Episode 125 – Aged Food
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. There they find a green valley filled with wildlife and ruins of a village. They decide to take one day off to recuperate. Nelaira uses her day off to explore the ruins and finds a diary hidden inside a pillar. While picking herbs Luki finds a patch of land where a large quantity of ash is buried under the soil. He finds it suspicious but his comrades disagree.
* * *
“Let’s say that someone indeed buried the remains of a pyre here in the last 20 years. The question is, why would someone bother burying the ashes of a pyre?”
Aurel Iphis sighed, deciding that the sooner they started playing along, the sooner they would finish with this ridiculous conversation. “The only reason why someone would bother to bury the ashes would be either to hide them or because it was a part of some sort of ritual.”
“Or perhaps the ash was an eyesore?” The archeologist of the group grumbled.
“Right,” Nelaira nodded. “Let’s set the ritual aside for now. Why would someone want to hide the ashes?”
“To avoid leaving traces of their pyre? Perhaps what they did wasn’t right and proper, and they didn’t want others to find out about it?” Luki’s eyes glistened.
The archeologist with a monocle rolled his eyes. “Or perhaps they just thought that it would be better for the environment to bury it.”
Luki ignored him and continued adding more ideas to the mix. “Perhaps there was someone on their trail, and they wanted to wipe off all traces that they were there?”
“Any other ideas?” Nelaira glanced over the group, but this time no one spoke.
“Alright. So then, since the ashes were allegedly buried in the last 20 years, that would mean that either Zor’s expedition buried it or there are survivors in the forbidden zone.”
Luki nodded his head like a cluckling pecking rice.
Nelaira continued: “Personally, I think the pyre was used to burn the bodies of our fallen comrades. Zor’s expedition did have causalities and carrying dead bodies around would be impractical.”
Luki interrupted: “But weren’t causalities caused by the Tainted? Since this place is untainted, the encountered Tainted would have attacked them before they reached this place. I doubt Zor Arite would carry tainted bodies up the mountain and risk infecting the remainder of his squad.”
Silence descended onto the clearing.
“I still believe it the most likely that they had a celebration for finding this place and buried the ashes because they were unsightly.” The archeologist broke the silence.
He was ignored once again.
“Perhaps they encountered the tainted on their way up and hid inside the passage through the mountain? The tainted comrades were in bad shape but not dead yet, so he had no choice but to carry them along, unaware that he was carrying them towards an untainted place?” The redhead offered.
“Tainted comrades are a liability, not only would they slow down the exploration but they would also potentially infect more people. Purge Rule 5, Tainted comrades are to voluntarily leave the squad and abort the mission.” Luki rolled his eyes.
Nelaira gave Luki a strict look. “So, what you are suggesting is that either Zor’s expedition did some kind of strange ash burying ritual, burned the evidence of something they shouldn’t have done, or that there are survivors in the forbidden zone?”
Everyone sucked in a cold breath.
After disregarding the possibility of Zor Arite doing something shady (the man was known for his upright, frank and unyielding character), of the remaining two possibilities, the more likely one…
…could it be?
Could there really be survivors in the forbidden zone?
There had always been a possibility that the people in the Lands Under the Shield weren’t the only survivors of the Mage Wars. However, since there had never been any evidence to support otherwise, the Purge were more inclined to believe that there weren’t any survivors.
The forbidden zone was a place of death, a dangerous land not to be ventured into lightly. And everyone that had survived the calamity due to the sacrifice of Aegis Arite, should be eternally grateful for the existence of the Shield of Aegis and the safe haven under it.
If it turned out that long-term survival inside the forbidden zone was possible, that would change the public image of the forbidden zone from the barren land of death to the dangerous land of hidden treasure. Adventurers would be lining up to go into the forbidden zone, dreaming of finding priceless relics and striking it rich.
Saying that strict control of entry and exit was for the safety of everyone would no longer be as effective. Thus, the Arites and the Purge had been fighting against this change of viewpoint for centuries, making sure that only the Purge and related personnel were allowed out, so that any treasure found would belong to the Arite family.
Other noble families have been pressuring the Arite family for years, but since only the Arite family could control the Shield to allow entry and exit, and since there was no possibility of living in the dangerous lands outside, all other families could do was to suck it up and pay heavy fees if they wanted to take their own expeditions out and keep the found loot.
“Or it could just be a fire dragon.” Nelaira shrugged. “Personally, I wouldn’t go around talking about survivors without concrete evidence if I were you, Luki.”
The tense silence had lasted for several moments before it was once again broken by Nelaira’s calm voice. “Enough about this. Look at what I found.” Her eyes glittered as she pulled out a small leather-bound book.
* * *
Everyone was so thrilled about the little leather-bound diary, hoping to find some interesting research notes within, that all of them forgot about Luki’s ashes. Even Luki, while not quite forgetting about them, was quite intrigued by the small diary. Perhaps there would be some scandalous conspiracies inside?
Thus the archeologist of the group spent the remainder of the day with his nose inside the book, translating the contents of the diary to commonly used letters.
The language of the ancients wasn’t largely different from the current language. The most significant difference lay in the writing system. Ancients didn’t write words through a combination of letters, but instead, they had a unique symbol for each word. Due to this, they had a countless number of different runes, which made it difficult for the populace to learn how to read and write.
After the Lands Under the Shield were established, to make it easier to educate the commoners, the nobles came up with letters that represented different sounds and started writing out words how they were pronounced. Naturally, this caused the revolution of education and brought significant gains to the development of society.
While the archeologist was transcribing the diary into the new writing system and adjusting the sentence structure to be easier to understand, everyone else resumed doing what they were doing.
* * *
Nelaira continued her exploration for the remainder of the day, until she had visited almost every single building in the village. All that was left were several buildings on the outskirts.
She entered the ruined building, carefully watching her steps and sensing every crevice and rock, just like always. She spread her Morph into the ground also, in case the ground was unstable and shouldn’t be walked on or if there was a hidden compartment in the floor where ancients loved to stash their secrets.
Yet, this time, her exploration didn’t proceed as usual.
Her breath caught in her throat and her footsteps paused.
For she felt that the land underneath her feet…
Underneath this seemingly ordinary house, there was a cave, or perhaps a basement?
However, no matter how she felt around with her Morph, she couldn’t feel an entrance towards it. Grass and moss covered the stone tiles under her feet. There was no trap door, no enchanted artifact, nothing at all that could lead downwards.
Could it be that the cave was naturally formed?
She recast her Morph spell, specifically targeting the cave this time.
Soon enough, her senses revealed that this hollow space truly wasn’t a cave – it was a cellar. She could feel the stone tiles used to build it.
Yet, if it was man made why was there no…
And then it hit her.
The owner of this house must have been an elibu mage. He didn’t make a passage towards the basement because he didn’t need it. He would Morph himself a passage whenever he needed to go into it.
Perhaps he had something to hide in that little basement, and not having an entrance to it was one of the best ways to hide it.
Nelaira’s usual calm was replaced with excitement. Hidden areas were the most likely to yield treasure. Perhaps the owner of the house stored his finest possessions underground?
While architecture was what she liked the most, she wouldn’t say no to treasure. Every explorer who was in their right mind would be excited by the prospect of a hidden treasure trove.
Nelaira deliberated whether she should call for her comrades. After all, if this was indeed a treasure trove, it might be filled with dangerous traps. But then again, she couldn’t feel any magic when she swept the basement with her mind. How sophisticated and powerful could traps set by a villager to protect his basement be? Surely, they wouldn’t be powerful enough to last for more than a millennium.
Besides, it would be very disappointing if she called all her comrades only to find the cellar empty of treasure.
In the end, Nelaira decided to check it out on her own. Just in case, she placed a signal flare on the floor next to her and set it to go off in half an hour if she failed to return from the cellar. That way, even if some misfortune came her way, her comrades would come rescue her immediately.
Nelaira positioned herself above the place where she had felt a staircase going from the ceiling of the cellar to the floor. The owner probably used this same position to descend into the basement. Nelaira did the same, shifting the rock and dirt away and creating a tunnel downwards towards the staircase.
What met her eyes was blackness so deep that she doubted even argel would be able to see what waited for her inside. Naturally, she wouldn’t descend into the darkness just like that. She sent her mana flowing into the tunnel and the cellar, conjuring several balls of light to dispel the blackness.
As the light warmly caressed the insides of the tunnel, it was revealed to Nelaira’s eyes. The stairs were covered by small spider webs; evidently, they had not been used for a long time.
Nelaira conjured flames around the stone staircase to clear the web and allow her passage further into the cellar. The flame tongues devoured the silky white strings greedily, spreading towards the webs deeper in, eating them up in a single instant.
As she descended into the now well-lit cellar, she had to shield her eyes from the glitter that almost blinded her. For a moment, her heart skipped a beat, hoping she ran into a pile of platinum coins. However, her heart quickly settled down – it was just a reflection from the many glass jars placed on the shelves.
From the ceiling of the room hung several large dried hams while the floor was littered with tightly packed wine barrels. The walls of the room were covered with shelves which were filled with various pots and jars.
There was simply nothing of value there.
The place was just a normal cellar.
Still, Nelaira didn’t want to miss anything, so she carefully inspected the whole cellar, including the contents of barrels, pots, and jars. Perhaps there would be something of value within? Some kind of magical ingredient that might be able to last for a millennium without spoiling?
Alas, there was no alchemic ingredients there at all. Clearly, the owner of the cellar was not a member of a crafting profession.
The pots contained cheese and the jars contained dried fruit.
The wine barrels were filled with what seemed to be plum wine.
Would wine this old still be drinkable? Nelaira wondered.
She walked for a few more steps before she froze, her pupils widening. This…old?
Quickly, she backtracked towards the pots and jars and stared at their contents in wonder.
If this village was destroyed in the Great Mage Wars, it would mean that all this food was more than fourteen hundred years old!
How come that the dried fruit was still quite recognizable? It looked a bit old, but still edible?
How come the cheese looked like…cheese? A bit dry and hard, but still very…cheesy?
Coming up in the next episode:
Nelaira almost dropped the expensive apparatus half from the shaking of her hands, half from the sudden weakness in her limbs.
“Look, look! It’s the translation of the diary you found.”
He had figured out that he shouldn’t expect any grandchildren from my sister due to her gift, so all his hopes are resting on me.
I told the old fart that that rule is stupid. Everyone should be able to leave wherever they want whenever they want. If they get themselves killed or Tainted, that’s their problem.
Luki erupted in giggles before she could finish her sentence. “Are you suggesting that Zor and his squad made cheese and wine during their brief stay here?”