Draped in a cloak of deep black, Eugene navigated her path with a cautious grace, her eyes flickering across her surroundings. The notion that the distance between the greenhouse and the rear entrance wasn’t extensive held true only within Dana’s frame of reference. It essentially meant that it was a shorter trek compared to the grand entrance, which demanded a considerable amble from the carriage.
Anxiety seemed to stretch the space, making it far vaster than during her initial survey. The gentle presence of the little one resting on her shoulder offered solace. It implied that the sensitivities of a keen beast wouldn’t detect any lurking presence.
The attendant entrusted with monitoring the rear door’s activity reported encountering knights frequently over the past couple of days. Thus, a window of opportunity likely existed now.
It seems they’re effectively diverting the knights’ focus, Eugene thought.
Given Dana’s recruitment of individuals skilled in rhetoric and the dramatic arts, this endeavor wasn’t amateurish by any measure. The assistance of the Fire King might also be proving invaluable.
Eugene hastened her pace, heart reverberating in her chest. A sudden apprehension of being seized from behind gripped her. Upon finally reaching the rear entrance, her clenched fist was damp with cold sweat.
With a quick scan confirming her solitude, she raised her gaze to the colossal iron portal towering over her by twice her height. The rear door served its purpose only when essential items required transport to the manor. Lately, its use had surged due to forthcoming receptions, yet its typical frequency of opening was about once every ten days.
Today, they had deliberately left the door unlocked. Despite this, Eugene struggled to budge it. The weighty iron barrier remained immovable, even when she pressed her entire body against it. However, at her side stood an aide imbued with the strength of four grown men
“Little one, unlock the door, please.”
The little one descended from Eugene’s form to the floor. As it shivered all over, an unusual expansion unfolded, like a balloon being inflated. The squirrel, once finger-sized, instantaneously transformed into a creature almost as large as the giant rat Eugene had previously encountered.
Even though they’re the same species… Why are rats creepy while squirrels are cute?
Musing over this peculiar query, Eugene watched as the little one thrust its head against the unyielding iron door, summoning its inner strength. With gradual deliberation, the door began to slide backward. When an opening substantial enough for a person emerged, Eugene wasted no time and slipped through the gap.
The miniaturized little one contorted itself to slip through the same breach, then reverted to its expansive size, using its newfound mass to gently seal the ajar door. The iron barrier resettled, appearing as though it were bolted. Through prior repetitions of this maneuver, the process unfolded swiftly.
“Well done,” praised Eugene. “Let’s go.”
Eugene reached out her hand toward the little companion. The squirrel, having undergone another reduction in stature, nimbly bounded onto her open palm.
The sprawling terrain encircling the Arse family estate remained under the family’s ownership. This generous expanse characterized not only the Arse property but also most of the opulent residences within the city. Consequently, the houses weren’t densely clustered.
Emerging through the rear exit led to a peripheral road, a passage frequented by cargo carriages, enveloped by twin rows of trees. Eugene set a brisk pace along this path. Following a brief drizzle, her steps carried an air of buoyancy.
Before the road culminated, a robed figure emerged, seemingly materializing from the shadows. The man inclined his head deferentially toward Eugene. Devoid of surprise, Eugene reciprocated with a slight nod. A prior arrangement had earmarked this rendezvous with Sven.
From the outset, Sven refrained from accompanying Eugene, avoiding any indication of an additional presence to nearby knights. Hence, he had remained stationed at a discreet distance from the estate, unable to draw too close.
They proceeded on foot to the carriage, positioned a fair distance from the Arse estate. The vicinity buzzed with pedestrians, an assortment of individuals in transit. Despite the robes and hoods veiling their features, the shrouded attire only heightened their air of suspicion. Sven’s imposing build drew particular attention, suggesting potential witnesses who might recall his presence.
The knights’ strategy revolved around fostering the belief that Sven stood as Eugene’s ally. Simultaneously, Sven devised his own exit plan from the city, diverging from Eugene’s path to confound any pursuit.
Eugene boarded the waiting carriage, while Sven settled into the driver’s position. Guided by Sven’s hands, the carriage embarked on a trajectory opposite the bustling urban hubbub.
In the prayer, Pides sat in fervent contemplation, his hands pressed to his brow, an unbroken chant spilling from his lips.
“O Lord, I don’t understand. What should I do?”
Since absorbing the contents of Joseph’s earlier communiqué, a perplexing fog had descended upon him. Pides couldn’t exclusively hinge his judgment on Joseph’s words alone, yet there existed scant cause for Joseph to fabricate such a tale. Consequently, Pides initiated a silent yet deliberate quest for answers.
Priests akin to Joseph, who had once ventured into the sanctuary, had departed the Holy City on multiple occasions in the past. Following their final liturgy, they had embarked on journeys to the kingdom. Over three years had lapsed since, implying their reentry into the Holy City should have been accomplished by now.
However, none of them had returned. This revelation struck Pides like a physical blow. Somehow, an impression loomed that these individuals weren’t in the same world anymore.
In the face of this truth, Pides grappled with a sense of collision with reality. The Sang-je he had revered and trailed like a lodestar exhibited a duality that jarred against his beliefs. The atrocities choreographed within the sanctuary and the obliteration of dissident voices orchestrated by Sang-je stripped away the veneer of divinity that once adorned him.
[This isn’t divine worship. It’s deceitful manipulation. Everyone is being deceived.]
A phrase from Joseph’s note reverberated incessantly within his mind.
Until midnight, Pides sat ensnared by contemplation in the prayer chamber. This late, the vicinity stood nearly deserted, yet within the corridor, a gathering of priests engaged in animated discourse. En route for a wordless supplication, Pides found himself involuntarily arrested by the snippets of conversation that reached his ears.
“Anika Flora is becoming a priestess.”
“They say she’s going to enter the sanctuary.”
The carriage came to a halt on the outskirts of the sparsely populated Holy City. The final destination lay beyond the conveyance’s reach. This marked the threshold leading to the solitary mountain embraced by the Holy City.
Dominating the cityscape were predominantly flat lands, interspersed with modest hillocks. Thus, the four cardinal gates, when flung open, yielded direct, unobstructed paths culminating in the central square—home to the colossal square tree.
However, veering towards the southwestern fringes of the Holy City, one would encounter a peculiar rocky elevation adjacent to the city’s defensive wall. This hill boasted an idiosyncratic formation, ascending sharply before culminating in a summit cleaved as though hewn from above, forming a sheer precipice. This architectural anomaly rendered descent impossible on the opposite side; retreat necessitated retracing the ascent.
Even if the knights were to hasten their realization of Eugene’s disappearance, it remained improbable for them to suspect her passage along this trajectory. The hill presented an impasse, an impassable route to climb further upward.
Eugene’s restive anticipation clung to the impending arrival of their final ally. With the assurance of no precise schedule, they had tentatively agreed upon a rendezvous window that stretched two hours shy of midnight. Yet, the span of waiting could potentially stretch even longer.