As soon as they arrived, they were expected to kneel and pray.
However, judging by the atmosphere, everyone seemed to think this was normal.
Iriel was the first to kneel on the dusty ground, followed by the holy knights, healers, and priests.
In such a situation, it was impossible to remain standing alone.
As everyone in the Holy Kingdom lowered themselves, maidservants soon followed, clasping their hands and kneeling.
“Ah, Goddess Priyas. Finally, the saints from the Gaia Kingdom have arrived. Please always instill vigilance in us and help us grow through hardships. We beseech you to let us proceed with strong steps on our pilgrimage.”
“Please grant us great enlightenment, even as we face hardships with the saints.”
Caught off guard by the maid’s sudden outburst in the middle of the prayer, he let out a puzzled exclamation.
They should be the ones facing adversities and rising above them, why expect us to endure hardships too!
Whether he expressed his confusion aloud or shouted, the prayers continued uninterrupted and soon ended.
The two maids dusted off the dirt from their hems and said,
“We will guide you to the annex. The VIP room for the saints is next to it.”
Somehow, everyone from the Gaia Kingdom, including Iriel, became less talkative as soon as they arrived here.
As if they were conserving their energy.
Passing through the seemingly luxurious annex, they reached the VIP room. The maids bowed silently and left.
Ray, watching their departure, finally spoke up.
“So what’s going on here? Hardships, really?”
“…Originally, the Priyas Holy Kingdom doesn’t require a pilgrimage. We are already a ‘Holy Kingdom’; there’s no need to extend a hand to us.”
Confused, he continued to explain.
“It’s simply an exchange for the sake of the two sister goddesses. This exchange is about empathizing with each other’s teachings and understanding one another.”
“Aha! So that’s the hardship you’re talking about!”
He gestured as if he had just understood, a smile on his lips.
Iriel responded with a smile as well.
However, her smile soon turned serious.
Hardships? Enough with this nonsense.
The 20-day boat journey here was hardship enough!
He would have preferred to escape, even if it meant striking the Goddess Priyas in the abdomen.
“I should return.”
As he turned to leave, Iriel quickly grabbed his arm.
She shook her head emphatically, her voice heavy with a weight that was hard to ignore.
“It’s problematic if you leave alone.”
“Whether I leave alone or we leave together, do as you please, but I must go now.”
“It’s very problematic.”
Her expression, almost on the verge of tears, conveyed a sense of urgency.
However, Ray was not one to be swayed by Iriel’s tears.
Pretending not to hear, he continued to fiddle with his ear, to which she responded with a venomous glare.
“If you leave like this, I’ll never forgive you. I’ll torment you in ways you can’t even imagine.”
That was a problem.
After all, Iriel had been handling the tasks that fell to him and had been helping him in many other ways as well.
This time, he thought it might be good to join in, if only to repay the kindness he had received.
A sigh escaped him naturally.
“Phew… Alright, I owe them that much.”
She too let out a sigh of relief.
If the Saint were to leave on his own, like before, he would have to endure the hardships alone.
The thought of having a companion gave him some comfort.
Back to her usual expression, Iriel cleared her throat.
“Hem… I’ll take my leave now. I need to rest for tomorrow…”
“Yeah, can’t wait to see what awaits us. I won’t be able to sleep thinking about it.”
With those words and a bow of her head, she left for the VIP room.
Ray looked up at the sky and sighed again.
“…You really owe me an apology.”
As the day broke, guides arrived as if on cue.
Though they were high priests, they acted as guides.
The neatly dressed priests bowed and spoke.
“Are you ready? We will guide you shortly.”
Exiting the room, they headed towards the back of the garden.
An ominous feeling grew stronger the further they went.
Entering a forest blocked by massive trees, it seemed as if not even a breeze could pass through.
In the dark forest, where not even sunlight penetrated, the priests bowed their heads.
“This is the place. For the next week, you, the Saints, are to eat only what this forest provides and undertake hardships on your own. Of course, you must not use any divine powers.”
“I see. Understood.”
Iriel’s response came more easily than expected.
“Wait a minute. Just the two of us? What about the others?”
“It is not our place to accompany the Saints. We are here only to guide; we will perform our own practices elsewhere. Please rest assured.”
What exactly is there to be assured about?
After the priests left, Iriel stretched lightly.
“It’s still early, so we got off easy.”
“Well, we just have to endure for a week.”
He looked around at the surrounding plants.
He had crammed knowledge of edible plants and their effects into his head while holed up in Lady Aira’s library.
This hardly counted as a hardship.
Despite his diligent search through the trees and even climbing them, no edible fruits were in sight.
Only grasses were present.
But these grasses were not inedible, just extremely bitter. He knew he could neutralize the bitterness by mixing them with other things.
As he recalled his survival knowledge and felt resentment towards Gaia, Iriel watched Ray sniff the grass with a strange look.
“What are you doing now?”
“Looking for something edible. Ah, here it is.”
He began digging frantically like a squirrel hiding food, quickly unearthing a small root which he held as if it were a treasure.
“Look around for drinkable water.”
His movements were remarkably agile.
To the inexperienced, he appeared to have spent his entire life in the mountains.
While Iriel set off to explore the surroundings, Ray slightly carved the wood to make tinder and gathered branches.
With everything prepared to start a fire, he deftly created a campfire.
The lack of a pot for cooking wasn’t a concern.
He carved a round bowl from wood, covered it with a makeshift lid, and buried it beneath the firewood.
Before Iriel returned, it seemed prudent to prepare a sleeping area.
He dug into the ground just enough to lay down a pile of soft leaves.
Henceforth, they could simply heat stones in the fire and cover them with dirt for warmth.
It was better than sleeping on the bare ground, at least.
Was it two hours later when Iriel came back?
She slowly shook her head.
“There’s nothing nearby. As for drinking water… we’ll just have to endure.”
Due to their spiritual levels, dehydration wouldn’t be critical, but the discomfort of thirst would remain.
The path of hardship had evidently begun.
They managed three days in the forest.
Contrary to expectations, aside from the hard sleeping surface and thirst, it was more tolerable than anticipated.
Iriel, too, seemed to enjoy the all-day lounging.
In some ways, it was a vacation for her.
To exaggerate slightly, the forest always provided shade.
It offered a cool respite from the hot climate, and the giant trees lent an enchanting quality.
For her, always burdened with duties in the Holy Kingdom, this hardship wasn’t too severe.
Iriel spoke with an easy expression.
“This is quite nice.”
“It would be better with water, though.”
Thirst was slowly setting in.
Looking around, finding water proved to be difficult.
Digging the ground and splitting plants yielded nothing.
Eventually, they gave up searching for water.
“If it’s easy and restful, it’s not a hardship.”
If Goddess Priyas saw them now, she would grind her teeth at their comfort.
After the scheduled week, two haggard priests approached.
They had clearly suffered both mentally and physically during this time.
In contrast, Ray and Iriel, aside from being a bit dirty, were fine.
This was not surprising since they had eaten their fill and rested plenty.
If they had water, they might even have looked a bit oily.
“We greet the two Saints… You have suffered…”
“Not at all.”
“…Then, we’ll escort you to the VIP room.”
The first hardship ended with barely any effort.
Passing the annex, the faces of the holy knights and healers looked utterly defeated.
Iriel gathered divine power and blessed them.
The widespread divine power seeped into their bodies.
Overwhelmed with energy, they knelt in gratitude.
“We thank you for your grace!”
“For Gaia Kingdom’s knights to look so beaten after a little practice, you need to work harder.”
“Sorry! We will heed the Saintess’s command!”
Despite enjoying a week of leisure, the audacity to reprimand the knights for insufficient practice was remarkable! Her conscience seemed absent.
But perhaps that was just Iriel’s way of expressing her embarrassment.
Separating from Iriel, he arrived at the assigned VIP room.
Throwing himself onto the bed as soon as he entered, all weariness seemed to rush over him.
Despite having slept endlessly, why was he so tired?
Lying on the bed, Ray’s eyes opened wide.
‘The creator of the hero’s lineage… it must be the Goddess Priyas, though I’m not certain. Iriel said so too…’
Then, the hero’s bloodline likely existed in the Western Continent.
Sitting up in bed, he murmured while looking toward the window.
“Soyeong, Heukyeong. Investigate the hero’s lineage in the Western Continent. Report even the smallest detail.”
A shadow flickered and disappeared.
Ray’s expression became serious.
‘If a god created it, I’ll just use it.’
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