9 The Goddess of Hope
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Susha Unhuor immediately left the town and then followed Chomong down the road. It didn’t take long for him to spot the pavilion on top of the hill and the person that was waiting up there. When he and Chomong reached the place where Shunche was waiting with the two horses, Susha Unhuor looked up, waiting for Jusha Lale to come down. To his surprise, the dan didn’t move at all.

Susha Unhuor raised his brows and then leaned closer to Shunche. "Are we still waiting for something?"

The guard glanced up at his king and then shook his head. "The dan didn’t say anything." Also, he did not dare to guess his king’s mind. If the king wanted to leave, he would say so. Since he was still standing there, there should be something he first wanted to do.

Susha Unhuor continued to sit on the horse, feeling like they were wasting time. Since they had the information, they should just leave. After a moment, he sighed. Most likely, this was exactly the problem: The one with the information was him. Jusha Lale did not know and since he wasn’t moving, that might indicate that he wanted to know.

Now what? He had just said that it might not be necessary to inform Jusha Lale and he still thought that it would be better not to inform him. In this case, should he really go up there and tell him? He didn’t want to do that. Even if he disagreed with what Agur Suhi had done, it really was too late now.

What should he do? Lie to the king? He could definitely do that. But he would need a lie that was believable. In this situation, something like that might not be easy to come up with. Especially since Jusha Lale was too smart to easily believe him.

Finally, he sighed and got off the horse, walking up the hill. He stepped below the eaves of the pavilion and turned to look at the city just like Jusha Lale. "What are we waiting for? Shouldn’t we meet with the high priest as soon as possible?"

"We probably should. I would like to first hear what Agur Suhi said though. I figured that this might be the best place for that since nobody is around to overhear something that should stay hidden and we are still far enough away from the capital city so the demon won’t make any trouble."

Susha Unhuor nodded slowly, feeling a little uncomfortable. "The idea isn’t bad. To be honest, there isn’t much to say though. He said that our initial guess was probably right after all."

Jusha Lale turned to look at him and raised his brows. "That my uncle wanted the throne? Why didn’t he say so sooner?"

Susha Unhuor took a deep breath and sighed. The stuffy feeling in his chest did not want to go away though. "Well, your uncle was his best friend. I guess it’s just that he did not want to speak badly of him. Especially now that he is dead and can’t even defend himself.

"Thinking about it like that, it also isn’t easy for him. There are those personal feelings involved, maybe he also feels responsible for not stopping this sooner, and then there might be fear regarding what others might think of his involvement if this came to light. It is understandable when looking at it that way. I just wish he had changed his mind sooner. Speaking of which … your acting must’ve been pretty good. He was very apologetic about not saying something sooner."

Jusha Lale gave a faint hum. His acting skills probably weren’t that bad. As the king, he often couldn’t show his true thoughts on a matter immediately. On the other hand, the zhireng probably weren’t like that. At the very least, Susha Unhuor wasn’t. His acting … it was horrible.

Despite being quite straightforward usually, he suddenly couldn’t look him in the eye and the way he held himself was tensed. His chin was tilted upward and his jaw locked. And if he needed any other hint, then the way his fingers were twitching slightly as if he wanted to grab onto something but couldn’t find anything would have given him away at the very latest.

Also, this man couldn’t make up a believable lie at all. Even though he himself had officially denounced that his uncle had anything to do with the demon’s summoning and even made him out to be his savior, so that other people would never find out the truth and his maternal family would not have to live with this knowledge, he himself knew well enough what the truth was.

Agur Suhi might have been able to clear up some of his confusion but he never would have made him start assuming something that he hadn’t already thought before. Thus, it made no sense that he would have refused to speak up in the first place if whatever clue he had had would just affirm their original suspicions.

In turn, this meant that something else had to be going on. Something that Susha Unhuor was unwilling to tell him. Jusha Lale pondered whether he should ask him again to make sure of it but finally, he kept quiet.

No, Susha Unhuor probably wouldn’t say it. No matter what it was, he seemed to be of the impression that it was best that he didn’t know. Actually, that kind of refusal only made him want to know more. Since he couldn’t find out from the zhireng, there was only one other person that he could ask and that was Agur Suhi himself. But anyway, now was not the time. He would try to find out when this was over.

"So it was like that after all." There was a faint smile on his lips when he pretended to go along. He curbed it hurriedly to make sure that Susha Unhuor wouldn’t catch onto the fact that he knew and then motioned down. "In that case, we should indeed go. You still want to talk to the high priest, don’t you?"

Susha Unhuor nodded and then followed him down the hill. "Speaking to him is not as important anymore but I still think that it can’t hurt to do so. Maybe there is some small detail that he noticed. Priests are often very observant when it comes to this kind of thing. In the past, they have often been able to give me information that nobody else noticed. It might not look like much but information is precisely the one thing that a zhireng needs the most. We can fight with the powers we were given but we do need to know what we are up against to prepare."

"I see. Well, we shouldn’t lose any more time."

The two of them reached the foot of the hill, got onto the horses, and then continued on their way to the capital city En. They made haste and thus already saw the gates after just two hours.

Susha Unhuor’s gaze wandered over the wall and the bit of the buildings that he could see from behind them. He had actually never been to En. He had seen many capital cities and he had seen many towns and cities in Alo but he had never been here. Not in his time when he was doing tasks as a zhireng, and not in his time off travel afterward when he wanted to put down his weapon and never engage in the fight against the demons again. Now, he came here for the first time, having broken the promise he gave himself, and even being accompanied by Alo’s king. It was a little curious.

He sighed lightly and then followed Jusha Lale and his two guards into the city.

The dan turned around and then motioned up ahead to a building in the distance. "The high priest should be in the temple not far from the palace. Let us go there directly."

Susha Unhuor lightly furrowed his brows. "I’m not quite sure if you should get close. Since your uncle …" He hesitated for a moment and then sighed. Thankfully, he had gone with an explanation that worked both ways. "Since he was targeting you, it could be that the demon will still target you even now that he is dead. I’ve seen things like this happen before. So it would be best if you stayed as far away from the palace as you can. Coming so close definitely isn’t a good idea."

Jusha Lale gave a faint smile. "Don’t worry. As soon as we have met the high priest, I will return to the city with Shunche and Chomong."

Susha Unhuor sighed once again. Unfortunately, it seemed that he would not be able to make the young dan reconsider. "Very well. Better guard yourself though. We would not want to draw out the demon before we are prepared to deal with it."

"Do not worry. I will be careful."

The group continued on their way and soon reached the gates of the temple.

Susha Unhuor looked up, taking in the carvings on the metal gates, as well as the spire atop the building and the almost floor-length windows that decorated all sides of the building. Obviously, this temple was quite important in En.

Jusha Lale and his guards already dismounted and walked to the front of the gate. Shunche rushed forward and opened it for the dan while Susha Unhuor finally got off his horse as well and followed them. He still looked around though.

This kind of temple had a bit of power on its own. Most likely, he didn’t need to worry about Jusha Lale’s safety while they were in there. When he left though … that would be a different matter altogether. He definitely had to pay attention to that when the time came.

The guards closed the door behind them and Jusha Lale walked toward one of the inner rooms. When they reached the room right in the center of the temple, he stopped at the door. "This is the place where the high priest will be. I don’t know …" He gave Susha Unhuor a searching gaze. From what he knew, even though the zhireng had been blessed by the gods, not all of them were necessarily on good terms with the priests that saw themselves as somewhat of a messenger for these gods. He didn’t know what Susha Unhuor’s thoughts on that were.

The zhireng gave a faint smile. "Don’t worry. I know how to behave in front of other people. No matter what my personal thoughts are, I wouldn’t make trouble. And anyway, didn’t I tell you that priests have helped me before? I don’t know if they are legitimately messengers of the gods but they are definitely a force to be reckoned with. I will give them that and I will give them the same respect that any other person will receive from me."

Jusha Lale nodded and then opened the door, making the sound of low singing spill out.

Susha Unhuor’s brows raised slightly. Well, he probably shouldn’t be surprised. There was a demon active in the capital. The priests were the only ones who could keep it at bay until a zhireng came to defeat it once and for all. And for them, using the long-established chants was the only way to do so in the long run.

These chants were said to have been passed onto the first priests directly from the gods. They contained a certain amount of power. Not as much as the zhireng and the weapons they used but enough to hold down a demon for a certain amount of time until help arrived.

Often enough, the priests had managed to save the lives of people this way. That was one of the reasons that Susha Unhuor respected them. Certainly, not all of them were good people and some of them probably should not have been given any power. For some people, being elevated above others would only make them conceited. But he could not look at them and pretend like all priests were like this. No, a few bad apples did not mean the whole tree was rotten.

The two of them walked inside and Jusha Lale lightly called out. "Su anqeng, I’m sorry for disturbing you."

Susha Unhuor looked over and found a middle-aged man sitting in the center of the hall. He wore the traditional sky-blue robe of the priests with the embroidery reaching from his shoulders to the middle of his chest where it ended in a complicated pattern of bead-work.

The man had his eyes closed while his lips moved incessantly. He was clearly the one singing but now that Susha Unhuor only stood a few meters it was hard to believe. The faint whisper coming from his lips was barely audible but it rose up into the air and seemed to spread throughout the room, being thrown back from the walls and making it sound as if there were a hundred voices joined together.

Susha Unhuor slightly narrowed his eyes and looked around more closely, noticing that there were some faint symbols carved into the beams holding up the ceiling. They were glowing faintly as if filled with some divine power. He had seen something like this back in the temple of Sundang as well but not as powerful as here. Obviously, this high priest knew what he was doing.

The high priest finally opened his eyes but continued to chant. He just gave the two of them a questioning look, urging them to tell him what they had come here for.

Jusha Lale waved for Susha Unhuor to follow him and then knelt down in front of the high priest. Even though he was the king, he did not put on any airs.

"Chomong will have told you already but I found a zhireng willing to take on the demon. It is Susha Unhuor. I’ve brought him here."

Susha Unhuor faintly inclined his head. "I do not want to disturb you but … I would like to know some more things about the day when you held the ceremony. Each detail could help me defeat the demon. Is there anything that you remember? So far, I only know about the general situation."

Speaking of which, he couldn’t help but glance around. The place where the ceremony had been held … he would’ve thought it should be this prayer hall but there wasn’t any sign of a fire having broken out just recently. With a demon around, he didn’t think that they would have been able to take care of the traces so soon so it could only be that it had been at another place.

The high priest finally stopped chanting and spoke up, his voice slightly hurried. "I do not have much time to tell you. That day, there isn’t much that can be said about it. The dan and I were making offerings to the goddess En. Just when the dan was placing his part of the offering on the altar, there was the sound of a door opening. We did not want to be disturbed so we continued on. The sacrifice was placed but there were steps, finally making us turn around. The person we saw was Shaun Reng, the dan’s uncle.

"I cannot say much about him either just that something seemed wrong with his eyes. They were … reddened as if he was a madman. He seemed to be trembling, his limbs shaking and he didn’t seem quite surefooted as he came toward us. That might be why he finally walked into the brazier, making it fall to the ground. The dan and I had to flee. The fire from the brazier is the fire of hope. It is a gift left behind by the goddess En and burns differently from normal fire. There was no way to put it out anytime soon." He fell quiet and as soon as the echo of the last word stopped, he started chanting once more.

Susha Unhuor also kept quiet, his gaze roaming about. He had gotten the same story from Jusha Lale. The only added detail was the appearance of how his uncle came in, as well as the timing. The latter suggested that it had been obvious where Jusha Lale would be. After all, the offering would likely always made by the king and the high priest. Thus, this was where Jusha Lale could be found.

If his uncle had wanted to finally give in to his desire, then this would be a place where he could do so. Although … the temple wasn’t the best place for that. It would’ve made more sense to go and do so in Jusha Lale’s private chambers where he could surprise him and wouldn’t have to deal with other people close by. Also, assaulting somebody in a temple was something that the gods were more likely to punish. The risk he had taken was especially big. It wasn’t quite the usual occurrence. That really made people wonder.

Susha Unhuor was lost in thoughts. He felt that he understood what had happened but at the same time, he felt that he still wasn’t quite grasping it. He couldn’t put his finger on what exactly it was that bothered him though. Unfortunately, there was not much else that he could do. The high priest likely wouldn’t be able to say much. Because each time that he interrupted the chanting, he would be giving the demon a chance to either slip out or cause more chaos that would in turn make the demon stronger. Naturally, he wouldn’t want to let that happen.

Susha Unhuor finally sighed. He had figured out what he could figure out. Now, there was only one thing left to do and that was to confront the demon. Even if he did not have all the answers yet, that was the only thing that he could do. And it was better to do it now than to try and search for more answers since there likely weren’t any and risk that the demon got stronger.

He took a deep breath and then turned to Jusha Lale. "I think we have found out everything that we can. I will go to the palace next. Is there a map that I could use?"

Jusha Lale’s expression turned a little complicated. "There is a map of the palace. It is just … that map is in the palace. I am afraid it won’t be of much use to you."

Susha Unhuor closed his eyes. Well, this wasn’t good news. In general, it was not much of a problem to go into a building unprepared. After all, they were all somewhat similar and there weren’t many surprises. But those buildings were also a lot smaller than such a palace. To go in there without knowing what was where … it would make this needlessly difficult.

Jusha Lale slightly furrowed his brows, trying to think of something that he could do to help him. "Would it be of help if I tried to draw one? It will not be as exact as the one in the palace but it would at least give you a general idea of what is where."

Susha Unhuor nodded. "It’s not perfect but better than nothing I guess. Alright. Let’s do that." He got up and then looked around, not quite sure what to do. It would be best if Jusha Lale did not move around too much in the city. After all, he was the target of the demon. Even if his uncle was dead, that didn’t change. In fact, the demon would still be able to derive power for making his wish come true. By now, Shaun Reng was dead without having been able to satisfy his desire. But still, if it could be achieved in a different way, that would still allow the demon to get at least part of the power it should have gotten.

Once again, Susha Unhuor couldn’t help but feel that it was strange. Obviously, it would be most beneficial to the demon to let Shaun Reng live and fulfill his desire. But instead, the summoner had been killed and the target warned, allowing him to leave the area that the demon influenced. This really was different from what he usually saw.

While Susha Unhuor was trying to think things through, Jusha Lale already got up and walked to the door at the side of the prayer hall that was leading to a study, wanting to get paper and brush to draw the map. In any case, they couldn’t leave things be for too long.

When Susha Unhuor noticed that the dan wasn’t next to him anymore, he leaped to his feet and rushed after him, startling Jusha Lale in the process and making him drop the brush.

"What’s the matter? Did something happen?" He glanced at the hall, half expecting to see that the high priest had collapsed or that the demon had appeared but nothing of the like was the matter. The high priest was still sitting there, chanting and nothing could be seen of the demon. He turned back to Susha Unhuor with a puzzled look.

The zhireng sighed. "You shouldn’t go anywhere alone right now. Not in the capital city. Not this close to his palace. You are still the demon’s primary target. If it can, it will attack you."

Jusha Lale glanced at the paper in front of him and then leaned down to pick up the brush. "Oh. You’re probably right. I figured it would be safe in the temple but I guess it would be better to be safe than sorry."

Susha Unhuor nodded and then sat down on the other side of the desk, watching Jusha Lale grind the ink and dip the tip of the brush into the dark liquid. "The general layout of the palace will be enough for me. I just need so much that I’m able to orient myself and know where I’m going."

Jusha Lale nodded and then started to paint. He noted down what which room was, the elegant characters showing his upbringing.

Susha Unhuor couldn’t help but smile when he saw it. This was probably one of the few times since he had met Jusha Lale that he felt that he truly had a king in front of him. A regular person probably wouldn’t put this much effort into this kind of task. Then again, when doing it, it actually looked effortless as if this was just second nature to him. But maybe that was what gave him the impression that this was not a regular person but someone special.

Jusha Lale glanced at him, wondering what this man was thinking about. In the end, he didn’t ask though. No matter what it was, they could talk about it after this had been done. He just focused on the map, slowly drawing as much as he could.

Finally, he put the brush to the side and looked up at the zhireng. "This is as much as I can tell you. I don’t know about some of the smaller rooms but the most important ones should be in there. If there is anything you want to know more about … just go ahead and ask" He turned the scroll of paper around, letting Susha Unhuor take a look.

The zhireng looked over every part of the map, giving a hum. The map was very clear. Jusha Lale had really put a lot of thought into this. "I don’t think there’s anything that I fail to understand. I guess now, I can only go and see how things are inside." He looked up at Jusha Lale, wondering if there was something else he should say. "You … should probably leave the capital city for the time being. It will be too dangerous here for you. Regardless of whether I succeed or not."

Jusha Lale slightly wrinkled his brows. "Do you expect not to win?" They had found out some things so he felt that the chances should be higher. But what Susha Unhuor had just said didn’t sound that optimistic so he couldn’t help but worry.

"That’s not it. There’s just never a way to make sure. In any case, I have to confront the demon. If it targets you at that time, I will have a harder time even finding it in the palace. So it is best if you aren’t in the city. On the other hand, should I not be able to vanquish the demon, it will likely only become stronger after this fight. Then, things would be even more dangerous here. You definitely should not set foot into the capital if you want to keep your life."

"Very well. You will know best what is the right way to go about this. I’ll return to the city with Chomong and Shunche then."

Susha Unhuor nodded and got up. "Very well. Then …" He fell silent and didn’t know what else to say for a moment. In the end, he sighed once more. "Well, there is not much to say. Should I not be out in a week, then you will know that I’ve lost. Until then, things are still open. This kind of fight can sometimes take a while."

Jusha Lale furrowed his brows, feeling that this really didn’t sound too optimistic. He still nodded though. "I will keep it in mind and plan accordingly. I do hope that you will return though."

Susha Unhuor nodded and then motioned back into the hall. "Let’s leave. I will bring you until the gates of the city to make sure that you get out safe."

Jusha Lale nodded and the two of them left, only nodding at the high priest so as to not disturb him while chanting.

They got onto the horses and went back the same way they had come, neither of them saying a word while the two guards stayed quiet as well.

When they reached the city gate, Jusha Lale couldn’t help but give the zhireng another look. He seemed ready to return to the city but he did not want to let him go without a last word. "Zhireng Susha, I know that this is what you are supposed to do. I also know that you have no problem doing it. But still, try to keep your life. There is no use in throwing it away. Even if you can’t help me, you might be able to help somewhere else."

Susha Unhuor smiled faintly and nodded. "I will keep it in mind."

Jusha Lale nodded as well and then turned away, leaving down the road leading away from the capital city, flanked by his two guards.

Susha Unhuor watched him for a moment before he sighed and then turned around, closing the gate behind him. He looked toward the palace on the other side of the city and then made his way over there, his grip tightening around his weapon.

Now, it was finally time to challenge the demon. This was the moment that everything depended on, the one that he had prepared for in the last weeks. He could only hope that it would be enough.