“This journal belongs to my friend,” Pides reluctantly confessed after a momentary pause. His voice quivered, hinting at the inner turmoil he was experiencing. “He used to be a priest… but he abandoned the sanctuary, and now, we don’t know where he is.”
Eugene sensed that there was something profoundly unsettling about the note they had discovered. Pides’s abrupt change in demeanor seemed directly linked to its contents. Numerous questions swirled in her mind, and words of concern danced on her tongue. However, this was not the time for protracted discussions. Pides appeared disoriented, and it was evident he needed time to process his thoughts. Eugene decided to convey only what was absolutely necessary.
“Pides, sir,” she began.
“Yes?” Pides responded, his gaze fixed on the mysterious note.
“Sang-je is not God.”
Pides’s countenance flickered, torn between faith and doubt.
“A representative of God is not God. Is your devotion directed towards the divine, or towards Sang-je?”
Silence enveloped them for an extended moment. Eugene turned towards Kasser, her expression and gaze communicating a clear message: “Let’s go.”
Kasser hesitated briefly, wrestling with his conscience.
Is it right to leave without intervening? he wondered.
But as he observed Pides standing there, clearly confounded, his concerns dissolved.
Irrespective of his personal feelings towards Pides, Kasser recognized that Pides was evolving into an exemplar of unwavering devotion. A person who wouldn’t yield, even if pushed to the brink. Perhaps, Kasser mused, Pides could become Sang-je’s most formidable adversary.
“Anika Jin,” called out a voice, causing Eugene to halt his steps, with Kasser following closely behind.
“Anika Flora has taken up the mantle of a priest,” Pides continued.
Eugene responded with a nod. “I’ve heard some rumors.”
She had caught wind of this development from Dana, just before departing from the sanctuary. Unfortunately, Dana hadn’t possessed much information, and their departure had left no time for further investigation.
Pides, wearing a hesitant expression, finally added, “You should be careful.”
Eugene was taken aback by the unexpected advice. “Are you suggesting I should be wary of Flora?”
Pides recollected his recent encounter with Flora at the sanctuary. He had felt uneasy when she mentioned her intention to enter. Unable to openly reveal the sanctuary’s concealed perils, he had advised her to think it through. In response, Flora had retorted with a piercing gaze.
“Why? Worried I’ll acquire special abilities like Jin?” she had challenged.
“I don’t quite comprehend,” Pides had replied.
“Jin didn’t have Ramita originally. She couldn’t even experience lucid dreams. Yet, suddenly, she gained Ramita overnight. Pides, you know it’s all thanks to the divine arts.”
This was new information to him, but he couldn’t find words to counter Flora’s unwavering stare. Her gaze brimmed with the certainty that he had been aware of this all along. No matter what he said, it would have sounded like feeble excuses to Flora’s ears.
“Sir Pides.I understand that you’ve carried Jin in your heart all this time. The naive Jin remained oblivious until the very end.”
Pides had looked at her with a mix of surprise and resignation. “Anika Flora…”
“There’s no use pretending,” she had continued, her gaze unwavering. “I know. Who else would comprehend the pain of turning away from something forever out of reach? I, too, was a coward.”
Flora had forced a bitter smile onto her lips, her laughter taking on an eerie tone. Then, almost as if she were talking to herself, she had muttered to Pides, who stood before her.
“But I shouldn’t have been like that. When you want something, you should pursue it relentlessly, clutch it firmly in your grasp. That’s why she eventually achieved her desires. I acted so superior, and for what?”
As Flora turned away, Pides refrained from reaching out to stop her. He watched her until her retreating figure vanished into the distance. This wasn’t the Flora he had known. Whether she had concealed her true feelings all this time or had undergone a transformation for some unknown reason, he couldn’t discern.
In his daily prayers, Pides had strived to control his own heart to prevent becoming a narrow-minded fanatic. Ironically, the Flora he had known, who had only wanted to experience what she desired, had been the very thing he had always been most cautious of.
“Anika Flora is tainted by bitterness and avarice. With such a heart, if she acquires divine arts, there’s no doubt she’ll wield them for malevolent ends,” Pides asserted.
“Flora is being taught divine arts?” Eugene inquired.
“Anika Flora will be initiated into the sacred arts reserved for the chosen priests,” Pides confirmed.
“Oh…” Eugene sighed, a sense of melancholy washing over her. She couldn’t help but recall the day when Flora had revealed her desolation upon sprouting the transparent seed.
Flora was the central character in Eugene’s novel. Through the character, she had momentarily escaped the hardships of her own reality. Eugene had admired her for possessing mystical abilities and battling against malevolence. Even though the real Flora she had met differed from the one in her imagination, she had hoped to establish a genuine connection when the opportunity presented itself. However, a substantial chasm separated Flora from the fake.
Is there a predetermined fate dictating how Flora and I will eventually cross paths? Eugene pondered, wondering about the inevitable clash that seemed to loom between them.
“…I’m heading back to the kingdom now, so everything will be fine. Pides, please take care. Will you return to the sanctuary?” Eugene inquired.
“Yes,” Pides responded.
“I hope Pides discovers the answers he seeks.”
Eugene and Kasser turned and began walking away. Pides watched as their figures gradually faded into the distance. They exchanged affectionate words, their hands tightly entwined, never letting go.
“The unattainable treasure…” Pides murmured, a phrase that had been etched into his heart, unerasable. Should he have pursued it relentlessly, as Flora had suggested?
A bitter laugh escaped him as he shook his head. At most, he might have become a government official. He would never have ascended to the heights of the monarchy’s position. As an orphan with nothing, it seemed an impossible dream.
However, as Pides turned away, his gaze grew clearer. Sharing the secret he had carried alone with someone else had strangely brought a measure of peace to his heart.