A month had passed since I arrived in the Priyas Holy Kingdom.
During that time, it seemed I had undergone every hardship imaginable.
The first realization from these hardships was that a week of camping was nothing in comparison.
The second was that the Goddess of Priyas wasn’t just about adversity and trials; she seemed to have a quirky hobby of messing with perfectly fine people.
I was thrown into boiling hot springs as part of a ‘spiritual journey’, endured two days in a swamp, and even survived three days without food, water, and sleep.
Whenever I thought of using mana out of desperation, the tear-stained faces of the suffering paladins held me back. It had been a month of such nights.
Not even a tear-soaked piece of bread, let alone a blade of grass, had passed my lips as my stomach cried out for food.
“If this keeps up, I’m going to destroy the Priyas Holy Kingdom. Starting with that damn forest.”
He laid out his plan to destroy an entire country with a serious expression.
Iriel chuckled and swung her legs back and forth on the bed.
“It’s still such nonsensical asceticism. But since we’re all in this together, we have to endure it. After all, we are saints.”
“Yeah, because we’re saints.”
“Of course, being saints doesn’t mean we get fed. Ahaha…”
“Where in the world is anything free?”
He thought about give and take while considering even eating the bark off trees in the streets if it was free.
“How about it? Do you feel like you’ve changed a lot through these hardships?”
I nodded in response to her smiling question.
I even felt grateful to Goddess Gaia, whom I used to think was useless in normal times.
Had I been chosen by the sadistic Goddess Priyas, who only gives pain and trials, instead of the bountiful Gaia, I would’ve turned her into something like Proxia without hesitation.
In that sense, it was good to be able to feel grateful for all life.
But that was it.
Wracked with pain, I came to understand that only despair lay before me.
Those who thrived in the Priyas Holy Kingdom must be akin to masochists.
A kingdom birthed from the merger of extreme sadists and masochists, it was nearly unbearable to witness.
“Ugh, I’m so hungry.”
The complaint arose abruptly, yet Iriel readily concurred.
“…Me too. Shall we go out and eat something?”
The person who had just insisted we must endure because we were saints easily abandoned her resolve.
Yet I had no desire to contest it.
If she hadn’t suggested it, I would have.
Ray, snatching up his backpack from beside the bed, rose to his feet.
“Let’s do that. While we’re out, let’s also buy some ingredients to make porridge for everyone.”
“What if we’re discovered?”
“Trust me. I am a saint, after all.”
He, who typically dismissed the title ‘saint’ as a mere front for a patent merchant exploiting Gaia’s name, now conveniently adopted a guise of trustworthiness.
“…I’m worried, but I’ll trust you. The paladins and healers are still enduring their trials.”
I couldn’t fathom why they continued their ascetic practices even after their conclusion, but the atmosphere within the sanctuary remained one of affliction.
The once robust and handsome paladins now bore cheeks as hollow as those of the Death Knights they had battled, indistinguishable from each other.
The healers and priests, slender to begin with, had withered further from fasting, their figures reminiscent of skeletal soldiers.
Now, it seemed more fitting to label it a kingdom of the undead under a necromancer’s rule than a holy kingdom.
He slung a large leather backpack and a small multipurpose leather pouch over himself.
Buoyed by the prospect of savoring a delicious meal after a long hiatus, the pair departed the VIP room.
“It’s surprisingly heavy.”
Although they took only two large backpacks, they quickly filled them to capacity with ingredients.
After covertly transporting them back to the VIP room, he invoked a spell within.
Iriel quietly pulled a large pot from her backpack.
It was substantial and must have been difficult to find.
Skillfully, he arranged stones to form a small hearth inside the VIP room and then recited the incantation.
With impressive mana control, he adjusted the flames to prevent them from spreading.
This task was challenging, as he had to continuously cool the surroundings with mana to avoid any accidents.
The VIP room, constructed of high-quality wood, was essentially a tinderbox.
A single spark could set it ablaze.
Hence, he kept the temperature below 400 degrees Celsius to keep the wood from igniting.
Even for him, juggling the mana while cooking proved too taxing.
Thus, Iriel took over the culinary duties.
Although it was her maiden attempt at cooking, her swordsmanship skills appeared to translate well to the kitchen.
However, she chopped the vegetables as if they were her adversaries.
After dicing the vegetables into neat, bite-sized pieces, she inquired,
“Is this enough?”
“Yes. Now put them into the pot and stir-fry them once.”
Confused, she nevertheless tossed them into the pot.
She mixed the ingredients haphazardly, her hands glowing with a divine light.
Could this indeed be what a saint’s cooking tasted like?
I wasn’t exactly keen to discover.
Two hours had passed since they began their cooking endeavor, and at last, a decent porridge stood ready.
Iriel swelled with pride over her first culinary achievement.
“Hehehe. How is it? Quite impressive for a first-timer, right?”
Despite merely following directions, her self-praise knew no bounds.
She looked from the door to the pot and back, then said with her finger to her lips,
“But it seems like it won’t be easy to carry this…”
Now that the porridge was ready, delivering it presented a new challenge, one that was no easier to handle.
Passing the strict security to get to the annex proved difficult, and delivering to the numerous people there seemed nearly impossible.
Unless there was a warp gate, which, unfortunately, he couldn’t use at the time.
After pondering for a moment, he suddenly stood up with an idea.
“Where are you going?”
“If I can’t do it alone, then we’ll have to do it together.”
He left the room with those cryptic words.
Left alone, Iriel tilted her head in confusion.
“…Sometimes, I really can’t understand the Saint’s actions.”
Ray opened the door and quickly left with the iron pot.
Iriel watched his actions, which resembled those of a petty thief.
Struggling with the pot, which was almost as big as himself, he soon headed towards the back door of the annex.
Surprisingly, the guards had all been replaced by those from the Gaia Kingdom.
Moreover, the composition of the guards was very appropriate.
Three lookouts, two paladins leading the way, and two more guarding the entrance of the annex.
If the Holy Kingdom had provided such security, it would have been a wish come true given the intense atmosphere.
They must be as hungry as he was.
One of the guiding paladins quickly cleared a path.
“Ha-ha-ha. This way, Saint.”
He seemed as excited as a dog welcoming its owner, looking at the iron pot.
His childlike joy brought a smile to my face.
Passing through the corridors of the annex, there wasn’t a single maid in sight.
It seemed that some measures had already been taken.
Since any noise could betray us, he cast the spell and went from room to room, sharing the joy of the iron pot.
Spreading the teachings of the Goddess Gaia in the Priyas Holy Kingdom was an unparalleled delight.
“Everyone, eat to your heart’s content! Let’s enjoy the abundance as Goddess Gaia teaches!”
Even though we had no proper dishes to serve the porridge, not a single complaint was heard.
Instead, they were moved to tears of gratitude.
“Isn’t there a saying, ‘Don’t talk about life to someone who hasn’t eaten tear-soaked bread’?”
Now I understood the meaning of that saying!
I could hear the overwhelming faith, with people calling out for Goddess Gaia everywhere.
“Long live Goddess Gaia!”
That evening marked the first movement within the Priyas Holy Kingdom to defy the teachings of Goddess Priyas.
The Priest of the Priyas Holy Kingdom frowned.
‘…Something is definitely off here…’
It had been a month and a week since the asceticism had begun.
For some reason, the faces of the Gaia Kingdom’s members radiated happiness, satisfaction, and a greasy sheen.
They looked well-fed, well-drunk, and well-rested.
How could they maintain such a glow after more than a month of suffering!
The Priest didn’t know, but it was natural.
Having received great enlightenment from Goddess Gaia’s teachings, Ray had been distributing food every day, so they couldn’t possibly be hungry.
Now, it was easy to distinguish between the people of the Gaia Kingdom and those of the Priyas Holy Kingdom just by their faces.
Those with pale, gaunt cheeks were from Priyas, while those oozing with oil and vitality were unmistakably from Gaia.
While they underwent asceticism together, they secretly enjoyed food and drink, making the ordeal no longer painful.
Even when they were told they would have to spend a week in a cave with wild animals, the people of the Gaia Kingdom just laughed it off.
“Ha-ha-ha. Let’s consider it as raising an animal.”
“If we view nature with the same eyes, humans are just another animal.”
Their mindset was like that of a monk who had spent thirty years in solitary meditation.
The priests of the Priyas Holy Kingdom looked at them with admiration.
“You are remarkable. We’re struggling with our asceticism, and here you are… It’s rather embarrassing.”
“Indeed, it is the kingdom ruled by Goddess Gaia. It is natural for your devotion to burn brightly when the saints themselves lead by example in asceticism.”
Leading by example in asceticism? More like rejecting teachings while indulging in leisure and feasting.
Any remaining piety was bound to vanish.
However, having grown thick-skinned from their lifestyle, they waved it off nonchalantly.
“Ha-ha-ha. Let’s all try our best together.”
“Goddess Gaia will always watch over us, so there’s no need to worry.”
Their words flowed like a smooth stream.
Ray, who had once stood at the center of dirtiness, rudeness, and cheating, looked down at them, nodding in satisfaction.
“Yes, asceticism should be like this.”
Somewhere, someone’s voice seemed to echo again.
‘…Why are they doing this to me?’
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