It was a wooden hut built on a cliff, as a shelter against the snow, and one would describe it as closer to a cave. For most of the year, this place was enclosed in ice and snow, and huts like this were scattered along the paths. It was said travelers would use them as shelter. Initially, it was intriguing how the huts could remain as they were despite there being no caretakers, but as one moved through the snowstorm with no silhouette to be seen, and finally arriving at such huts, one could imagine why they remained sturdy.
These huts lasted so long due to the thankful people who managed to survive by the skin of their teeth.
Even him, not one to be sentimental, was impressed. Surely it was more so for the ordinary fellows, so he thought as he slid his hand down the wooden walls. They contained the crammed words of those who experienced the fear of death, words like thank goodness for this miracle, thank you. Some travelers so happened to encounter each other, penning the joy they experienced as poems.
He could see faces beyond these words, it seemed, but there was another reason why he was not mesmerized with them.
Someone suddenly asked while he was peering at the firm handwriting. As expected, the owner of these words had sought refuge during a snowstorm, boiled some soup at the furnace in the middle of the hut, and warmed himself up. Then, a hare scampered in, probably lured by the light or the smell. Typically, he would have it roasted, but instead, on that night, he fed it dried roots and vegetables, and slept with it.
So he imagined that scene as he turned his eyes to the owner.
There was Fenesis, a girl who should be considered a white kitten more so than a hare.
“The wine is heated.”
She had somewhat resembled a little animal, and yet she was wearing a warm looking fur coat, along with a fur cap to conceal the forgettable beast ears, holding a wooden cup with rising white smoke. It was a beverage brewed with distilled malt, mixed with lots of butter. It fills the stomach, and the body would warm.
“Is wine and jerky enough? I do think gruel is better for the body…”
“No. I said that I have already recovered.”
No matter how unwilling he was, even he would be refreshed after sleeping on a carriage for three days. While Fenesis looked worried, and seemed to have some regret over this, perhaps it was Kusla himself who was thinking too much in it.
“So you asked if this is interesting?”
Kusla received the cup, took a sip, and said,
“At the very least, it’s interesting for me to believe in the kindness in this world. Very interesting.”
Her face showed a skeptical look, and once she noticed how the words were as peaceful as a shepherd’s hymn, she showed a wry smile at Kusla’s explanation.
“However, it’s not just interesting.”
This little sip of wine could warm the body to its core. Fenesis huffed into the cup, and started sniveling, for it seemed the cold had melted away.
“Roads are those left behind all this while, unchanged over the hundreds of years. It seemed the people headed from South to North would have passed this place.”
The piping hot steam had Fenesis sniveling as though she had bawled. She seemed to have realized what he meant, for she hurriedly wiped her face with her sleeve, staring at the message written on the wall.
“The Whites definitely have passed this road. They might have left a message here.”
They were the wanderers with extraordinary technology who arrived at these lands a hundred years ago. They were dubbed the Whites due to their appearances, sometimes dubbed angels for they were assumed to have descended from the Heavens. Kusla and the others arrived at this place, for they wanted to solve the legends left behind.
Such legends included them leading hordes of flaming dragons, the creation of gold from ash, flowing in the sky, summoning the sun onto the earth. Typically, such legends were merely to be scoffed at, but some of them had been proven. The biggest breakthrough would surely be the summoning of the sun onto the earth.
Just days ago, they stayed in the town of Abbas. They unraveled the meaning to what was a traditional pagan ritual, and discovered the steps to creating the unique material. Naturally, the notion was that they could replicate the phenomena through certain technologies.
The ones unsolved were the legend of man flying in the sky, and surely it was the best representation of a daydream.
However, they were traversing through the snowstorm not simply to solve the legend.
One of the reasons was that they had a doubt, that even after creating the fire herb capable of summoning the sun onto the earth, it should not easily cause the devastation of burning down a town in a single night. Kusla wondered if a different herb was used, or that there was another technology to improve it. By discovering it, even with all the enemies of the world banded together, they could win this battle; conquering the world might not be a mere dream.
The second was to seek the whereabouts of the Whites.
Their technology had arrived at a fantasy a hundred years ago. At this point, perhaps they had elevated it further, and anyone, let alone an alchemist, would be eager to meet them. Over the long history of alchemy, there existed secret arts people knew of, yet never to face directly, ways like turning lead into gold, reviving the dead, regaining youth, to capturing spirits. The Whites themselves might have attained these…or so it seemed. While Kusla did not truly believe so, he wanted to know what they had, and what they had researched into.
However, they knew so little of the angels, for news about the latter vanished after they disappeared from the vanquished lands. To pursue them, they had to head North. Furthermore, they had insufficient time to slowly investigate, and they were already on their way after hasty preparations. It was mere days ago that Kusla and Weyland were betrayed and poisoned, not completely recovered from their half-dead state.
They were in a hurry, for they probably had pursuers. Luckily for them, the pursuers were not doing so out of malice, but if they were caught, they would be in danger. Perhaps these two were interlinked.
The pursuers were their employers, the Claudius Knights. The organization had expanded its authority faster than any nobility, and garnered much malice, resulting in them being attacked.
Given that the Pope, the beacon of their faith, had spoken up, surely it was only a matter of time until a full scale war escalated.
They possessed the powerful technology left behind by the Whites, which would thus be important for their battle. Surely they would be brought to the battlefield, embroiled in war. It was a matter of kill or be killed, and given that the Pope had tossed in his lot, the war would not end that simply.
Thus, this was the only time they could seek the Whites freely.
They never thought about sitting back to observe, and never intended to convince Alzen, who would surely demand for their obedience. They would regret if they did not extend their hand out whenever they could, a feeling Kusla himself had just experienced. Thus, even though they might not like it, they had to head up North.
So Kusla thought as he observed Fenesis, who earnestly sought the messages on the wall, so much so that even her forehead was clinging close to it. She resembled a squirrel seeking food, and his urge to cause mischief on this little animal had him inadvertently grazing his hand on her cheek.
She immediately showed an annoyed look, wanting him to stay out of this. But Kusla showed a self-deprecating smile, for at this moment, he had a hapless notion that he could never look at this fortune he had obtained once again.
At this point, he had no intention to deny this notion.
And instead, he wanted to amply enjoy this.
“It’s pointless to keep looking. There’s no way wood can last for a hundred years in such conditions.”
Fenesis’ predictions were easily overturned, and she was stumped. Kusla’s smile became a leer. She immediately puffed her cheeks, tapping at him lightly. She resembled a sheep lowering its head angrily and charging over, and also like a kitten wanting to be fawned over.
How foolish, so he thought, but they had no intention of leaving each other. One kept beating, and one continued to be beaten.
Perhaps he, who was a few years older, might seem the more foolish, so he grimaced.
While they were fooling around, a man pried apart the curtain at the entrance, and entered.
The pudgy body was covered in snowflakes, and he really resembled a snowman. It was the book merchant Phil.
“Oh goodness, that really was a snowstorm.”
Phil dusted off the snowflakes which landed on him while he toiled, saying so.
Accompanying Kusla and Fenesis on this journey were the alchemist Weyland, the blacksmith Irine, and the book merchant Phil, someone they met in the town where the hassle occurred days ago. Like the others, he too was seeking the angel’s legends. There were also three other Knights escorting them from Abbas.
“Have the escorts found a place to get warmth?”
Kusla asked not out of kindness, but because back in Abbas, they were betrayed by the spies who should be protecting them, and they might be betrayed again. If he was careless against them, they might be betrayed again. They showed the Knights a miracle back in Abbas, and chose some companions they could trust, but their loyalty was to the Claudius Knights, their superior Alzen.
It did not hurt to be a little extra careful.
“Yes. There’s another hut not too far away from here, so I had them stay there. The horses are there too.”
“If they’re bringing the horses in, there’s no place for them to roll about when they sleep.”
The hut was large enough for 4, 5 adults to lie in. Weyland and Irine probably could not resist the warm wine and fire, for they had fallen asleep by the fireside, making it look more cramped. The moment Fenesis noticed them, she hurriedly laid a blanket over them.
“But this treacherous journey shall end tomorrow. We could have arrived today if not for the snowstorm…let us just hold on for a little longer.”
Phil dusted the snow off his body, tossed the firewood into the furnace, and poured some wine to drink. He was as nonchalant as one well acquainted with traveling alone.
Kusla stared at Phil intently not because he was impressed.
“The town that once existed, Abbas?”
“It still does.”
Phil forced a smile, drawing out a sneer from Kusla.
The town where the incident occurred was also called Abbas, but the original town was destroyed in a single night by the sun the Whites summoned. The current Abbas was a town rebuilt by the survivors of that calamity.
“The old has not been completely destroyed.”
Kusla pulled a large blanket from the pile, and draped it over himself, staring at Phil as he asked,
“There are a few staying there because of trade?””
“Yes. There is an unexpected lot of people who don’t want to leave the place.”
Phil said without much intent, but Fenesis, who had laid blankets over Irine and Weyland naturally sat down beside Kusla, and hesitated once she heard that.
Kusla felt that what Phil said made sense, and tucked the shocked Fenesis into his blanket.
“As a book merchant, you must have investigated lots into this. I wonder if you can discover anything else.”
“Ahaha, I have stayed in this town for four years, but I never discovered the fire herb. The mystery can only be solved by those who understand.”
Phil broke into a grin while talking.
“Though you’re a little miffed.”
“Without that foresight, I shouldn’t be involved in this occupation.”
The book merchant burst out laughing, and reached for a blanket.
“I shall focus on leading the way. Sure feels good to be able to lead the path to truth.”
Just as they were unwilling to be content with being famous local blacksmiths, it seemed Phil could not be content with merely counting his coins. What he said was no hyperbole.
He had learned that no matter the truth, he would not be able to obtain without seeing it personally, without touching it personally. It was for such a purpose that Kusla embraced Fenesis, being the most important to him. Irine and Weyland were already asleep, so it seemed she was no longer bashful, fawning as she tucked her head under his arms.
Everything would be awaiting them at the place they were to arrive at.
What exactly will they see?
So he scented upon the hair with the faint fragrance as he fell asleep, undaunted.
The snowstorm outside the curtain fell for an entire night, and the next morning, the skies were clear. Given how fine the weather was, it seemed they could depart on their journey, even if they were headed next to the gallows.
They put out the lights, dusted off the snow from the cloth covering their belongings, and began to move.
Phil had taken the path to old Abbas a few times, and thus they were not lost, nor did they face difficulty moving. At the very most, they had to get off the carriages and move their belongings when encountering any slope. Like the strong knights escorting them, they carried however much they could on their own strength.
Surely they would sweat doing this, and the breath of their frantic breathing was white, but the white smoke exhaled was reminiscent of iron being smelted, their feelings uplifted. The blacksmith Irine was humming away a tune blacksmiths used to time their work.
The journey lasting four days was merely hampered by the snowstorm the previous day, and soon after the sun rose, they arrived at their destination. They went up the gradual slope, and right when the horizon expanded before them, there appeared plains, along with mountains surrounding them.
“The old Abbas.”
Phil, leading the pack, did not appear tired despite his body type. It was impressive, really. The younger Kusla was showing some fatigue, but he quietly excused himself, thinking that it was not because he was always cooped in the workshop, but that the poison had been holding him back.
“Let us go. The place where the smoke rises is where they gather.”
Apart from some slopes here and there, it was a snowplain of complete white. One would have assumed he was daydreaming if not for the few houses scattered over there.
Above the horizon was the blue sky, and afar was the mountain range, followed by the white plains where distance could not be gauged. It was a refreshing sight to Kusla, who lived many years within the walls.
And it appeared Irine and Weyland felt the same. Irine herself was probably momentarily giddy as she stumbled a little.
“When it’s hard to gauge the distance it’s hard to stand upright~.”
Weyland grumbled as he grabbed Irine’s arm.
“Hahaha. Buildings won’t run away like a mirage. If you don’t feel good, find a target and head towards it.”
Phil, already used to this, continued towards the buildings down the snowy path that was not a road..
“Let’s follow that massive back then~”
Weyland said expectantly, and prompted Irine on. The Knights being their escorts continued leisurely, for they probably were used to fighting on such spacious land.
Fenesis saw them leave, and suddenly grabbed Kusla’s hand.
“I am used to seeing this in the desert. Do follow me.”
You’re being giddy over just a little thing? Kusla quietly thought to himself, but it was rather delightful to see this pipsqueak straighten up. He shrugged, held her hand, and followed after Phil and the others.
Ss, sss, they stepped on the snow as they went forth, and slowly. there were other footsteps. Before they knew it, the snow beneath their feet was a flattened path, and finally felt a sense of reality.
Thus, the gathering appeared a little clearer to them.
“But…it is a little different from what I imagined.”
“I thought it would be more barren.”
A hundred years ago, the Whites summoned the sun, and a sea of flames devoured the town of Abbas, destroying it in a single night. One would have imagined a hellish scene, but appearing before Kusla’s eyes was a snowy land and a blue sky above, along with some gentle trails of rising smoke.
Furthermore, located near the settlement were a few sleds ferrying goods along, and white breaths rising from human mouths, negotiating away while walking along. It seemed the place was exceptionally frigid, and the riverbank appeared to be on the verge of freezing. There were people working on fur there, dealing with the carcasses of deer, foxes, hares, squirrels, and other animals. The skins and the jerkies were lined neatly, and one could smell from the foul stench that the fat of beasts was being boiled in a massive cauldron.
The work here was relatively modest and routine. It did not resemble its destroyed past, but rather, a village that reinvented itself and continued to exist.
Kusla and the others entered the settlement, but nobody looked towards them with strange eyes, probably because there were already various kinds of people who passed by. There were no walls, just huts, and it was likely that due to the intersection of the paths, they decided it would be the center of their settlement. There were stalls selling snacks, and some shoddy looking currency dealers. The similar looking scene was beyond expectations, and it was hard to believe this place was mere steps from the Far North dubbed the end of the world.
“I guess this is how it feels to visit a graveyard rumored to have lots of ghosts wandering around.”
Phil probably once had the same thoughts as Kusla and the others, for he casually noted after Kusla muttered so,
“More importantly, let’s go greet the locals..”
Since there was a gathering of settlers on this land, surely there was one leading them. Kusla always thought of this place as an empty wasteland, given the news he heard, but he started to worry about any trouble, since there were so many living here..
“The Living’s harder to deal with than the Dead~.”
Weyland agreed with what Kusla said,
“And we’re investigating whatever destroyed this town. We haven’t discussed how we’re going to do this. Now what~?”
“I don’t think that’ll be a problem.”
Phil showed his usual tempered smile.
“Really? So you mean there are people like the Poldorofs who want to know what technology the Whites had?”
For generations, the Poldoroffs, rulers of Abbas, had been wondering how to recreate the miracle.
“That can be considered half correct, I feel.”
Kusla retorted, and Weyland too sounded stunned.
Phil in turn beamed with a gaudy look.
“It is hard for me to explain with words.”
Phil then walked off, as though indicating it was better for them to greet, than for him to explain here. However, Kusla noticed that inadvertent moment.
When Phil answered, he glanced aside at Fenesis.
One could tell there was probably something too delicate to discuss, but Kusla did not notice anything more. After all, Phil was someone trustworthy. Kusla exchanged looks with Weyland and the others, and decided to follow.
It seemed the people were mostly talking about business at the plaza, and travel necessities like grains and equipment for the cold were laid out on the snow, to be sold. It felt primitive compared to the Southern cities, but it was bustling, and while there were a few settler huts, they were mostly built out of sturdy rock. Beyond the plains was a mountain range, and there should be sufficient wood there. Kusla thought to himself that this place really had lots of resources.
They walked a little further down the plaza, and Phil stopped before a stone building. The large front gates were facing the stable, trampled ground, which allowed for horses and carriages to enter and ferry their wares. A few men were on a straw mat, trading, and there was a pile of fur beside them.
“Pardon my intrusion!”
Phil greeted in the traditional manner, and passed through the gates. The few men lifted their heads. It appeared they were not full fledged hunts, and nor were they full fledged merchants. Their roles could not be defined as such, and they gave the impression that they had to do everything to survive.
One of them was a short man with some white hair strands, and he slowly stood up from the mat. The wrinkles on his face appeared to be carved by a knife, and they probably were caused by the cold. He looked an eccentric fellow by the way he stood up, but on closer look, those wrinkles looked happy.
“Oh, Mr Phil.”
As expected, the man showed an earnest smile as he embraced Phil. The other two men seemed to know Phil too, and exchanged handshakes.
“Why the sudden visit in the winter? I can’t help you gather information even if you try to coerce me. It’s no deer or hare after all.”
“No, it’s not the usual . I am here to pass this to you, Mr Cyrus.”
Phil pulled a letter from his clutches, and handed it over. It seemed he often had the man called Cyrus gather myths of the Far North. Looking closely, the two men on the straw mat were mostly wearing fur. It appeared they were from the Northern tribes, for their emphasis was different from the South’s custom of more fur clothing equating to more prestige. They definitely could obtain information that could not be obtained in the South.
Cyrus received the letter, and glanced aside at Kusla’s group. Irine gave an earnest smile, while Kusla and Weyland had no such capability.
“The head of the Poldorofs sent me here.”
“The old geezer?”
Cyrus asked as he opened the letter, read the content, and once he glanced through, he widened his eyes.
“Yes. Half of it, but we have an idea of what happened on this land.”
Upon hearing that, Cyrus instinctively looked towards Kusla’s group..
He opened his mouth, as though he had something to say, but nothing came out.
“So we’re here to solve the other half. We want to rent the charcoal cottage outside this town. You probably won’t be using it this season, I suppose?”
“Eh? Ahh, yes…not for the moment…they are…hm?”
Cyrus gave Phil a pleading look for help, clearly looking frantic. It was a common reaction of one meeting an alchemist for the first time.
“Yes. Various troubles happened in the process, but they solved this mystery not too long ago. These are the outstanding craftsmen everyone is amazed by.”
Kusla decided to act a little formal, and bowed silently, for he was not introduced as an alchemist. A faltering Cyrus did the same.
However, Kusla wondered, what exactly was Phil planning?
It was the past, but the legend of the angel also referred to the one that destroyed the town. It was hard to guarantee that Cyrus would have second thoughts about it, that Kusla and company would destroy this place once again after solving the mystery.
Also, Phil was showing concern for Fenesis.
Kusla thought, and prioritized the things he needed to do.
No matter the situation he was in, he should be prioritizing the things important to him.
“Speaking of which…erm, what was solved…”
Phil answered Cyrus, who seemed to be seeking respite.
“The method used to destroy this town.”
Cyrus widened his eyes at that moment, and one could hear him gasp.
The duo seated on the mat looked perturbed, probably because they did not understand, but it seemed they realized this was something major.
Kusla immediately grabbed Fenesis’ hand, his other hand on the dagger behind his waist. Weyland in turn looked out for Irine, and stood at a position where he could protect her.
The onlookers were staring at a startled Cyrus.
The only people who would be happy about a technology that could destroy a city were those like Alzen, who knew how to execute wars, or alchemists like Kusla and Weyland, or people who desired knowledge, like PHil.
They were too reckless after all.
Kusla gave a somewhat reproaching look towards Phil’s sturdy back, and then─
Cyrus raised his voice.
“The curse laid on this town…is finally undone, no?”
Kusla instinctively asked, and all attention was him. It was too late to regret that he was overly sensitive because of Fenesis.
But Cyrus, who stared intently at Kusla without blinking , gave an unexpected response.
He suddenly smiled, as though all tension was gone.
“Haha, I too am aware…this so-called curse is like a dog who was burned by a heater.”
This time, it was Kusla who was confused.
“It is better to look into the matter, rather than to fear what is in the grass. Speaking of which，the Poldorofs had been doing this for generations.”
He did not know the real intent behind Cyrus’ words, but he knew what the latter referred to. Elsewhere, the Poldorofs replicated the layout of the destroyed Abbas, copied the Whites’ rituals, and even prepared all the alchemy tools.
It was all to investigate how the Whites managed to destroy an entire town like that.
“They might not have said so, but they probably do not dare to live here. This new town is becoming so prosperous, and they never looked back at this land.”
Since Cyrus mentioned it, Kusla realized it was the case. While it was an endless plain, and snowing, it was a good, simple place to gather fur.
Perhaps the reasons Cyrus stated might be why the Poldorofs never did so..
“I suppose…that since Mr Phil brought you here, you must be a Southerner? We may be deemed barbarians to you, but those well acquainted with this land have called it cursed, and dared not reside here.”
Fenesis exerted some strength into Kusla’s hand.
She was one of the Cursed, the oppressed.
Kusla nodded slightly towards Fenesis.
He wanted her not to worry.
“But this ends today. My idea to go with Mr Phil’s plan is correct, but am I being too anxious? How did it work?”
And in complete contrast to the wary Kusla’s group, Cyrus could not contain the delight in his heart as he asked Phil. It appeared the latter hard already predicted this reaction, for he showed the poised smile of a merchant, and nodded in exaggeration.
“It’s not perfect yet, but I suppose you should be happy with this.”
Cyrus cupped his head with both hands, as though stopping himself from yelling out loud.
This delight seemed ridiculous to Kusla, but it seemed they were not deemed as hostile. He gave Weyland a look, and moved his hand away from his dagger.
“Do you mind explaining what’s going on?”
Kusla’s words were directed at Phil, who definitely muffled his voice because of the curse pertaining to this land. It was no wonder then why he would give Fenesis a look.
“We don’t mind, but I think you have some things to ask too, Mr Cyrus?”
Upon hearing Phil’s words, Cyrus recovered.
“Ye-yes! I haven’t greeted such important guests! Please wait. I shall discuss this later!”
He looked as though he was not going to be denied. Kusla’s group too wanted to hear the legend of the angel.
Cyrus said a few words to the men seated on the straw mat, and they hurriedly ran off. As he looked at them, Kusla repeated the same words in his heart.
The cursed land.
He turned aside, and found Fenesis. She, probably one of the Whites, the cursed tribe, was smiling adamantly, as though telling him not to worry.
Cyrus was from a branch family of the Poldorofs, born in the rebuilt Abbas. He liked to hunt moreso than to sell fur, so he had been wandering in the Northern lands, only to be attracted to this land, and decided to stay here. It was said Cyrus was the one who convinced the Northern elders to turn this forgotten land no one dared to approach into a trading hub.
As Phil explained this, Kusla and the others were led along the dirt path where trades were done and goods were loaded. They entered a house, sat by a heater, and were served drinks.
There was a row of animal bones on the wall, probably the spoils of their hunt. However, it was not scary in the slightest, for every bone was dried completely, and were ornamented with flowers and grass.
It was not just to boast his hunting skills, but to show his fear and reverence. If they had been the Church’s territory, those things would have been deemed heretical, but it was appropriate for these lands.
“So, what is the revealed legend about?”
Once everyone, including the Knights escorting them, had a cup of warm wine in hand, Cyrus asked excitedly.
“The meaning to the ritual tools passed down in Abbas, and the technology that was used to summon the sun onto this land.”
Phil explained, and pulled a little rock-like translucent crystal from the bag hanging by his waist. It was the sun fragment.
“I-is this it? This destroyed the land…?”
Cyrus gasped, inadvertently leaning back.
“Do be at ease. This thing alone will not cause anything even if it is thrown into the fire.”
“…I-is that so?”
“Reduce it to powder, add charcoal and sulfur, and it will become a powerful incendiary. We know this translucent crystal is from the ground where the sacrifices were buried, and limestone covered over them.”
Cyrus listened to Phil’s explanation, and stared apprehensively at the sun fragment. It was not as heavy as pure gold, not as watery as mercury, and did not feel like dirt. Perhaps it was mixed into salt crystals, or even common rocks.
But it contained some really incredible power.
“So-so…that was what they used in the past?”
“But there are some issues to ascertain, so it is half solved.”
Phil looked towards Kusla, prompting the latter to explain.
“The amount I have now can only shine through the darkness at best.”
Kusla’s words had Cyrus blinking away.
“It’s possible to increase the power as much as possible by adding quantity, and it’s not impossible to burn an entire town down. It’ll require a lot of them however, stacked higher than humans. This land was once burned down, so it’s likely they had that much energy gathered. On the other hand, this so-called fire herb was distilled to make something brand new. The legendary item used by the Whites might be something completely different.”
Cyrus looked dumbfounded, for he probably did not understand at all
Phil seemingly had enough as he explained further.
“In other words, the great fire might have been triggered by something else, but the fragment in your hands might be able to recreate the legend, as long as we have enough.”
Cyrus nodded, seemingly having digested these words.
“The charcoal and sulfur just mentioned…and the live sacrifice?”
“It’s possible to…create quantities. We have lots of wood in the forests for charcoal, and we can extract sulfur at the volcano in the Zardin area. As for the live sacrifices, I presume you have seen the entrance. We have lots of them. Do we have to use white bears?”
Phil shook his head.
“No, I think anything should be fine. The legend hints at the corpse of a sinner, but since a white bear is fine, I suppose a deer or a hare should work too.”
“I…see. In other word, thi-this is…”
It seemed Cyrus was convinced after hearing the explanation, but there was another reason other than the firepower why Kusla assumed there was another possibility other than the fire herb.
Basically, while he imagined the Whites preparing lots of fire herb, there was something he just could not comprehend. Why did the Whites prepare that much fire herb? It would be strange if they really intended to blow up the town. They worked together to develop Abbas, and ended up persecuted to the distant lands, and some bones with left with shackles. He could imagine many other reasons why others would murder them in rage.
They contributed finance and construction to the town of Yazon, and while there were no records of them being persecuted, they never remained there.
Why did they show such a cruel side at Abbas?
And another thing.
If they were truly persecuted, it would be really difficult to concoct such a massive stockpile of fire herbs, charcoal and sulfur. It was difficult to extract sun fragments from the ground, and they would have garnered much attention if they were digging around at the ritual site. The ground had to be washed, boiled, and roasted; a lot of effort and fuel would be needed.
They were persecuted, and yet they invited the locals to help? Did the Whites that many in numbers to begin with?
He could not explain this at all.
Also, there was something Kusla wanted to confirm.
“So, what’s the curse about?”
Fenesis, who should be of the same tribe as the Whites, was dubbed a cursed person.
There were signs of the persecuted Whites throughout the towns they visited.
Clearly they were treated as a curse, but Kusla heard this term for the first time, from Cyrus.
Cyrus in turn never looked too heavy hearted as he said,
“This is a relatively faraway place, and few come here. Of course, there are some superstitious folks. Some leave the house, see the hawk turn counterclockwise, and are unwilling to enter the hills. When the hunting arrows they use break into pieces, they will think of it as some ominous omen. By that same logic─”
Cyrus stared at the furnace fire unflinchingly, and gave a calm smile,
“Think about it. What if there was an explosion that suddenly destroyed a town? Legend has it that it was done by the Whites, but people remain restless because they do not know what was used. The description is that the fire pillar was as tall as the sky, and this is why people feared the fire. This is why even though the land is so large, there are no new houses built here.”
They feared the fire.
Upon hearing that, Kusla came to realize.
“We can’t set up a furnace here?”
“Yes. There was always a doubt…did we use the fire appropriately, causing that tragedy to occur?”
When there was a cause, there was an effect. Such was the thinking of an alchemist, the reason for superstitions and ridiculous omens.
This time, it was Weyland who interrupted.
“We have a furnace here. Is there not a fire outside~?”
Cyrus grimaced as he scratched his head.
“I too was scared initially, but I wasn’t willing to lose to this superstition, so I went about setting fires everywhere. I then convinced the various tribes that it’s fine to set fires here, and that’s the situation now.”
“Oh, then, it won’t be a bad idea to make the fire bigger~”
One could assume that an experiment was a sword and shield used to pry through the fog. There had to be another reason why Cyrus could not shake off the fear despite being equipped with them.
“That’s why I say it’s a curse.”
Cyrus put down the vessel containing the wine, and closed his eyes.
He resembled a praying hermit, or rather, he might really be praying.
Cyrus slowly opened his eyes, and gave a determined smile,
“The legend never stated what happened to the Whites after that. Tribes passed down these legends, and some insisted that this land was overly disturbed, which angered the spirits of the land. We fear this shadow; this white shadow is like a curse on us.”
“So basically, you’re worried that the Whites will return to this land?”
Cyrus nodded in response to Kusla’s question. While he was unwilling to believe it, he could not ignore the possibility completely.
The group of snow-like Whites might appear from the other side of the open plains, and reduce all the hard work to nothing.
They speculated wildly, for they did not know the reason.
It might be hard to laugh it off.
As alchemists, they thoroughly understood how powerful the bias of the townsfolk could be.
And the same for Fenesis, who was oppressed.
There was silence, and they could hear the dancing ash by the furnace. Cyrus finally lifted his head, and said heartily,
“But you will bring light into our darkness. I shall not fear when I create a fire at a new place. All we have to do is to dig a hole, and ascertain that there is nothing buried inside, I presume?”
He pinched the sun fragment Phil handed over, raised it high, and observed it like a crystal.
“You need to add sulfur and charcoal.”
Phil quipped as he put his hand on Cyrus’ shoulder, seemingly cheering the latter on,
“Mr Cyrus, we believe the angel’s legend is neither a spell nor a miracle, but a technology created by our own hands. In other words, it can be investigated, controlled, and used. It is like using alum instead of oak nodules when tanning tanner. We shall prove that there is no curse on this land, and─”
Phil deliberately gave a humble smile.
It was a merchant’s smile, one to calm Cyrus down.
“For this reason, we hope for you to assist us.”
They did not know what happened, what went wrong, for such a great disaster to occur. They resided upon this land that might end up destroyed once again. He was already mentally prepared, and could only latch onto firmly any hint that could solve this mystery. There was no other choice.
Cyrus stared calmly at Phil, and regained the distinct eyes of a hunter.
He was one who, when forced to walk forward, would put his mind into it.
“Of course I shall help. What else do you need, other than a hut with a furnace?”
“We may need to try various things while investigating, so we wish to employ your help. Also, if there are some strange things in the hut outside the village, it will be of bad repute, I believe?”
The woodcutters, shepherds and flour makers were often deemed suspicious by the townsfolk as they usually worked at places few people were at.
“Please leave that to me. Some of the Northern Tribes find new Abbas to be too far for trading, and some feel that they can move to reside here if possible. I suppose everyone will lend their support if I explain matters to them.”
“I’m really grateful.”
“Please don’t say so.”
Cyrus widened his eyes, shaking his head aside.
He then grabbed Phil’s hands firmly, before grabbing Kusla’s.
It was a rather large and coarse hand.
“Please solve the mystery to this legend. We spent much effort redeveloping the land to this extent, but to many, the memories of that great disaster still remains. Many people died, and the fear lingered. The nearby residents departed, resulting in the cessation of trade, and the prosperity of the Northern lands was greatly reduced. We are however born in the North, and will die here. We don’t want to live with the fear that we may be destroyed here. Please release us from the curse of this land, please…”
Cyrus moved his hand that was touching Kusla’s, and touched it with his forehead.
It might be a local custom, a subservient ritual.
Kusla could only stare coldly at people who hoped for miracles to befall them, being overly expectant.
But they had the same goals.
“Leave it to us.”
They would solve all the mysteries of the Whites, and seek the logic deeper than the truth.
And head towards the Land of Magdala.
Kusla muttered in his heart as he held Cyrus’ hand.
It happened after they obtained much meat and fur from Cyrus.
Their viewpoint changed after they listened to the description and looked upon the land.
Further down was a vast plain, a rich fertile forest to the outside, a river meandering through. It was convenient for the scattered Northern tribes to move their spoils about. Everything needed for development was in place.
Despite that, there was a reason why the houses were so spaced out.
“We can’t build more furnaces.”
They went outdoors, took a breath of icy wind through the nose, and sensed a faint stench of fur.
“It is a furnace no burned dog will dare to approach after all.”
“I guess that has something to do with why every house here is built from rock.”
“These houses don’t burn easily.”
Phil said, and Kusla looked over to see the book merchant, who had visited this land many times, nod slowly.
“Most of the wooden houses were either burned down back then, or collapsed when the wind blew.”
“Also, there is another reason why we dared not build new houses.”
Cyrus and the others feared, for they did not know where the Whites went.
They did not know why the Whites left, and did not know when the Whites would return.
“But you said the main point.”
Kusla smiled at Phil, who was taken aback.
“We shall solve the legend, and prove that it is not magic, but a technology that can be controlled.”
“If we can grasp where the Whites went, all the better.”
He did not really have the urge to help others; on this land where the legend remained, it was simply a coincidence that his goals were the same as Cyrus.
Cyrus proved something very important to Kusla.
Fenesis’ curse probably could be solved in the same manner. After all, curses were merely bias and convictions based on ignorance.
Kusla grabbed firmly the reason to advance as he said,
“How about we have a look at the scars of the disaster a century ago? So that we can begin sooner? Or are we going to stay?”
“Yes. A look is better than a hundred hearsay~.”
Weyland too appeared enthusiastic, but Irine seemed a little unwilling.
“Are we really fine with that?”
“Huh? Do you actually believe in the curse?”
Kusla deliberately sneered, partially to mock Irine’s unexpected superstition, and also for Fenesis’ sake. Even if there was a curse, he would merely laugh it off.
“What about you? Are you going along?”
Upon being teased, Fenesis puffed her cheeks, and glared upwards at Kusla.
“I am an alchemist.”
She should be fine, given how she could maintain that façade.
“The problem is that that legend might be too exaggerated, and that we’ll be disappointed seeing it for real.”
Kusla joked, and Phil merely shrugged.
“I suppose you don’t have to worry about that.”
Phil sounded like a child who said he had witnessed a large deer in the forest, but that nobody believed him.
“Let’s make a detour before we go to that hut.”
Phil led the way, and Kusla stood up to follow, slapping Fenesis on the back.
Fenesis nodded slightly, and walked alongside Kusla.
“It was said the town extended as far as this forest.”
It was near noon, and the group heard Phil’s explanation of old Abbas’ layout as they trotted down the brightest.
“Most of the original plains were covered in roads and houses, and it was on the verge of creeping into the forest. One can only imagine how big it was.”
“Didn’t they recreate the current new Abbas based on this place?”
“It’s built from memory after all. I don’t think it’ll be completely similar.”
“Is the plaza here the same as before? If that’s the case, the positioning of the town and the river seems a little weird.”
Kusla looked around. They were some distance from the plaza, in the middle of a white snowland. The paths were extended out from the plaza, and they were headed towards a forest, a path people had walked upon.
Perhaps if they pried the snow apart, they could discover the path they took back then.
“If the river flows in that direction, and goes right up to this town, and if this side’s the town, the plaza is over there…”
While Kusla stated his thoughts, Phil nodded, and answered,
“Actually, the blast back then blew up the entire town, resulting in the land and the river flow changed permanently.”
“The river flow…?”
“It was said that when the town was destroyed in a single night, the river flow too changed.”
SInce he said so, this probably was the case.
Kusla however took some time to digest these words. An alchemist would be familiar with this, as he would use a water wheel for water treatment. One could imagine how dire it was.
And suddenly, he realized that the scale he knew of was different.
“And when I heard your words, Kusla, I did attempt to calculate.”
Phil’s words pulled Kusla’s thoughts back.
“We need a lot of land just to fill a belly-sized crate of sun fragments. If we need a hundred times of that, we probably won’t have enough land unless we bury corpses all over the town.”
“…So you mean the town was destroyed just to create enough corpses?”
The main ingredient for the fire herb was the white bear organ, buried underground and covered with ash.
The buried organs could probably be replaced with others.
“But that will defeat the purpose.”
Corpses were needed to create the fire herbs, and explosions were caused to create corpses, but this did not make sense. Of course, Kusla was joking.
However, he might have joked about it, wanting to distance himself from this matter at hand.
An explosion changed a river flow in a single night.
He was ashamed to say that he never expected that.
Frustrated by that, Kusla said loathsomely,
“Either way, we know once again that we need lots of energy. It seems to imply that there was quite some preparation that was done, and there had to be a reason for this.”
“Yes. Either way, the technology ties back to its aim. What were the Whites thinking?”
Phil muttered away, as though complaining that the Whites should have recorded down their acts in the history books.
“Oh yes. Are we at the ruins yet? We have walked quite a while.”
I’m not going to be intimidated by the legend, so Kusla thought as he asked Phil before him. The book merchant smiled slyly.
“We’re near. It’s just as the ancient theologians hated to say.”
The self-proclaimed book merchant loved to give some exposition.
“The reason why we can’t find God anywhere in this world is because we have not been educated on His appearance.”
Kusla frowned skeptically. Fenesis and Weyland too looked down incredulously. Irine tiptoed about, as though fearful that there were explosives buried underground.
Nevertheless, it was a trampled, flattened snow land.
“It’s all to the right.”
Upon hearing that, he turned aside to find a mere hill. The snow had turned everything white, and when viewed from afar, the slopes could not be noticed. Up close however, one could determine some gradient. One could either call it a hill or a gentle slope, but there was a flat arch straightened before him, and the path meandered with the slope.
“We’ll see it a little further down…ah, yes. It’s beyond this slope.”
There was a pile of snow in a corner of the gentle smile. Phil slapped the snow, and revealed a stone mound at waist height. They looked up the slope, and it appeared there were stairs at the base of the snow.
“This place is said to be a sacred place to the locals, a place where people feared and revered. The Northerners dared not approach this land because of the rumors they had. As Mr Cyrus said, they had proven that lighting fires here is safe, but he barely managed to convince them with all his efforts, and they allowed people to enter this place.”
Phil said as he checked for the stairs with his feet, scaling up. Kusla looked up the slope, and Weyland took a step first. Irine too followed warily, and Fenesis remained next to him.
“What is it?”
Kusla could not answer, for his mouth was agape. He would be a fool if his mouth was agape because of tension, and not the cold. The escorts who were tailing them slightly afar had caught up.
They asked earnestly, having sensed Kusla’s nervousness, and checked their surroundings warily, their hands on their hilts as they readied themselves into drawing the shields on their backs.
Of course, there were no enemies to be seen in the endless snow plain. There were merely tourists dragging their donkeys, strolling along, and hawk-like birds flying in the skies.
A few trails of smoke rose from the plaza, proving that there were people there. The one word to describe this scene in particular was ‘serene’.
Kusla however gasped, forced a smile, and shook his head.
“I have a premonition, maybe.”
The guards exchanged looks, and barely accepted this explanation. After all, the one they were guarding did enact a miracle.
Kusla’s eyes turned to the top of the slope once again. It was not steep in the slightest, and the height was probably double a person’s. Even the stout looking Phil could easily climb up; Weyland and Irine were almost at the top, but Kusla had a feeling there was something extraordinary. It was akin to opening an ancient lore at the workshop, in the middle of the night, the knowledge that by opening one page, the world would change completely. Of course, it was utter delight, a real joy to an alchemist
Surely it was because he was overly happy.
Kusla took a deep breath, took a step forward, and step by step, he advanced forth. His breathing became erratic, his strides lengthening.
Once she saw Kusla suddenly move forward, Fenesis hastily tried to give chase, but Kusla was in a trance-like state, and did not wait for her. He merely stared at the slope, and practically ran towards it.
No matter the journey, he would feel that once he reached his destination, everything would be within grasp.
Phil, Weyland and Irine arrived at the peak, and Kusla, who left a little later, arrived.
After two breaths, Fenesis too panted, having finally caught up. She slapped Kusla’s shoulder, complaining about how ambiguous he was being.
But after that, she could not say anything.
Or perhaps her words never entered Kusla’s ears.
For the sight before him was so extraordinary.
“I think I’m starting to understand why the tribes believe the Whites unleashed wrath upon this land.”
Phil’s words vanished along with the white breath in the wind.
He could no longer dismiss this rumor as a barbaric daydream of an undeveloped land.
It easily surpassed his imagination as a puny human. Such a supernatural phenomenon truly existed in this world.
Weyland’s feeble voice said everything. Entering their eyes was a massive crater, seemingly sucking people in. Their knees wobbled once they realized they were standing near the epicenter.
The power was large enough to change a river flow instantly. A large crater was created, and it was no wonder then that a town got destroyed.
The legend was too coincidental with reality.
Yet it seemed so surreal.
Was it really possible to do so? Was the cause of the massive disaster due to the fire herb they rediscovered? Could a technology harnessed by humanity really bring such an outcome?
Once he had such a thought, Kusla unwittingly looked back.
He looked down the slope, and clearly saw a few buildings scattered about, along with a barren plain.
He unwittingly gasped, for he finally understood the meaning of the land he had just leisurely walked through.
The Whites blew up the land, creating this crater, and blasted away everything that could be seen.
We’ll be disappointed seeing it for real, the brash words from him were met with a sneer from the bottom of the crater.
Were they deluded in thinking they could solve an extraordinary mystery?
The feelings started to spread in Kusla’s heart, and he was dumbfounded.
Was it fear?
How foolish, he gritted his teeth.
“Down from here, we can see the temple in the middle. Can you see it? Over there, at the enter of the crater.”
Phil’s words had Kusla reeling.
Fear of technology might be a privilege to the unknowing common folk.
“The temple is linked to an underground cave beneath it. We can’t see it clearly as there’s snow, but large rocks were moved here before they built this place.”
One could vaguely see a small lump of snow at the center of the crater, bare black rocks that remained uncovered. It was probably the entrance.
“It looks small, but it’s large enough for a person to enter.”
The size of the hole before them, along with the snow covering the land, made it difficult to gauge the distance.
It appeared the hole was bigger than they imagined.
“Shall we check the temple? Or do we prepare everything at the hut before─”
Before Phil could finish, Kusla took a step forward.
“How can we wait?”
He muttered in a trance, and went down the snow, soon teetering over. Weyland immediately gave chase, and the two alchemists kicked the snow, tumbling down towards the temple, suppressing the urge to yell how it was possible.
The only reason they could suppress the urge was because they felt that if they yelled at such an empty hole, they would once again realize how powerless they were. No matter how they flailed their hands and vented their frustrations, they could not seal nor expand this massive hole. It was as futile as firing an arrow into the sky. One had to wonder if humanity could change the world with its own power.
As an alchemist, he naively believed he could do anything like God, yet his conviction took a severe hit.
If there was anything of solace to him, it was that Weyland appeared to be the same. Another point was that the construct of the temple, which he abruptly realized once he stood before it.
Kusla panted, his shoulders heaving massively as he sized up the temple that was double his height, from bottom to top. As Phil said, it was a large temple made from stone, and there was a stone staircase at the entrance that would lead them underground. He would not be surprised if this temple was a tribune to a certain mountain deity residing deep in the mountain/ For the first time in his life however, Kusla realized that the stones were symbols of terror, the reverence of something of unknown origin.
The temple was not simply to worship the Whites as Gods. Cyrus had perfectly encapsulated the fear rooted in this land.
The large stones stacked together were not simply a symbol. They contained a hope that the unknown substance used to blast this town would never arise again.
Even after several generations, the people could not forget the tragedy that happened, and sealing them was a tragedy, secure, impregnable ‘lid’.
Kusla wanted to gulp, but he realized how parched his mouth was.
He originally believed the technology itself was not defined by good and evil.
But he personally realized then that the existence of a powerful force might be a form of evil.
For Kusla, who sought the sword of godly metal Orichalcum that was said to be capable of cleaving the land, he felt as though he had witnessed a truth, and was reminded of what he was truly seeking.
People would fear their technology, submit to it, and harbor excessive expectations, but they were all nonsense borne from their ignorance. He could not say these words however.
Once he personally witnessed this, he realized that this world truly contained technology that would render them such.
Kusla muttered, and inhaled a large gulp of air.
Were they angels or demons? Were they truly unique existences sent from God?
From the bottom of the hole, Kusla looked up at the clear skies..
A hawk slowly flew in circles above, probably to supervise these insolent people.