The day of the Festival.
Various noisy festivities began since the morning within the city of La Grange. Sungchul was in Section 4 within the crowd watching the Imperial Cooking Competition. Over 100 participants were working on the challenge given by the examiner, using dozens of prep spaces with bountiful ingredients. The topic of the breakfast competition that was being held as the preliminaries was ‘vitality’.
Countless chefs were creating their own interpretations of ‘vitality’ in the form of a dish. Sungchul looked over each of the participant’s dish like a hawk. Chefs with originality, but lacking the foundations. Chefs with solid foundations, yet stuck in their ways. Chefs with outstanding talent that have interpreted the topic incorrectly. All kinds of chefs caught his eyes.
‘I can’t find anyone that’s better than me.’
Sungchul made his mind after a brief observation, and the evidence for his conclusion was the broach. A minority of the participants carried the broach signifying the Chef class, but the majority of those people had been with colorless or brass colored broach; not a single one of the chefs had the bright golden broach that Sungchul carried. He couldn’t discount the possibility that some of the Chefs might have hid their broach in order to conceal their abilities, but he couldn’t concern himself with every little possibility.
The preliminaries were slowly drawing to a close. Once a dish’s score was announced by the judges, it was shared with the audience, and so everyone was eyeing each other already. Sungchul stood in between the pushy mob and stood in queue for the participants. He was fortunate to be able to get his hands on the final dish.
It was a type of baked potato gratin made by finely chopping the potato and baking it with milk, spices, and cheese in an oven.
[The score of this dish is… 38 points!]
It was a lukewarm score. The main flair of the dish was to express the topic of vitality through a sweet and sour taste with its precipitates, but it worked against its overall flavor. Trying to force the topic onto the dish had only resulted in a dish that couldn’t help but be not all that good.
‘Is it only at this level?’
Sungchul who had completed his food even as he complained tried to flap open his coat jacket out of habit, but the broach wasn’t there. Bertelgia had hidden the broach away within her pages. It was strange enough that Sungchul began to wonder how she managed without any fingers, but it was completely necessary as well. His entire day would have been ruined had he garnered any unwanted attention in this kind of place.
“Now, aren’t you satisfied yet?”
Bertelgia spoke with more wariness than before.
“Truthfully, it’ll be lacking to expect everything from just the breakfast dishes.”
The cooking competition that spanned through breakfast, lunch, and dinner was only just warming up with breakfast which acted as the preliminaries. Everyone was expecting the highlights of the competition that would trump all other dishes to be prepared during the dinner course. However, the meeting of the Cult of Extinction was scheduled in the afternoon, making it impossible to attend. Sungchul was planning on watching through the lunch qualifiers bearing the disappointment, since every citizen, including the gangs of Section 8, were taking the day off. Also, a few chefs had caught his eyes. There were a few participants whose queues were overwhelmingly longer than the others. Sungchul snuck into the line and asked the person in front of him who the chef was.
“He’s the Head Chef of the restaurant Elf’s Table, Paparupa. He’s the undisputedly the best chef of La Grange.”
A strange smile hung on Sungchul’s lips. He leisurely waited for his place in line and was able to see the chef in question. He was an elf chef with refined features wearing a chef hat. Below him were more than 10 assistants moving in perfect sync in order to prepare the dishes to hand out to the masses washing over them.
‘Is that guy Paparupa?’
As he wasn’t wearing a broach, it was difficult to guess at his skills. It appeared that a taste test was required, and after a long wait, Sungchul’s turn finally arrived.
It appeared to be an ordinary sandwich on the outside, but its flavor was not as it seemed. Sungchul’s eyes shot open when he tasted it.
[The score of this dish is… 75 points!]
Sungchul stared at Paparupa standing haughtily in the distance in a different light.
‘This guy… is he perhaps a High-class Chef?!’
Sungchul watched him as he spoke.
“It looks like this was made with cheese made with the milk from a Golden Goat with Fairy Bread combined with thin slices of sausages of meat preserved from a young Behemoth Boar.”
Paparupa who heard Sungchul’s words turned toward him and spoke frostily.
“Hoh? Someone who looks like they stuff porridge down their throat has managed to uncover my recipe. Quite interesting.”
“Honestly, you’re quite something.”
This was the greatest compliment that Sungchul could give, but it looked as though Paparupa wasn’t pleased with his words. It was as it appeared.
“Quite something…? Just something…?”
He glared at Sungchul with cold eyes before asking with words spoken in a tone that was a cold as a sheet of ice.
“It looks as though you’re a chef, so are you participating in this competition?”
“I have some personal issues so…”
When sungchul shook his head negatively, Paparupa made a chilling smile and turned away.
“That’s a smart choice. Someone that wants to play with words without any real talent should act as you do. Keep doing as you do. While you remain in obscurity, my restaurant that is quite something will continue to flourish!”
Paparupa swung his spoon for his subordinate chef to chase Sungchul away.
As Sungchul’s face twitched, Bertelgia shook violently to stop him. Sungchul left this place in shame while listening to Paparupa’s hearty laughter in the distance.
“What did I say? Didn’t I say not to stay long?”
Bertelgia spoke in a delighted voice as though she had been holding it in as soon as they returned to the estate.
“Hand it over.”
Sungchul held out his hand and spoke briefly. Bertelgia climbed out of his pocket and dropped his golden broach that had been hidden within her pages.
“You know that this is for the best?”
She looked toward Sungchul and spoke softly. He felt frustrated, but hung the broach in the deeper parts of his jacket and layered it with several layers of clothes knowing full well that she was right.
Sungchul spent the rest of his time wandering the city busily spectating the festival. Sungchul discovered that people weren’t yet steeped in despair. The world had been marred by the Calamity, but people still retained the strength to laugh. Like this, the time passed until the afternoon. Sungchul made all the preparations within his room to leave the estate when someone knocked on his door. Unexpectedly, it was Largo.
Largo had always worn her plain work clothes within the home, but at this moment, she was dressed up as her days as a youth. Signs of age remained on her face, but remnants of the beauty that people spoke of remained as well. However, Sungchul wasn’t focused on her beauty when he saw her, but rather the uneasy atmosphere surrounding her entire body. Something must have happened. Her left hand was sporadically trembling as she spoke.
“Hey, I’m sorry to suddenly pop in.”
Largo spoke with hesitation.
“Can you attend New Year’s Eve festival with me? It’s.. a bit… to go alone…”
Her voice was taut. It once again reaffirmed Sungchul’s guesses as to what must have happened in his absence. However, there were more important things to him at the moment.
“Sorry, but I have to go to the meeting with the Cult of Extinction today.”
“Ah, that’s right…”
Clear sign of disappointment flashed across her eyes. She let out a lonely laughter as she turned toward the door.
“Sorry for being a burden.”
“If it ends quick.”
“I’ll come right back, if you can wait for me until then that is.”
It was a calm voice, but it was enough to put a smile on her disappointment laden face. She smiled faintly before speaking with some restored vigor in her voice.
“Don’t be too late. I could end up going with someone else!”
Sungchul nodded. Bertelgia piped up as they headed toward the meeting place.
“I’ve felt this since before, but you’re rather a good person, aren’t you?”
“You think so?”
“Seeing as you’re being nice to a pitiful but terrible woman that is. I would’ve just refused. She’s already done so much to us, and the rumors around her aren’t so good.”
“It’s just been a long while since I enjoyed a festival. It’s not so bad having company.
Bertelgia shook her body vigorously at those words.
“You have me, don’t you?”
Sungchul let out a faint groan, and she immediately roared up in anger.
“W-what does that mean?!”
“Nothing at all.”
Sungchul somehow arrived at the meeting place of the Cult of Extinction while receiving Bertelgia’s scorn. When he rapped on the door twice in quick succession then once more with a brief space in between as Largo had told him, the door opened with the sound of locks being undone.
“Ah, are you another follower trying to join the Cult?”
An old woman with quite a bit of age on her greeted Sungchul. He didn’t notice any unique power from this woman and allowed her to lead him to the basement of the meeting hall. There were about a dozen people that appeared to be members of the cult inside listening to the middle aged man who was evidentally leading them. Sungchul quietly listened to the man’s words among the members. He was speaking in regards to Extinction.
“It isn’t long until extinction. Countless evidence are pointing toward the fact that the time of extinction is drawing close, and even now, the procession of extinction marches on.”
Within the quite lengthy sermon, Sungchul felt that his words held no context. They were no better than a repetition of vague words that anyone could say if asked about the topic of extinction, but there were also concerning segments.
“The Scroll of Calamity is an object of deceit. They speak of false Calamities that were fabricated. The falsities of this forgery could be discerned by the fact that not a single word exists in reference to the Scroll of Calamity within the first recordings of god’s words.”
He had seen members of the Cult of Calamity try to burn the Scroll of Calamity at the Tower of Recluse in the past. This claim seemed to be the basis of such actions, but the preacher back then did not explain with any specific claims to the end. They were simply claims while treating evidence as another story entirely.
‘They say that there isn’t anything good to eat at a well-known party…’
After the sermon was over, there was a moment for the congregation to speak to the preacher. Sungchul was arranged last.
When he stood before the preacher, he held the scroll that his subordinate had brought him and smiled while speaking.
“Mm. You appear to be suffering from erectile dysfunction. Quite a shame.”
“Don’t worry. With the knowledge held by our cult, you will find your health restored. However, you will have to show a bit of sincerity before that.”
The preacher held out his hand aftering speaking. He was asking for money. Sungchul dug through his pockets and brought out a few of his least valuable coins and placed them on the man’s palm. His brows furrowed.
“Your sincerity is lacking.”
“I am in the process of earning more.”
“If your sincerity is lacking, you can’t attend the gathering of more higher ranking members.”
“Is there something good if I attend the meeting with higher ranking members?”
The preacher nodded at Sungchul’s question and explained regarding the cult’s system. The system of the cult was solidly a pyramidal shape in which more sincerity given by its members meant a rise in their rankings. Actions such as donations or regular attendance of the meetings could buy trust from cult that would allow one to attend the higher ranked meetings.
“In other words, the meetings you’ve attended so far are for the lowest ranking members.”
The conclusion was simple: all he could earn at this point were more gatherings.
‘It looks like even this will require more time.’
Large amount of donation would breed suspicion, so Sungchul simply promised something for tomorrow and left. When he had left the meeting hall, the sun was already setting. Sungchul recalled his promise with Largo and hurried back to the estate.
On his way back, Sungchul could see the festivities unfolding within Section 8. He could see carts with lanterns emitting colored lights were moving through crowd receiving cheer despite their poverty. The cheers suddenly grew louder at one point.
“It’s the Masked Saintess!”
“She’s real! It’s the first time I’ve seen her in person.”
Sungchul debated whether to ignore it and keep moving, but the unexpectedly passionate response from the crowd made his join them. Sungchul saw a face he never expected to see. Sarasa Xero. The undead girl who appeared to hold some crucial role within the Cult of Extinction was waving her hand on the cart while receiving escort by some guards didn’t seem ordinary.
‘Why is that kid there? It’s unbelievably brazen. The imperial soldiers must be searching for her with fire under their asses.’
Whatever the reason was, her appearance was received like a miracle to those living destitute lives in Section 8. She was being venerated as the Masked Saintess here. Sungchul could guess how deep the religions influence of the Cult of Extinction who had laid their roots within La Grange actually was from the torrent of passion around him.
It was enough for the Empire to feel threatened. However, the passion didn’t last long. The imperial soldiers that had been finally made aware of Sarasa’s appearance had been dispatched there. Sarasa promised the people of another time and hid herself within the darkness.
There was no better opportunity for Sungchul. Questions he had regarding the Cult of Extinction would mostly be resolved if he could catch up to her and speak with her. There would be no need to do something as pathetic as gathering ‘trust’ for some branch organization.
However, the sound of an explosion in the sky made Sungchul hesitate as he tried to chase after her. The explosion had come from the Floating Royal Palace that had risen into the skies of La Grange. Fireworks dyed with vibrant colors flew out above the Palace. The greatest event of the New Year’s Eve that was the fireworks festival had begun. Largo’s face, full of expectation, flashed across Sungchul’s mind.