Episode 127 – Valley of Eternal Snow
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. 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. Nelaira stumbles onto a hidden cellar in the ruins of the village that contains food that is 16 years old. Nelaira gives their archaeologist the diary to translate. The writer of the diary is the village chief’s son and he talks about his life. It seems the diary was written after the mage wars, which makes everyone wonder what destroyed the village if not the wars.
* * *
Luki smiled eerily. “Why is it that this food stash hadn’t been visited for years? What happened to the survivors? In fact, how come we didn’t find any living quarters? Where did they eat and sleep? How was this village destroyed in the first place?”
“Here it comes…” Nelaira sighed helplessly.
“What if these ruins…” Luki’s voice lowered mysteriously. “Aren’t as ancient as we thought?”
Before anyone could interrupt his speech, Luki pointed his finger towards the sky and declared. “In fact, what if this village was destroyed…sixteen years ago? What if Zor Arite was pursued by a herd of Tainted and unwittingly brought them here?”
He gazed into the eyes of his comrades one by one, only to be met with stupefaction, annoyance, and skepticism. “What if they fiercely fought to kill the Tainted and then hurriedly burned their corpses and affected foliage on a large pyre to prevent the Ink from spreading?”
Luki smirked knowingly. “Of course higher ups wouldn’t want that story to spread. It would tarnish Zor Arite’s illustrious name.”
Nelaira didn’t even bother to point out the many flaws that could be found in Luki’s ridiculous theory. Instead, she turned towards her remaining comrades and murmured: “I’ll report our findings to the higher ups and await orders. You should keep this confidential. I don’t want any rumors of survivors to spread once we return.”
* * *
Unsurprisingly, once Nelaira reported her findings and desire to investigate this village further, her request was denied. Their superiors wanted them to proceed towards the Valley of Eternal Snow.
This all but confirmed that their superiors wanted to pretend that there were never any survivors here in the first place. Whether they were already aware of potential survivors back when Zor discovered this place or if the information was new to them, Nelaira couldn’t tell.
Unfortunately, the decision of their superiors only served to increase the intensity of Luki’s conspiracy theories. Soon enough even the most resilient ones among his comrades couldn’t be bothered to argue with him anymore. Which says something, considering how boring the journey was.
The Valley of Eternal Snow wasn’t actually a valley but an endless snowy plain to the north of the mountain. Besides snow and ice, there was nothing else there. Even wind and clouds avoided this tranquil place.
It wasn’t that the Valley of Eternal Snow wasn’t beautiful, on the contrary, the light refracted and reflected in strange ways creating rainbows and bathing everything in a soft glow. The snow glittered under the sun like it was made from white glitterdust. It was so soft and crunchy under their boots that it brought them a strange satisfaction with each step.
Ice crystals could be seen spread around the flatlands like flowers, so translucent and beautiful that when the ten initially saw them, they were fooled into thinking they’ve discovered a new type of precious crystal.
But after days of gazing into nothing but endless whiteness as far as the eyes could see, it was enough to make everyone grow tired of it.
Luckily, there were no signs of Tainted, or anything else, for that matter, living or dead, in this snowy wasteland, much to Luki’s disappointment. He kept frantically searching the horizon for a trace of red, hoping to find that mythical plant that was said to grow in this valley.
Nelaira was familiar with the story of the flower for her fiancé had mentioned it to her a few years back. Supposedly, it was some kind of a tragic love story, Zor Arite brought back in his expedition, about a goddess who got separated from her lover in this valley.
After getting forever separated from her lover goddess flooded the valley with her tears of grief. The warmth of her love turned into icy coldness that froze the flooded valley into never-melting crystal and snow, turning the once lush green valley into white flatlands. She bled out into the snow, her divine blood coalescing and turning into a crimson red flower that never withered.
And thus, the Valley of Eternal Snow came to be. A place where there was no wind, snow, or rain. A place always bathing in the warm sunlight yet it remained eternally covered in never melting snow.
Such a magical, serene place was naturally a perfect spot to build a shrine, which is exactly what the people of the old did. They built several shrines and temples from crystal worshiping the goddess, where they often came to meditate, pay their respects and utter their prayers. They even extended their worship to the flower, naming the entire mountain range after it.
Not many have ever seen this flower though. Supposedly it revealed itself only to those that it found worthy. Which is to say that the flower was probably just an urban legend – a plant that didn’t really exist.
Still, convincing Luki that it was just a myth was a futile effort. No one even bothered.
* * *
All of their days were the same.
If Nelaira didn’t keep a diary of their expedition, they would have long lost count of the days spent trying to cross the snowy plain.
Initially, they intended to search every corner for ruins buried under the snow, but when confronted by the sheer size of the plans with no end in sight, it became evident that it would take decades to search the entire snowy flatland. And that’s under the assumption that they had enough food to survive that long. Which, as they soon realized, was a faulty assumption.
They had prepared plenty of food before stepping into the valley, but now, all their preparations seemed awfully insufficient. With every passing day, their food reserves diminished with no way to replenish them. If they didn’t reach the other end of the plains soon, they would have to decrease their food intake, and going hungry was certainly not a way to make this entire trip more bearable.
What did make it more bearable, however, was the stream of translated diary entries their archaeologist kept pumping out every night before sleep.
There was nothing particularly interesting about the diary but due to the lack of better entertainment it was worth its weight in gold. If the ten were told that at one point in their expedition they would find the lives of villagers exciting, they would have thought it was a hilarious joke. Yet right now, they couldn’t laugh at this joke at all.
This mundane diary portrayed a life that one would expect from a villager, which while a bit less advanced, wasn’t all that different from the lives of villagers in the Lands under the Shield. They used the same basic magic spells, raised the same species of plants and animals and dined on the same food.
Of course, there were minor cultural differences, such as their tendency to name their children by the names of mundane objects and plants, but nothing too major so far.
Unfortunately, that kind of ‘far’ wasn’t nearly far enough into the future.
The change came too abruptly on a seemingly mundane, tranquil night.
And it wasn’t just the story in the diary that took a sudden unexpected turn, even the ten would soon experience a turning point…
* * *
Cammy heard them coming.
She claimed they had no bad intentions and their numbers were few – just several dozens, but father still gathered up everyone who could fight to wait for them at the exit of the passage, just in case the peaceful welcome didn’t proceed as planned.
Unfortunately, in the village this small, gossip spread faster than a wildfire. Soon enough everyone knew that we were about to receive unannounced visitors. Unable to restrain their curiosity, both young and old, those that could walk and those that couldn’t – everyone came out to see what the fuss was about.
Father was worried that the visitors would be intimidated by the overly “warm” welcome and tried to disperse the crowd to no avail. It wasn’t any day that outsiders came to our village. In fact, if our history books were to be believed, there had been no visitors to our place since the wars ended.
Luckily, the outsiders weren’t the timid sort. They weren’t even astonished by the welcome. Which wasn’t surprising in the least, because they could probably hear the commotion and excitement from a mile away…
Their four leaders were surprisingly young, but the sheer dignity and charisma oozing out of them was something not a single person from our village could compare with. Even their men looked like experts, exuding an innate air of power.
Their group had both argel and elibu with all kinds of exotic shades of hair and eye colors that had not appeared in our village for a long time. Naturally, that caused all single males and females in the village to look at them with a heated gaze, like hungry lupaxes seeing a fresh piece of meat.
I wish I could blame them for their inappropriate behavior, but that would be quite hypocritical of me. Their leaders were incredibly beautiful, so much so that some of the villagers thought they were incarnations of gods.
There was a female among them that…well… let’s just say that I would be lying if I said I wasn’t moved by her beauty and demeanor.
They said that they came from a place without Ink. A utopia, a huge piece of fertile land where Ink had never stretched its nasty tendrils.
Truthfully, such a place sounded too perfect to be true. Even though Cammy ensured me that they weren’t lying, I still couldn’t bring myself to believe that such a place truly existed.
Others were too thrilled at the prospect of us not being the only survivors to take my skepticism seriously. The outsiders were friendly and polite, thus we welcomed them with open arms. In fact, we showed them our finest hospitality by throwing a village wide celebration in their honor.
We brought out our finest food and drinks. The dancers, led by Cammy, even put up a show of magic. They sang, glowed, flew and twirled with fire. I don’t remember we ever had such a lavish party.
The visitors very much enjoyed the dance, if the ogling eyes they directed towards my sister was any indication.
* * *
Unable to contain her excitement anymore, Laica jumped to her feet, slapping Nelaira with her red hair in the process. “There might be another land of survivors out there that we don’t know about!”
She broke out in a wide smile, grinning ear to ear as she giggled triumphantly: “Is this enough proof that there are indeed survivors in the forbidden zone?” She gave a side glance to their archaeologist comrade.
He deemed it beneath him to give her a proper look and just added offhandedly. “It’s not like this happened yesterday. Such survivors might have already been wiped out by the Ink.”
“It is certainly possible that there is an untainted land we are unaware of out there…” Nelaira spoke up, giving Laica a side glance telling her to calm down. “…but… we shouldn’t get our hopes up this easily. These visitors could very well be from the Lands under the Shield. When our lands were in the process of being established, the entry and exit weren’t so strictly regulated as it is now. Perhaps some of the people left back then to search for survivors and invite them inside the Shield. These mentioned outsiders could very well be our ancestors.”
The archeologist was quick to nod his head approvingly. His nod froze midway when Nelaira turned to him with a questioning look: “When was this diary written?”
“I’m not sure when it was written.” The middle-aged man with the monocle admitted. “The dates are from the year 1430 A.O. However, I don’t know what A.O. stands for, thus I can’t calculate the year in A.W. (After Wars).”
“Can’t you use the agometer to measure how old the diary is?” Laica suggested.
Agometer was an arcane magical artifact enchanted to use a time spell fragment to sense the age of particles. It could accurately sense when that specific particle was created, however, it couldn’t tell what form that particle took through the ages.
Coming up in the next episode:
“Who would welcome several dozen potentially Tainted individuals inside their sanctuary just like that? Don’t tell me they forgot to check them for the presence of Ink?”
They were surprised at how many marriages of mixed races we have in the village. Apparently, in the place where they are from argel and elibu rarely marry.
They said we are blessed to have so many mana purification artifacts in our possession.
Those two now share heated gazes and hold hands whenever no one is looking. They also sneak out alone every night and return only at dawn.
And this time her conscience just didn’t let her put the matter to rest. A weak and quiet voice that sounded incredibly like Luki whispered at the back of her mind: Why? Why do they want it destroyed so badly? What is it that they wish to hide?