“Are you saying that you stayed here during the entire active period?”
“Only for this period?”
“It has been a few years.”
Even though Kasser remained silent, his glare towards Adrit grew heated. To him, it was infuriating that such an evil omen smeared the kingdom’s sacred grounds with its presence. Meanwhile, Eugene continued to ask more questions.
“The Holy Land is vast — if you’d only returned across the lake, you would have not been caught.”
“I did not think anyone would be there.”
Eugene then understood the situation.
‘He hid before even seeing the visitors.’
If Adrit had lived in the Holy Land for the last few years, he would have known that the King visits during the start of the dry season. At this time, the King would have already gone back after the ritual. However, they had arrived late due to increased group size and the sandstorm. Adrit would have then been caught by surprise, mistakingly catching a warrior’s sharp eye.
“I heard that your people do not stay in one place.”
“Then, have you broken your people’s rules?”
“No, as our people are allowed to stay in a shelter we discover during the active period.”
“A place where larks do not come to — we call them shelters.”
“They do not come, even in the active period?”
Eugene glanced at Kasser, wondering if he knew this. His expression showed that it was the first time he had heard such a thing. Even if Adrit were telling the truth, there was no way to confirm this as the King visited the Holy Land right before the dry period started in the past. Kasser broke his silence, asking Adrit his first question.
“Why the name shelters?”
“A shelter is known as the domain of a strong lark. There are larks that only stay within their territory, and weaker ones do not come near the boundaries.”
Kasser murmured in surprise, “A hwansu…”
A lark that did not come out of their territory was similar to a hwansu. As a rite of passage, the heir to the throne would hunt a hwansu for this very behavior. The kingdom created a search party for a hwansu right after the heir was born, selecting a few possible places where a hwansu might be after over a decade of research. Then, the hunt for a hwansu began once the prince turned thirteen.
A prince couldn’t return within a year, an unthinkable feat without prior investigation over a long period. Kasser, deeming this endless, ended the interrogation and called Sven.
“Take him away and observe him. Keep him secured unless I order otherwise.”
As Adrit was dragged out of the tent, a voice was heard from outside.
“Your Highness, we have finished preparations for your departure.”
Before Adrit was brought in, Kasser had already given orders for departure after the interrogation. He thought the Queen would want to see a wanderer out of curiosity. He knew that must leave now to avoid delay. However, the current circumstances made him feel uneasy. While there had been no problems during the visits to the Holy Land, there would be great danger if the hwansu recognized humans as a threat.
“Stay on standby.”
“Yes, Your Highness.”
Kasser turned to Eugene with a mixed expression. She had been wondering over Adrit’s words — “He was not telling lies.”
“Since when has the Holy Land been a hwansu’s domain?”
“I do not know. Maybe we should come here during the active period…”
The King and Anika’s ability to sense larks did not work during the dry period. Hwansus hid their auras during the dry period, as the larks stayed dormant at this time. Eugene stared at Abu, its strange aura as a lark disappearing after the dry period started. It looked like an ordinary animal, except for the red horn and red eyes. It seemed to retain its past habits of instinctively controlling its aura to protect its domain, even after becoming the King’s hwansu. After observing Abu, she realized something.
“Your Highness, larks show their superiority to one another through physical size.”
“He spoke of a strong lark, which has to be of a large size. Is there a place where such a creature can hide in secret nearby?”
After a brief silence, the pair looked at each other and spoke at the same time.
Walking around the capital of the Hashi Kingdom, Pides continued to gathered information for a few days – listening in on the talks of pubs and rumors of storytellers he had bought with coin. There were two main topics the people of six kingdoms spoke of: the life and trends of those who lived in the Holy City, and the royal family. While it was difficult to distinguish unfounded rumors among the real ones, he found that the ones most often mentioned were valuable enough to be remembered, even if they were to be false.
However, trivial matters tend to be ignored once the people focused on a single topic, and Pides saw and heard only the same story for the last few days. There was a large crowd gathered around the Lark Tree, and Pides observed it amongst the people. He had already gone here the first day he had of it. He came to see it once more before leaving.
‘Is it true that a lark turned into a tree?’
Pides did not know how much of the rumors were true, since they were so exaggerated. He had snickered when he heard that the lark turned to a tree after Queen Anika shouted at it to turn into one. However, the absurdity was too much for it to be a publicity tool for the royal family, meaning the tree would have either been from a seed or a lark.
‘Even if the tree was a seed, how can such a big tree grow overnight?’
He could not fathom the class of one’s Ramita to make such a feat possible. The only Lark Tree Pides saw was the old tree in the plaza, and while he had no other examples to compare it with, the tree was out of the ordinary. However, he could not understand how it had been Jin Anika who had performed this miracle.
‘Was Jin Anika’s Ramita of this magnitude?’
While the Anikas’ Ramita classes were kept secret, it was not a well-protected one. Information guessing one’s classes spread through various routes. People who stumbled upon such information would know of others’ Ramita levels. While the Anikas’ awakening dreams were not known in specifics, it was possible to line up Anikas according to their Ramita classes.
‘The rumors regarding Jin Anika’s Ramita classes were divided into two.’
People thought differently about Jin Anika’s Ramita, some thought of her as weak, while others deemed her as strong as Flora. The majority leaned on the former, as Jin Anika had not performed acts that would show her Ramita class. Since Jin liked to show off, people said she could not boast since she had nothing to begin with.
‘If the Lark Tree is true… the rumors of her being weak would be false.’
Pides had already started for the Holy City, his business already finished. However, he changed his mind after about half a day. It would take him more than ten days to arrive at his destination, even if he rode at full speed the entire time, and so Pides decided that information regarding the Lark Tree was important.
He changed routes to visit the Homing Bird Management Center. He summarized the important information he gathered and send an urgent message to the Holy City using a bird, which Sang-je would receive in a few days.
After the preparations for departure had been finished, the royal couple had gone into a path towards the lake with only a hwansu. While no one was able to oppose, Eugene thought that everyone was probably flabbergasted. There was only one path that made the lake easily accessible, made with flattened rock tiles. Still, even with no one to take care of the road, the thick rocks formed an adequate path amidst the wildly growing plants.
They soon arrived at the lake. A floating wooden structure was noticeable, made like a dock to maintain a freshwater supply, with a pulley attached to scoop out water. They walked towards the edge of the structure, and Abu followed them while looking around.
“Even if there’s a lake, it’s in the middle of a desert. Why was the kingdom based here?”
“It is said that this lake was much larger in ancient times and that the desert had not been this barren.”
“Quite the barren land it is now.”
Eugene looked down, and the bottom was deeper than she could see from the structure.
“Do you a hwansu would be here?”
“I don’t know.”
“Your highness,” Eugene put out her hand, looking at Kasser. “Give them to me, and I’ll try.”
“I think that it’s a better idea for me to come here again during the active period,” Kasser said.
“That would take months.”
“We can wait.”
“But I’m too curious.”
“How can you be so reckless,” he grumbled, “when we don’t know what hwansu will come out?”
“If it were antagonistic to people, the visitors would have been attacked already,” she said, reaching out her hand once again, “Hurry.”
Eugene shook her hand out towards him. She had thought of making the hwansu come out using her Ramita, even before coming to the lake, and had immediately convinced Kasser. However, she did not know how to activate her Ramita without using a seed or a lark as a medium. Kasser had some seeds he had brought as feed for his hwansu, and she was now asking him to give them to her. Kasser took out a pouch with a scowl, as he had only agreed to Eugene’s idea because a lark would not attack her as an Anika. He took out the seeds wrapped in a thin cloth and placed them on Eugene’s palm.
Eugene was about to uncover them, but just wrapped her hands around the seeds and closed her eyes. She concentrated, pooling her power into them, and then opened her hands in surprise when she felt a warm aura from her palms.
Eugene closely observed the process as it was the first time that she had made seeds blossom. The small seeds on her palm wiggled and a long sprout shot up between the thin cloth. The sprout rose above her eye level, and her gaze went up as she followed the stem.
Eugene felt a strange sensation that gave her goosebumps all over her body. She looked at the lake as Kasser called to Abu while pulling her back in an embrace. Kasser stepped back with Eugene still in his arms and raised his Praz to the maximum level. His pupils grew narrow as it shined blue, and a blue snake appeared around him like a haze. Abu ran in front of them with his fur upright and snarled. The calm surface of the lake began to shake, and waves started to appear as the movement grew stronger.
And then, with a whirlpool in its wake, a towering creature surged above the surface.