A day has passed since the White Knights’ failure to seize Junius and his cronies in the Crypts of the First Men. Men and women had retreated back to base to recover from their fatigue and mostly shock about the revelation of the mystifying floating tower that continued to spawn monsters from its core. Many had their heads in the mud and cared little about gossip, but this news would turn even the most dedicated dutyaholic’s head. Whispers from soldiers that had watched up close and personal the rise of the floating tower lit up the breakfast table while logistics officers listened in with great fervour. The handsome deeds of their commander were also noted and praised endlessly, keeping the morale high when it was needed the most.
Though, not everyone had shared the joyous atmosphere being exuded from each tent. Detached from the military, Shin and his team were having their own breakfast in their own abodes. It was a quiet affair in the spacious brown tent, entirely unlike the hustle and bustle of the outside life. Four beautiful maidens and three handsome chaps sliced through their thick pork cutlets with their military rationed utensils and bit hard into the dry piece of meat.
“Damn, it’s too tough!” Shizen complained while pulling the slice of pork that he had away. “It’s times like this that I miss the academy. So what if I have to study? At least they would serve delicious meals!”
“Just bear with it.” A ponytailed maiden chopped Shizen’s crown lightly and gave a small reprimand, which was odd for someone who was quick to punish the immature boy. Ella’s eyes shifted from person to person as she did her best to retain the awkward silence.
The entire group were eating on a rectangular dining table. On one side, there was Kanari. Her poise was as elegant as ever, which made one wonder why there was such a stark difference between the noble lady from Highgarden and the heiress of the Zedcris Conglomerate who was right next to her. On the other side of the table, a black-haired young man was slowly slicing the pork chop on his plate crudely as if he had forgotten how etiquette works. Isadore nervously shifted his eyes from the young man to the beautiful maiden and heaved out a deep sigh.
Earlier this morning, the two youngsters had carried on their argument from the battlefield and had dragged the entire team into it. Shizen was busy snoring away, so he wasn’t part of the conversation, but otherwise, the other four individuals in their cell had been pulled together for the debate. During their bickering, the four innocent parties were forced to pick sides. Elrin being Elrin, she chose to stand with her long-time friend. Isadore opted to go the more logical route and chose to stand with Shin while the twins remained on the fence.
It was a monumental task to promote to the Spirit Spectre realm. There was no guarantee of the cultivator’s safety or their success. Thus, traditionally, there would be hordes of resources being dumped into the Spirit User during their attempt. The best chambers. The most prodigious mentors.
And most importantly, the safest of environments for them to advance unhindered. Yet, Kanari had made up her mind to throw all of those factors out of the window, stubbornly deciding to promote right here in the middle of desolate nowhere. Yes, she had made contact with Spion to bring in some guards to watch over her advancement and yes, the Highgarden Duchy had immediately dispatched a Spirit Venerate over to watch over her. However, it was a fact that Kanari was taking a risk here.
“Yeah, Shizen. Just bear with it. Once the battle is over, I’ll treat you to as many sweet and sour pork ribs from Paradise Inn.” Wholly unaffected by the tension in the air and the glares that Shin was sending her, Kanari chuckled merrily and continued to feast.
“Damn it, Kanari!” A loud thud thundered within the tent, and the breakfast came to a rude halt. Shin’s two wrists were slammed on the table, and his bum was raised up high. The young man face flushed red, and his appetite had diminished rapidly. “Why can’t you just listen?!”
“Shin, shouting at the dining table is quite unbecoming.” The maiden slowly responded, unfazed by the animosity that was being poured her way.
“Screw manners!” Surprisingly, Shin was the one most perturbed by Kanari’s affairs, so much so that he would lose all sense of decorum. “Advancing to the Spirit Spectre realm isn’t a joking matter! You should immediately return to the Himmel Empire and be attended by experts from your Duchy!”
“We have been through this many times, Shin. I have been preparing for this moment ever since I had awakened my Spirit. I know what spiritual ability that I’m going to learn, and I have been educated on the matter hundreds of times. It doesn’t matter if I’m going to do it surrounded by the best resources or if I’m going to do it alone in a cave somewhere. I will become a Spirit Spectre no matter where I attempt to cross the first barrier of mortality.”
“It doesn’t change the fact that you’re taking a risk by advancing it here instead of back home!” Shin continued to make his case.
“If that’s what you’re worried about, Elder Kikyo is coming to watch over my attempt. You know her, she’s a Spirit Venerate and an auxiliary cultivator that specialises in spiritual recovery. With Elder Kikyo around, I wouldn’t be in any danger, even if I fail the attempt. Which mind you is highly unlikely. Also, it is well-known that a cultivator should attempt to break through the first barrier of mortality as soon as they possibly could when they reached the peak Rank 39. That momentum is important. Returning back to the Himmel Empire would just waste my current inspiration, and the chances of me failing would be much higher.”
“…” Biting the bottom of his lip, Shin unwavering gaze met with Kanari’s once more. Was this what it was like when an unstoppable force met with an immovable object? They were both adamant in their beliefs and shared valid points. However, being friends for five long years had taught Shin a thing or two about Kanari’s facade, and he could read her like an open book. He knew the real reason why the maiden was so reluctant to return in this desperate time, even though it was the smart thing to do.
“Everyone, please leave the two of us alone for a while…” A silent cry. No, a desperate plea came out of Shin’s mouth.
“R-Right…” Emma was the first to get up. Tugging on Elrin’s sleeves, the purple-haired maiden pulled the scion far away from Kanari’s side. Ella did the same for Shizen. Unlike the rest of the group, he still had a full appetite and wanted to continue chugging down pork chops no matter how bad they tasted. However, Ella wouldn’t give him that luxury.
Shuffling out of the tent like sheep being herded out, the five youngsters averted their eyes while keeping their heads down. Only Isadore had the guts to tap Shin on the shoulder once and break a smile before leaving his breakfast behind.
Silence. Was what Shin had expected after his friends had left the room. However, since they were in the middle of a bustling encampment in the middle of a war, the outside was far from silent. Shadows of army men and women dashed outside loud metallic clanks of boots thundered through the thin tent. It wasn’t exactly the most conducive place to have a private conversation, but Shin opted to make due.
“It’s because of me, isn’t it?” His head glued on the wooden table, Shin muttered out. A slight tremble could be heard amid his voice, one that was weak enough to be toppled by a slight touch.
“…” Kanari didn’t answer.
There was no need to beat around the bush. After that night where she confirmed her feelings, Kanari decided to be more honest with herself… and Shin. Everything that she said earlier was truths that she honestly believed in, but none of them was the prime reason for her decision to stay in the Estrella Region. Deep down, Kanari knew that it was the wise decision to return to the Himmel Empire and to be surrounded by the people she trusted the most with her cultivation. However, the girl couldn’t do it.
“I know that you want to be here as I confront Junius. I know that you want to rush your advancement to bolster our team’s fighting powers.” Hitting the nail on the head, Shin watched as Kanari’s shoulder flinched a little. It was a quirk of hers that had followed Kanari since her childhood. Whenever the maiden was caught in a lie, her shoulders would move in that exact same manner. Only those who really knew Kanari could have caught on to that slight movement and Shin was one of the few.
“I know all that! And I’m telling you I don’t need it! Your safety is still the most important thing for our team! Should anything happen to you during your advancement, how am I to account to your parents? What could I possibly say to Saint Firebird?”
“You don’t have to worry about that!” Kanari retorted. “I can take good care of myself! Also, do you really have that little faith in me? My cultivation is higher than yours, and I have been trained since I could walk! I will advance to the Spirit Spectre realm without the help of anyone, and I’ll do it right here!”
“That’s not the point!” The young man stood up, wiped the smooth temples of his head. Of course he trusted in Kanari! Heck, Shin was even confident that the maiden would breakthrough in record time, becoming the world’s youngest Spirit Spectre in the modern era. But that wasn’t his main draw. Shin couldn’t stand the thought of potentially losing Kanari because she rushed her advancement for his sake. Sashaying his body to Kanari’s adjacent seat, Shin sat down and grabbed the slender wrists of the maiden.
“We can’t lose you…”
A missile shot through Kanari’s heart when she heard those soft and tender words. Shin’s eyes were tearing up, and the grip on her hands was tightening with every passing second. It was a frightening thought. Losing a loved one. Shin had been through that ordeal once before, and he would never hope to feel that low ever again. No matter how talented Kanari was. No matter how many analysts project that she’s going to become a Spirit Saint. There was still that 0.01% chance of her failing. If that happened in a barren landscape where the nearest major city was hundreds of kilometres away, Shin didn’t know if he could live with himself.
“You don’t have to worry about us. Just return back to the Capital and go with the plan that your mother has prepared. Rest well and emerge as the Spirit Spectre that you were always destined to become. Just… Don’t risk it all for me…”
The maiden’s ruby eyes dilated beautifully while her fingers weaved together with Shin’s. She could feel how genuine the boy was. Kanari’s face blushed, and her heart rate sped up like sprinter taking off. Tempted by the boy’s sweet whispers, Kanari wanted to relent and give in right there an there. However, her memory caught something sinister in Shin’s moving speech.
“But… you’re staying right?”
“T-That!” Immediately, Shin’s expression began to crumble. There was a way for Kanari to completely give up on advancing in the Estrella Region. There was a way for the stubborn girl to follow Spion back to the Himmel Empire where it was completely safe for her to advance. It was just that Shin didn’t want to entertain that idea. Not today, not ever. So what was that miraculous move?
For Shin to move back to the Himmel Empire with her.
“I… can’t leave, Kanari.” Shin couldn’t bring himself to abandon one of his life’s two goals just to force Kanari back to the Himmel Empire. Junius was right there. Shin had seen the traitor with his own two eyes. If he were to leave right now, there were three endings that Shin could foresee. Either Junius gets captured by the Alliance and gets thrown into a dungeon somewhere that Shin could never enter. Or Junius could escape with the help of the Black Masks, sending all of the efforts that Shin had spent to waste.
And then, there was the most disastrous ending. If Junius died on the battlefield, where Shin wasn’t there to confront him one final time… All of his efforts would have been for nought. The years he trained outside of Frie Mountain, totally wasted. Leaving the Estrella Region was a luxury he couldn’t afford. He needed to be there, to be present so that he could lure Junius out into the open to be punished by the wrath of the Alliance.
“I know… And that’s why I’m staying.” Kanari brought her nose close to Shin’s filling his nostrils with all of her morning perfume. It was strange, the young girl shouldn’t have the time to shower and yet she always smelt spectacular. Peering into the gorgeous crimson eyes of the maiden, Shin felt a mouthful of saliva run down his throat as he visibly backed away.
“I won’t abandon you, Shin… Not now, not ever…”