When he opened the door, a stale beastly scent assaulted his senses. Many cages and pens were lined up along the walls of the vast room. The sounds of rats skittering, and birds flapping their wings filled the room without pause. Hossal squeezed down the narrow walkways between the cages, inspecting their contents. Sensing Hossal’s approach, a wolf lifted its head and began to growl, but because it was sick or perhaps because it scented something familiar on Hossal, it didn’t crash or nag against the bars.
Within the compound of the Shin Academy, the <Institute of Life>, which investigated the various aspects of living creatures, occupied a vast plot consisting of three ponds and wetlands, a horse-riding ground, an animal hut, and a tower for its scholars. However, in exchange for granting them so much ground, the medical scientists often performed necessary experiments on animals here.
Given that medical science enjoyed the highest esteem in the Shin Academy, some scholars of the Institute of Life referred to their own grounds as the <Subsidiary Institute of the Medical Institute> with a not inconsiderable amount of self-deprecation, but Tomasol, the director of the Institute of Life, was a man devoid of such silly, menial emotions.
This room was his stronghold and demonstrated Tomasol’s character the best. Rather than making it comfortable for people, the priority was to make it as comfortable for the animals living here as possible. The room was dimly lit to allow the sick animals to be at ease, and thus, strangers would immediately bump into something unless they paid careful attention to where they were going.
However, there was one section deep in the room that was illuminated by a gas lamp, as bright as daylight. A tall, lanky man leaned over a big water tray located in that section, staring intently at something.
Once Hossal came closer, the man lifted his head, “Hossal!”
A cheerful smile quickly formed on his unshaven face. Even though he had already passed the age of forty, his eyes were sparkling with an innocence similar to that of young students.
“Brother-in-law.” Hossal nodded lightly at Tomasol with a smile. “How did the examination go?”
Tomasol shook his head, grabbed Hossal’s arm, and pulled him towards himself.
“That can wait till later. First take a look at this! You’re amazing! The medicine you brought back the other day is showing clear results.”
The water in the tray was cloudy with milk. A single rat was swimming in the small pond of diluted milk, its snout barely held out of the water. Tomasol released Hossal’s arm, stretched out his hand, grabbed some papers he had left on a table next to the tray, flipping through them.
“While I wasn’t here, I had Shikan continue the experiment, but as it yielded such overwhelmingly brilliant results, I had to check it with my own eyes. And then I…”
Just when Tomasol tried to breach the main topic, both men heard the door open, followed by footsteps approaching them. As they approached, the ailing wolf suddenly got to its feet, growling furiously. Its growl was noticeably different to a threat, sounding more like fear and anger.
As the footsteps passed the cage, a loud clattering echoed through the room. The wolf had hurled itself against the cage’s bars. With no more than an expressionless glance at the wolf, a young man continued walking unwaveringly towards Hossal and Tomasol, his stride not faltering for even a second.
Spotting the youth, Tomasol grinned broadly, “Did you hug a dog outside or what?”
The young man furrowed his thick eyebrows in obvious confusion. He was small, but had a powerful build.
“Man, you really don’t know how to take a joke, do you? I’m asking you where you picked up a scent that would aggravate that guy?”
When Tomasol jabbed his thumb at the wolf, the young man muttered, “Ah. It’s because the kennel guard told me to examine a dog.”
With that, the young man sank back into silence. Hossal and Tomasol looked at each other, smiling wryly.
It was easy to misjudge him since he acted like this, but Shikan hid a surprisingly sharp wit behind his expressionless face. He was a capable assistant, reliably accomplishing the tasks given to him. The people of the kennel and stable evaluated him highly as well for his particularly impressive horse and dog training techniques. It was difficult to judge whether he was over twenty or not, but there were absolutely no romantic rumors about him; he was a perfectly ordinary man.
“Won’t you at least greet Hossal Yugroul?”
Now that he had been prompted, Shikan mumbled something resembling a greeting under his breath and bowed his head, clearly annoyed by it. Hossal listened to his brusque greeting, which he had directed at no one in particular, with a faint smile on his lips.
Those who worked in the Sacred Land Otawal would all be paralyzed with nervousness when standing in front of a Yugroul family member. Even though he was before the highly influential Hossal – albeit Hossal wouldn’t do anything to ruin his career since they were old associates – Shikan didn’t change his manners at all, with his face devoid of any nervousness or reverence.
“…Stubbornness is truly inherent to the <People of the Fire Horses>…huh? Whenever I see you, those words always come to mind.” Hossal muttered.
Shikan’s eyes gleamed in response. He moved his lips as if he wanted to say something, but in the end, he remained silent.
Shikan was born in the Yukata Plains in the south of Akafah. In the past, he was part of the <People of the Fire Horses>, who raised the <Fire Horses> that were extolled as pride of Akafah for a living. After the surrender to Ziol, and the subsequent ban on raising Fire Horses, Tomasol took him under his wing.
Tomasol, Hossal’s brother-in-law, was a man interested in any living being as long as it was capable of movement, but even then, he had always been abnormally attached to Akafah’s Fire Horses. Whenever he had some spare time as a youth, he would head to the Yukata Plains, researching the way of life of the <People of the Fire Horses> while living together with them.
When the Yukata Plains were converted from wide pastures through which the Fire Horses could gallop into pastures for Ziolian sheep, he flew into a totally uncharacteristic rage, and immediately paid a huge sum of money to the <People of the Fire Horses>, buying twenty of the best stallions before the generals of Ziol could get their hands on them.
Hossal heard from his stepsister that Tomasol would have bought up all the horses if it had been up to him, but he got chided by Shin Academy’s director for being too obsessed and that it was far too unreasonable, both politically and financially.
Tomasol smiled bitterly and scratched his jaw at Hossal’s teasing, “You’re right, Shikan, you sure are a rude and unsociable guy, you know? It’d take a big weight off my shoulders if you’d at least learn the meaning of courtesy.”
Shikan listened to his words without nodding, and once his teacher stopped speaking, he turned his eyes towards Hossal, saying, “Lord Hossal, Sir Makokan has been looking for you. He mentioned that he had some urgent business with you.”
Immediately following that, Tomasol placed a hand on his head with a groan, “I was the one searching for you. Sorry, I got totally excited by the experiment’s results over here, and completely forgot that I had asked Makokan to search for you.”
Hossal burst into laughter.
“That guy always ends up playing a role like that. He went through all that trouble to find you for nothing. He’s a truly pitiable guy.”
“…I passed him in the corridor over there moments ago. Let me fetch him.” Shikan turned on his heels without even giving Tomasol a chance to reply, and left the room.
Once again, the wolf’s cage rattled.
“We’ll talk about why I sent Makokan to look for you after he gets here, but first we should talk about this rat here, I think.” Tomasol tilted the head in the rat’s direction.
The rat had stopped swimming around at some point, and now had its whole head above the water as it rested. The murky water obscured everything, but that was the only foothold that the rat could take a break on.
“This is a <Multi-Fat Rat>.”
Hossal’s eyes widened upon hearing his brother-in-law’s explanation.
“…How many days has it been since you’ve given that to the rat?”
“I think it should be the 50th day now. At this point it has memorized the foothold with a speed that’s almost no different from the other, healthy rats.”
Feeling excitement welling up in his chest, Hossal stared intently at the rat that was twitching the snout protruding from the water. This rat had succumbed to an illness of forgetfulness 50 days ago. Even when it was taught the location of the foothold, it was unable to find it again by itself. It was a rat that continued to swim through the cloudy water, and started to drown whenever it got exhausted.
Immediately after its birth, it had been continuously fed fodder containing a lot more fat than that of the other rats. At some point it started to look old despite still being young, and then it began to show symptoms of forgetfulness.
Noticing this trait, Hossal started to artificially create <Multi-Fat Rats> that had memory malfunctions, and for a long time he had repeatedly experimented on those rats, trying to create a medicine that would restore the ability to memorize. So far, there had been some medicines that produced slight improvements. However, none of them have demonstrated decisive results until this point.
“…I guess you’re truly the <Devil’s Child>.” Tomasol shook his head while laughing. “I was surprised when you came up with the idea of <Multi-Fat Rats>, but this is definitely a step towards a miracle.”
Hossal narrowed his eyes, murmuring, “It’s still just the first step.”
“And yet, it’s a tremendous step.” Tomasol replied, his smile disappearing. “If this is proven to work on people, I suspect that the ladies and gentlemen of <Sacred Beyond all Holiness> are going to kneel at your feet with tears in their eyes.”
Hossal silently scrutinized the rat. Descendents of the former Sacred King Otawal had a weird trait. Too many of them fell prey to the illness of forgetfulness to be called a coincidence. Moreover, some of them showed symptoms while still in the prime of their lives. Members of the <Three Most Sacred Families> revered as <Sacred Beyond all Holiness> in particular had a far higher rate of succumbing to this illness than the members of the other sacred lord families.
Therefore, all of those born into a sacred lineage lived with an awareness that sooner or later they were likely to succumb to the illness, which was called the <Curse of the Sacred King> in whispered circles, forgetting everything that they made them who they were and living their last moments as empty husks.
Some tried to claim that the gods punished the sacred king’s family for their arrogance in trying to approach the domain of the gods in their quest for research, but Hossal didn’t believe a word of it.
If people fell sick because of the sins they committed…if something like that truly existed, this world would have become a paradise long ago. Diseases have no emotions. They’re neither good nor evil. That’s what makes them so terrifying.
Mentioning the <Curse of the Sacred King> outside <Shin Academy> had been forbidden so that it would not be leaked to the outside world, but beyond accumulating accomplishments in fields like medical science, the people of the sacred lord families always harbored the wish – or more of a prayer – to be released from the terrifying illness that they had been ceaselessly inheriting from their ancestors. The light in the round black eyes and the pink snout of the small rat resting in the milky water held the answer to the prayers of a thousand years of people.
“…It’s still just the first step. Something that works on a rat doesn’t necessarily work on a human.” Hossal repeated himself. “The path ahead is long.”
At that moment, the wolf that had been crouching in the cage, suddenly stood. As it started to growl, the door opened, and Shikan and Makokan entered the room.
Tomasol looked at them with an expression like he had just woken from a dream, and then shifted his eyes back to Hossal.
“They’re here. …Okay, let’s have a longer talk about this matter at a later date, and focus on the other curse, shall we?” Seeing Hossal lift an eyebrow, Tomasol smiled wryly, “I’m talking about <Akafah’s Curse>. Since we managed to get some results from our research so far, I called you over.” Tomasol said, acknowledging the bows of Shikan and Makokan when they approached.
“Wash your hands and put combs into your hair. Shikan, change your clothes since you smell like dog.” Tomasol smiled at Makokan who frowned in bewilderment. “We’re going to meet with the director of Shin Academy.”
T/N: The movie was moved back for an indefinite amount of time due to an outbreak of Covid-19 in Japan. Next chapter will be released on October the 21st.