Episode 123 – Mountain Valley Sanctuary
While writing a letter to her fiance, Nelaira thinks about the events that led to her current predicament. She remembers how her squad of ten found a hidden entrance to a long staircase climbing through the mountain, first discovered by Zor Arite.
* * *
The blonde-black haired man scratched his head in resignation. “I hate to admit it, but he has a point. There might be an artifact out there that keeps the dead bound to this world.”
Laica Iphis, the redhead, beamed, her mouth spread into a smug smile. “Exactly. Ghosts could exist.”
The argel with a monocle looked at the redhead disbelievingly. “You can’t be serious? Even if minds of mortals could remain after their death, we wouldn’t be able to see them, hear them or feel them. They could be right in front of us and we wouldn’t see any signs of their existence nor would they be able to perceive us. A mind without a vessel is a meaningless existence. Ghosts that you speak of are but a myth.”
Luki Eryey, the pink haired man, frowned and rubbed his chin in thought. “But what if minds of the deceased could possess a living person, taking over their body and soul?” His eyes lit up, and he pointed his finger upwards. “What if the Arite family is making the spirits of their ancestors possess the younger generation and that’s why all Arites are so talented?”
This time the entire group of comrades looked at him strangely, after all, everyone here was working for the Arite family. His words would be considered rude and insolent if they weren’t just too much of a joke to be considered as slander.
Used to the strange ideas constantly running through the pink-haired man’s head, no one got agitated or took offense. Though the argel man with the monocle did have the ugliest expression of the bunch as he spat out: “Impossible. The mind would be incompatible with another’s body and soul. They would mutually reject each other. Mind and body need to be birthed from the same seed of life to be compatible. And the soul needs to be the one gifted to the person by the Origin.”
The pink haired man opened his mouth again to respond, however, before any words could leave his throat, Nelaira slapped him on the back of his head. “More work, less nonsense.”
The pink haired man rubbed the back of his head with a pout and mumbled under his breath. “I’m a healer…if you want to give me work to do, push someone down the stairs.”
Nelaira’s long ears twitched, and she put up her fist threateningly: “If I were to push someone, you’d be on the top of the list.”, though the threat of her action was sabotaged by the mirth glittering in her eyes and the smirk playing at the corners of her lips.
The pink haired man rose his hands up in surrender: “Ah! Lieutenant, what happened to section 32 of the Purge handbook – ‘protect the healer’?”
The only answer he got was the laughter of his comrades.
* * *
When the ten finally reached the top of the stairs, they were almost blinded by the bright red light of the setting sun. The stairs had taken them above the clouds, where the sky was red and clear. Where sunlight was warm, and the air was fresh and sweet.
What greeted their sight was a small green valley surrounded by mountain peaks on all four sides. The soft red rays of the sunset made the valley glow like a scene from a fairy tale.
Here and there, one could see dilapidated stone buildings protruding from the earth, covered in vines and moss. Strangely, the vines and moss didn’t make the buildings look shabby at all, on the contrary, combined with the delicate shapes and carvings sculpted into every inch of the stone, it gave them an otherworldly, ancient charm.
The stone pathways were also covered with sculpted decorations, although they could barely be seen under the overgrown grass and flowers swaying in the breeze, spreading as far as the eyes could see. Among the foliage one could occasionally see fluttering wings of night butterflies glimmering in the red light.
Further into the valley, one could even see herds of wild meep, that looked like large, multicolored cotton balls with large, silky curls of wool and spiraling circular horns protruding from the sides of their head.
With their long furry tails wrapped around branches, brown striped zuzels hung from the trees upside down, stuffing fruits and nuts into their mouth with their thin little fingers. As they nibbled on their dinner, their large beady eyes and huge fluffy ears remained alert in case there was a sneaky vulpy hiding in the bushes.
Tranquility, awe, and satisfaction could be felt in the air as the ten slowly strode between the ruins. With rosy cheeks and bright eyes, they surveyed their green surroundings.
The black skinned scout spread his mana sense, carefully probing the surroundings for any potential threat. Even though this place was supposed to be untainted, he was still very attentive, ready to retract his mind at the first sign of Ink. He also weaved a thin, intricate web of mana in the air, activating a Morph to feel the presence of any creatures capable enough to hide from his mana sense.
Their logistic officer was looking for a good spot to set camp while recounting their remaining rations and deciding what’ll be on the dinner menu.
The archeologist of the group, the middle-aged man with the monocle was paying more attention to the stone decorations than where they were going.
The pink haired man, who was the healer of the group, was looking at the herbs growing around, searching for anything of medicinal value.
The remaining six members of the Purge, including Nelaira, vigilantly spread out with weapons in hand, ready to strike at the first sign of danger.
The squad of ten proceeded on carefully, debris crunching under their boots with every other step.
“What do you think happened to these people?” The redhead broke the silence.
“The village probably got destroyed in the Great Mage Wars.” Her husband shrugged.
“If you ask me, this place is so secluded from the outside world that it wouldn’t be a wonder if the War missed it, not to mention that the place so deep in the mountains would be very difficult to attack…” The pink haired man mused. “And even if it did get destroyed, why wasn’t it rebuilt after the war? A place such as this would have been an untainted safe haven, a sanctuary for the survivors.”
“Perhaps after the outbreak of Ink, there was no one left who remembered the existence of this place?” A tall argel with a green-orange crewcut guessed. “Or the journey back was too dangerous?”
The ten made their way towards a wide, flat meadow in the middle of the ruins. The place probably used to be a village square because there was a beautiful long dried out fountain in the middle.
“The area is secure.” Declared the black skinned scout.
Nelaira nodded in satisfaction. “Good. Let’s rest here for the night.”
As soon as her words fell, the remaining people sprung into action, displaying their practiced teamwork in setting up camp.
Two argel men used their sharp blades to cut off the grass in their vicinity, revealing the stone tiles underneath. The husband of the redhead procured some wood, while his wife set up a campfire.
The scout and a female comrade tracked down and caught a wild meep that strayed from the herd. Their logistic officer started preparing parts of it for dinner with the help of the pink haired healer who offered up his medicinal herbs as spices. The herbs not only enhanced the taste but also helped keep the ten in optimal physical and mental condition through the long voyage.
The two also condensed fresh water for drink and made the nearest argel comrade set up a temperature enchantment that would keep the remainder of the meep cold. They even Morphed the bones of the meep to cover the meat with a thin layer of bone as if it was skin. It isolated the meat from the air and shielded it from bugs and bacteria. There was enough meat on the meep to last them for days, so they ensured it didn’t spoil.
While the rest of her comrades were working, Nelaira sat next to the fire, recording the previous day into her diary with the help of her corporal, the middle-aged argel with a monocle. The leaders of Purge squads were required to keep a diary of their exploration so that their discoveries wouldn’t get lost in case of their death. The diaries they were given were magical artifacts that would transmit written text to a linked diary that was securely kept inside the Purge Headquarters.
This way the leadership of the Purge could not only check the progress of the exploration but also pass orders to the expedition through the other diary. And in case the bodies of the squad needed to be retrieved in the future (due to them finding something valuable), the Purge would know where to start looking.
* * *
As everyone was seated around the campfire, eating their portions of the freshly grilled meep meat, Nelaira swallowed down a bite and spoke up: “Everyone,”
Her colleagues all stopped what they were doing and looked up.
“Tomorrow we’ll take a day off to rest and recuperate. You can enjoy the scenery or explore the ruins. Previous exploration reports say there aren’t any traps or hidden dangers in this place. But just in case, those that can’t hold their own in a fight should take along someone else who can.” She gave a meaningful look at Luki, the pink haired man, who often forgot his surroundings when he was busy picking herbs.
“While there shouldn’t be any Tainted around, there might be some dangerous wildlife, so you shouldn’t relax your guard.” Nelaira took another mouthful of the meat before continuing. “The day after tomorrow we will be heading north. The northern exit of this valley connects directly to the Valley of Eternal Snow. When Zor Arite found this place, he didn’t proceed further to the north, so we don’t know what to expect in the Valley of Eternal Snow. Be prepared to fight against Tainted at any time.”
“Understood.” Everyone nodded in affirmation, Luki even added solemnly: “Indeed. Constant vigilance is in order. We should keep our eyes and ears wide open and search it thoroughly. Who knows how many ruins are buried under the snow.”
The serious atmosphere was instantly broken with a burst of uproarious laughter.
“Constant vigilance? When have you ever been vigilant?”
“If you kept your eyes and ears wide open you wouldn’t have free time to come up you’re your countless ridiculous conspiracy theories!”
“It’s because I keep my eyes and ears wide open that I can connect the dots and find out things others have missed.” Luki self justifiedly declared.
“When have you ever cared about ruins? Plants are all that gets your blood pumping!”
“What ruins? You just want to search for that mythical flower that’s supposed to grow there!”
Luki shrugged his shoulders nonchalantly in response. “So what? Imagine how magical that flower must be if an entire mountain range was named after it. Also,” He smirked. “You’re wrong. My pretty little wife also gets my blood pumping.” As if to prove his point he brought out a folded picture out of his pocket. “See how many kids I have?”
The uproarious laughter continued to revibrate through the valley for a long, long time, startling all creatures in the vicinity of the village square.
* * *
On paper, the main purpose of the Purge was to keep the Lands Under the Shield safe and explore the forbidden zone, but honestly speaking, what the leaders cared the most about was the discovery of new spells and powerful relics.
Yet, what interested Nelaira the most, as a person who grew up in a family of architects, was naturally ancient architecture.
Thus, it was only natural that she chose to spend her day off exploring the ruins of the village.
She slowly strolled around the wrecked stone buildings constantly casting her Morph spell on them to feel every crevice and shape sculpted into the stones.
Her stroll brought her up to the hill overlooking the village. Although little remained of the building on top of the hill, one could still tell that it used to be the largest and the most luxurious one. Someone important must have lived there.
Nelaira’s eyes glittered as she inspected the exquisite architecture with her Morph. She tried to picture just how much of an eye candy this building used to be. It must have been awe-inspiring, glorious!
Her breath hitched as she was kicked out of her revery by a flaw inside an exquisitely carved pillar.
The sense granted to her by her Morph spell detected an anomaly. An object stuck inside the stone.
Someone had Morphed something inside the pillar!
- I don’t put in false clues as in false information. I just sometimes express clues in a way that is easily misunderstood or vague so you don’t figure everything out too early. Or the characters don’t know the full truth about something yet so their thoughts are naturally not the actual truth.
- Chapters. Are. Not. Getting. Shorter. They are all the same length. All. Of. Them.
- Zuzel looks close to this:
- Meep look close to this:
When a meep sleeps, it retracts its head and legs back into the ball, and you can only see a large ball of wool. Meep wool is usually soft as cotton but very resilient (because a meep uses its ball of wool to shield itself from harm). The head of the meep is small with large round eyes without eye whites. They have large curly horns that are quite hard but because of their gentle nature, meep rarely use them. The legs of the meep are short, and you can’t see them unless you pay extra attention. It basically looks like a large ball of wool (with a small head) is moving.They can cast a spell to make their wool more elastic which can turn them into bouncing rubber balls. It is actually used to reflect attacks of enemies. They can also cause their wool to vibrate in a specific way to get the dirt off and untangle the hair.
Coming up in the next episode:
Luki turned towards his escort. “Hey, could you mow down the lawn?” His companion stared at him dumbfoundedly. “You want me to do what??”
“What happened here?” “A fire dragon probably burped.”
“There might be survivors! A land we don’t know of!”
But if the war didn’t destroy this place… what did?