Flames spouted out of the ground like monstrous giant trees. The flame tips were the branches, while the billows of thick smoke were the leaves. These "trees" were interconnected in such a way that they formed a vast black canopy.
As Thuram walked underneath these fiery trees, he felt the temperature around him continuously rise. Pea-sized beads of sweat sprung from his forehead, while he felt that his entire back had already turned sticky. This place was a world apart from the cold desert outside, all because the chilly winds of the Months of Demons had no way to encroach into the core area of Mother Earth.
"Is this why it's called the Land of Fire..." The golden-haired Divine Lady looked around the place curiously. "I never thought there would be such an interesting place in the Southernmost Region."
Having interacted with Iron Axe's party members for a week, Thuram was beginning to know them a little. For example, the Divine Lady who spoke was called Andrea. Her excellent proficiency in archery was a class apart from even the most seasoned hunter in Sand Nation. There was no doubt that she would be participating in the imminent holy duel alongside the almighty Lady Ashes.
"Interesting?" Ashes puckered her lips. "I feel that this place is like a steamer, where any ordinary person would turn into cooked food after just two days."
"I'm not surprised you would say this sort of thing." Andrea shrugged her shoulders. "Someone with no taste and style would naturally be unable to appreciate the ambience here."
"Did you lose your towel? You don't look any stylish with all that sweat on you."
Thuram felt a little affinity with Lady Andrea. To him, the most beautiful place in Southernmost Region was not the Silver Stream Oasis where the Mojin Clan lived and reproduced, but instead, was the flame-spouting Land of Fire as well as the Endless Cape. Although these places were fraught with danger, they also symbolised great strength and were the habitats of the gods, and therefore were the sources of the Ironsand people's faith. The former of these places was used to contend for status and power, and was where clans showcased their bravery and tenacity to Mother Earth. The latter was used to make offerings to the sea deity, in hopes that he would bless the clanspeople and inject more blood into the Silver Stream so that new oases could form in the desert.
The terrain of the Land of Fire was caved downwards, with a slight upward bulge in the middle. Its shape was like that of an inverted basin, and its size could accommodate several Iron Sand Citys. The ever-raging flames had caused the surrounding sand to harden and consolidate, such that walking on the sand felt as though stepping into a palace paved with stone bricks.
On both sides of the wide and firm pavement were dark abysses and shafts. The underground fire spouted out of these shafts and continually baked the earth. The most astonishing thing was the colors - the first time any Ironsand person walked into this holy ground, they would certainly be fascinated by the gorgeous hues. Beginning from the abysses, the palisades on each side displayed varying tints of a crimson luster, which became darker as they approached the surface. This assortment of colors was akin to that of a carbon stone which had been burned until it was bright red and underwent continuous cooling.
However, once the palisades reached the surface, the color abruptly changed into a bright verdure, such that the sand seemed to be paved with a layer of glittering jade stones. The glass-like bodies, which were created through the melting and recrystallization of the gravel, refracted a dazzling glow under the flames.
Above that was, of course, the timeless motif of the place - the orange-red raging flames. A dozen pillars of flame spouted out of the basin and, as if to welcome the arrival of a new challenger, encircled the high platform in the central zone, which served as the most important place in the Land of Fire: the site of the holy duel.
Here, shades of red and green intermixed, and were further complemented by the underground blackwater and the faraway golden dunes. At first glance, it seemed like all the colors of the desert were gathered in this place. If it wasn't during the Months of Demons, one could even see the sun rays permeating through the dense smoke in the sky. Only the underwater Endless Cape, which also roared with flames, could compare to this extraordinary sight.
"I agree that this place is really beautiful... but it would be even better without the fighting and bloodshed," Thuram's new owner and the princess of Osha, Drow Silvermoon, suddenly spoke. "As His Highness Roland said, if it simply remained as a scenic place, it would have been a famous..."
"National natural park?" Another petite Divine Lady, Hummingbird, suggested.
"Yes. That's what His Highness said after he checked out Devil's Town behind the snow mountain."
"It's certainly fitting of a king to think exactly like me." Andrea tipped up her chin.
"C'mon, have you ever seen the place he was talking about?" Ashes scoffed.
"It doesn't matter if I didn't because I have a good imagination. From his words alone, I'm sure it's a place of magnificent scenery. Of course, a person with limited experience won't understand."
Whenever Iron Axe or the Divine Ladies spoke, they would inadvertently mention the King of Graycastle's name. Thuram was terribly curious about exactly what kind of person Roland Wimbledon was, that the Ironsand people and the Divine Ladies trusted him this much, particularly the latter. He once heard a traveling merchant comment that the Divine Ladies revered by the Mojin Clan were actually evil figures being hunted down by the church in the Four Kingdoms. Yet, judging from the way they spoke of the king, things were considerably different from what the merchant had said.
When the party climbed on to the platform, the awaiting Cut Bone clan warriors started to make hissing noises, while the other clans looked on contemptuously. There was no question that the thunderous might of Iron Sand City had greatly frightened them. It was later on that Thuram learned that the Stone Castle which the chief of Ironwhip, Rubaka, lived in had collapsed amid the explosions, causing him to perish along with his kin and men. Thus the six large clans swiftly became five, and for a long time, this loss could not be replaced.
However, revenge was an unalterable part of the Ironsand people's identity. The blood feud between the Ironwhip and Osha clans was no secret. And, as no warrior of a different clan had ever invaded Iron Sand City, Drow Silvermoon's plan for revenge seemed impeccable. Thus, the other clans could only watch on with shock and fear, or otherwise remained as indifferent as possible.
What they did not know was that this time, the Osha clan's goal exceeded everyone's imagination. Thuram mused, "The Cut Bone clan is only the beginning. Every one of the clans present will be challenged to a duel sooner or later. They'll either have to try their best or be crushed by Drow Silvermoon."
The chief of the Raging Flare clan, who was serving as the duel's arbiter, walked in front of the audience and announced, "May Osha's chief step forth."
Drow inhaled a deep breath, took a step forward, and slowly replied, "I am."
The former nodded stolidly and continued, "Great. This isn't your first time participating in a holy duel, and thus I expect that you already know the rules. Cut Bone clan shall be sending out 22 men for this battle. You may start to select weapons for your warriors. While the promise you made to the Three Gods mustn't be broken, you're allowed to give up or surrender at any time. Otherwise, the side with the last man standing will be declared the winner, and be conferred the right to enter Iron Sand City. The duel shall commence when both sides are ready."