“Hold up… What are you talking about? Why do three unaffiliated students know about our investigation?”
“Simplify it then.”
A tense silence descended upon the office as the Colonel glared menacingly at Madam Warulee. From his perspective, the investigation into the Black Mask syndicate operations was top secret, and any leaked details were tantamount to treason. Madam Warulee was in a bind as well. She didn’t plan to inform the trio that tagged along, about the Black Masks, but they managed to figure out about it anyway.
Before a bloodbath could ensue, the prime culprit for the current predicament finally spoke out.
“Colonel, sir. If you may let me, I can explain everything.” Shin stepped out from his position and gave the military man a resolute stare.
Colonel Tychris tilted his head to look at Madam Warulee and Escred who had brought Shin over to his office. Seeing both of them nod indifferently, the seasoned officer shook his head and finally acquiesced.