Book 6, Chapter 14

The First

It took more than ten kilometres for the black plains to finally give way to the mountain valley, and right at the entrance was a set of lifelike statues, depicting a group of stick-thin prisoners carrying stones across the land. Their arms and legs were manacled, and a fat overseer had his whip held high as though ready to strike at any moment.

If it weren’t obvious that these were stone sculptures, one could be forgiven for thinking this was a moment frozen in time. At the foot of the supervisor was a collapsed stone tablet, the writing blurred yet still legible. Richard found that the writing was in the divine tongue of Faelor, but a quick spell took care of that problem and allowed him to read, “Cowardice is no worse a sin than pride.”

This was one of the most basic tenets of the Church of Valour. Richard looked at the statues once more and snorted, understanding just why they looked so unimaginably lifelike.

Nyra confirmed his suspicions, “Living beings, turned into statues by divine power. I can still feel their souls screaming from within, but this punishment is eternal. These statues cannot be harmed.”

The soul shepherd walked over and rammed a staff into the stone, chipping off a decent chunk. However, the statue quickly repaired the damage on its own and the piece that had been broken off turned to grey dust.

Richard’s eyes glowed again, but this time he looked somewhat tired when they went back to normal, “The statues are being repaired by the power of darkness and fire that’s everywhere. But… this strength should be the exact opposite of Neian’s, why is he… Heh, this should be interesting.”

Richard continued to walk forward even as Nyra and Io exchanged glances. They hadn’t expected him to be able to see through the nature of these statues so quickly, especially when even they as those of the divine could not. A lot of effects of divinity and magic manifested in the same way, but they were quite disparate powers. To outdo two heavenly guardians from the Eternal Dragon in this department showed just how skilled Richard was.

Of course, both Io and Nyra had power that far surpassed this in the past. However, limited by their new bodies they could not see through the world as easily. Richard’s abilities would be frightening in any battle, making him able to discern the core of an enemy’s strength and thus the corresponding weaknesses as well. The only way to compete with him would be head-on, and for that he had Manacycle to win any war of attrition.

The group slowly walked into the Valley of Darkness, and it wasn’t long before they came upon the loud sounds of metal hitting rock. Far in the distance, they saw a bunch of men in manacles shovelling the black earth into baskets placed on their backs. Whenever a basket was filled, the prisoner would turn and head further into the valley to dump it before coming back.

These people were like skeletons without souls, digging expressionlessly without so much as a peep. Even as the chains on their hands grated into flesh, they continued to work without a break. Any departure was balanced out by a fresh arrival that was almost perfectly synchronised.

Richard walked over and looked at the places where soil was being dug, finding a high concentration of the pink energy he had only seen traces of earlier. Only the specific spots these people were digging at had this abundance of energy, and when the black soil was dug away one could see the earth below squirming like it was part of some huge creature as it secreted more black soil. They had to stop every once in a while as they hit what looked like pink flesh underneath, and it was only at those times that they paused work for even a moment.

Richard looked through the place for a while before pointing at a hillside not far away, “That place isn’t bad.”

His words finally caused several prisoners to react to his presence, but they just blankly stared into his eyes. It was rather strange; there was no fear in them, no hatred, not even depression… They were just robotic.

“Check,” an elderly prisoner said softly, causing a burly man to drag his weight over to the area Richard had pointed out. The man spent a minute digging, getting two metres in before he jumped out of the ground, “Lode!”

The older prisoner glanced at Richard while the others celebrated, “You have great eyes, young man. Tell me, are you a messenger of my Lord? Or are you an enemy?”

“Sometimes an enemy, sometimes a friend. It depends on how Neian acts.”

The old man’s eyes went wide, “Such arrogance. You might one day be qualified to say that, but it is not now. Many behind me were once as arrogant as you are, but their situation is worse than mine.”

“A difference of perspective,” Richard smiled, “You see, Neian is only a god to you. To me, he’s nothing more than any other powerful being. Beneath the laws of existence, a deity and a commoner are still a single soul. And that’s only for the laws of this plane, what about space and time that transcend existence? Am I the one who’s arrogant, or is it someone who thinks they are beyond all existence?”

Richard’s words evidently shocked the old man, and it took him some time to grunt and nod, “Perhaps you are right. There is a lunatic called Bruno in this valley, he is similar to you. I hear he has been writing a book in recent years, you might get a chance to read if you are lucky. But nobody knows where he’s hidden the book, not even the overseers.

“Thank you for your assistance with the vein. I promise to answer any one question you have for me to the best of my abilities.”

“Hmm… What’s your name?”

“My… name? Why… I’ve almost forgotten what I was called… Ptolemy, I believe. Yes, Ptolemy.”

“Alright then, I’ll be seeing you.” Richard waved goodbye to the old man before walking further into the strange valley.

……

A few minutes in, Flowsand’s brows furrowed at Richard’s thoughtful expression, “Was there something special about that man?”

“Mm, there should have been a pope in the Church of Valour called Ptolemy 300 years ago. He went missing for a long time and was eventually revealed to have died in an emergency. Faelorians don’t normally live that long, but in a twisted place like this… It’s hard to say, let’s just keep it in mind.”

The road into the valley was long and rugged, the sky getting darker and darker while the clouds turned a thick black. However, a small section of the valley was glowing bright red, and yellow torches were attached to the rock cliffs all around them to illuminate a few metres in every direction. One could see groups of three to five prisoners gathered at these points, hammering and chiselling into the cliff face. However, the wall was extremely sturdy; despite seeing multiple groups along the way, Richard couldn’t find one that had even scratched the surface.

It was still early in the afternoon, but the Valley of Darkness looked to be late in the night. Even the torches the group had on hand weren’t very useful, the main source of illumination coming from cracks in the mountain that emitted the bright red light.

The group’s attention was suddenly drawn by the shaking of the earth as a giant man walked across the valley, scanning across each of the prisoners ahead. He seemed almost like a mountain of meat, his huge deformed hands ending in a dozen tentacles.

Although it seemed like everyone was hard at work, the monstrous humanoid suddenly swung his hand and smashed a prisoner into the mountain wall. Blood immediately splattered across the black rock, absorbed in only a few moments, and the prisoner fell to the ground. This slave looked to be a mere child, but he still writhed in pain with inhuman vitality. A dark energy that was invisible to the naked eye poured out of the earth and filled his body, causing him to scream in pain as his body slowly fixed itself. Still, he stood up after some time grabbed his shovel, ramming into the wall with full force despite the futility of it all.

It wasn’t long before the giant noticed Richard, walking over and leaning down until his face was in front of his belly. He sniffed hard as he looked at Richard’s group, speaking softly, “I haven’t seen you before, I don’t know if I’m allowed to beat you up… Are you new? Go in and find the dead fellow called Rib. He’s smarter than me, he’ll know how to treat you.”

“Rib? Alright,” Richard continued walking into the valley.

Once the group was a fair distance away, the giant suddenly relaxed and flashed a sly look, “So strong! Bah, I don’t want to die, let them get into trouble with Rib. Who made it my problem?”

However, he suddenly felt a light sting on his chest. Looking down, he found a dazzling golden light emitting from within.

“This… This…” The giant’s eyes went round in fear, but the golden spot quickly expanded and multiplied until his entire body was glowing with the colour. *Psssshh!* Divine flames erupted on his body, burning him to ashes in only a moment before they faded away.

The few prisoners who noticed revealed a complicated expression, but they quickly returned to a daze and resumed cutting into the wall. The black rocks of the valley floor suddenly turned soft, squirming as they swallowed up the ashes.

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OMA's Thoughts

Translated By: OMA

Edited By: Theo