10. Missed Paths (2)
Screams broke out and onlookers retreated in fear. Seeing the men he was after trying to escape, the Holy Knight gestured with his finger. The soldiers he’d brought lined up and brandished their crossbows in an orderly fashion before aiming them at the criminals.
“They are criminals involved in the distribution of illegal narcotics,” the Holy Knight shouted above the commotion. “Heretics that have gone against the teachings of our Lord Arrtark! Their lives are forfeit. Fire!”
Once the order was given, the soldiers fired their crossbows with no regard for the people around them. Bolts flew about wildly, piercing through the arms, legs, and bodies of innocent bystanders and lawbreakers alike.
One of the criminals grabbed a female employee and held a dagger to her neck. “Shit! Don’t you guys care if she dies?! Back off…! Make way, I say!”
The employee screamed in fright. “Kyaa-!”
Oskal began to stand in order to intervene when he suddenly slapped his forehead, remembering something quite problematic.
“Shit… I came here on a diplomatic mission. It’ll be a problem if I cause a scene. Akareal?”
“… It’ll be a problem for me as well. Magic is forbidden within the capital.”
The pair looked at Thoma.
“Ah, I got it. I’ll try to do some…”
When Thoma tried to stand, he dizzily collapsed back onto his seat.
‘… I can’t put any strength into my legs.’
Thoma reached for the table to push himself up but instead lost his balance, falling alongside the table as it tipped over.
“Are you okay?!”
Oskal stood in a panic while Akareal rushed to support him. The Holy Knight sent a glance toward Thoma’s party before turning his attention back to the captive woman.
“…Hey, Miss Employee.”
The female staff member stared at the Holy Knight, tears welling up in her eyes.
“Do you believe in our Lord and Savior, Lord Arrtark?” he asked.
She didn’t understand why she was being asked such a question, but there was nothing more she could do other than fervently nod her head in response.
“Yes! I am a believer! So please… save me!” she begged in between sobs.
“I see. So you claim to be a faithful believer. If that’s the case… fire.”
The soldiers fired without hesitation. Both the criminal and the woman he held hostage were turned into human pincushions almost instantaneously. A tense silence fell over the bar as the onlookers all stared at the bodies strewn about. Meanwhile, Oskal, Akareal, and Thoma stood frozen, shocked by what they’d witnessed.
The Holy Knight approached the dying woman.
She struggled to speak through her dying breaths. “J-just w-why…?”
“If you are truly a believer of Lord Arrtark, you will go to heaven. Go there and be reborn under his blessing.” The Holy Knight placed the point of his blade against the woman’s neck. “So… go peacefully.”
His blade pierced her neck in one swift motion. A gurgling sound could be heard across the silent bar as blood spilled from her mouth. Everyone watched as the barmaid spent her final moments choking on her own blood. Once she had passed, the Holy Knight poured a bottle of Holy Water over the woman’s corpse and gave a short prayer. He then turned to face the criminals that were still alive, having been rounded up by the soldiers.
“Now, wait a minute…! Let us repent!”
“W-we also believe in Lord Arrtark!”
“Please purify us!”
They all knelt down with their heads lowered, offering money or other valuables to the knight. The Holy Knight looked down toward the men groveling at his feet.
“Repentance? You want me to perform the ceremony of purification?” he asked.
The men answered immediately.
“Y-yes, that’s right!”
“Praise Lord Arrtark!”
The Holy Knight accepted their offering amidst their proclamations.
“Fine. However, you will have to undergo a Trial of Heresy. Pain brings regret, and regret shall guide you down the path of righteousness.”
“W-we are grateful!” one of the criminals exclaimed.
The Holy Knight turned away and motioned toward the men he’d brought. “Arrest them.”
The soldiers rushed past him to cuff the criminals. Despite having been captured, the criminals wore content smiles as they were dragged away.
After they left, Oskal clenched his teeth before clicking his tongue in revulsion.
“Crazy bastards…! All the innocents he killed will go to heaven? The criminals will be saved with money? Fucking crazy bastards…! He would have killed her even if that woman said she wasn’t a believer!”
“Oskal, just leave it at that,” Akareal insisted. “Insulting a Holy Knight will bring trouble, even for you.”
She looked at the dead woman and closed her eyes to avoid the gruesome scene.
“Thoma! You bastard, since when did this kingdom become such a revolting place?”
Thoma looked back at Oskal with his mouth shut.
‘Since when did the Holy Knights start using such aggressive tactics?’
Even he had never seen anything quite like this before.
‘… Something about this place has become twisted.’
Looking around, Thoma could see that even the other patrons of the bar were still shaken up.
“W-what was that? Why did the Holy Knight suddenly…”
“A-ah, it must be because of that drug.”
“It’s some new kind of narcotic. It started getting popular around a year ago. I’ve heard it makes you hallucinate.”
“I don’t know much about it,” someone else chimed in, “but I’ve heard that the Kingdom is harsh on anyone that so much as touches the stuff.”
Thoma frowned upon hearing this information. ‘A narcotic?’
“I have things to do tomorrow, but this just makes me nervous!” Oskal complained. “What in the hell are they doing? Oh right, Thoma. Do you have any extra room in your abbey?”
“Room…?” Thoma thought for a moment. “There are some guest rooms, but…”
Before he could finish speaking, Oskal moved closer and patted him on the back. “Then I’ll be in your care for the night.”
Noticing Thoma’s uncertainty, Oskal pointed toward the entrance of the bar.
“I’m supposed to stay at the Palace, but how can I get any rest being in the same place as those bastards from earlier?”
Akareal rubbed her temples and shook her head. “…Oskal, you always manage to say the most dangerous things.”
“Well, in that case, you’re welcome to stay.” Thoma said.
Seeing that he had relented, Akareal thought it a good time to test her luck as well. “Then, I can join in on your offer?”
“Hm? I don’t mind, but… the rooms will be quite a mess.”
Akareal spoke with a smile. “That’s fine. I’ll grab my things from the inn and come by later.”
“Ah, take your time,” Thoma replied. “You know how to get to the abbey on your own, right?”
Akareal nodded with a bright smile.
“Ah, I can see it now.” Oskal announced, the pair finally in sight of the abbey. “While we’re on the topic, isn’t this abbey a bit too far from the capital? Sure, you don’t have to deal with the rampant crime like in Lania, but what if some demon attacks?”
Oskal evaluated the abbey in the distance. This place was more than two hours from the capital by foot. Rather than travel all the way out here, people were more likely to just make their donations and pray at the church in the city..
“Crazy. It’s crazy. Are you guys even making enough money to feed yourselves?”
Thoma laughed awkwardly at his question. This was a touchy topic for him. Now that even the elderly no longer made their way here, it was only a matter of time before his abbey would be closed by order from the capital. If that came to pass, all the monks and nuns would be transferred to the church within the capital, leaving Thoma and the children without a home.
“Well, there’s still a bit of money left.”
The two walked in silence for a short time, before Oskal peeked over at Thoma and finally asked what had been on his mind.
“… Your health… what happened to you?”
Thoma’s expression turned bitter. It seemed that the reason for his tumble at the bar hadn’t gone unnoticed. He must have looked like some sick, elderly man who fell from just trying to stand.
‘How should I tell him?’
Thoma knew there was no point in telling him some half-assed lie.
“… My body’s been deteriorating with age.”
“You’re still using your age as an excuse? I’m at least 10 years older…”
“And now I have some kind of disease.”
Oskal’s eyes widened at the news.
“According to a pharmacist I visited, I should have had half a year left at best… It’s been a little more than a year since I got that diagnosis and I’m still walking around fine. But lately, I’ve been hallucinating and hearing things. Occasionally, I start feeling dizzy and if I try to get up, my body gets stiff.”
Thoma faced Oskal with an unexpectedly bright smile, considering the topic.
“Want to place a bet?” he joked. “How much longer do you think I’ll live for?”
“… What about magic? Have you tried healing yourself with Holy Magic?”
“I was still a Hero once, you know. I received this diagnosis through an expert I’m close with. I was told that it’s an incurable disease, similar to a curse that hardens your body irreversibly.”
“He said the scary thing about this illness is that it kills you slowly over a long period of time, and it’s been quite a long time. It’s been 10 years… no, 20 years now. It might be… the curse of the Demon Lord.”
“Did… the Demon Lord really curse you?” Oskal asked in disbelief.
“As if… But, it might be easier just to think of it that way.” Thoma looked at Oskal sullenly. “Do you think… Akareal knows?”
“No, she may be a mage, but even she probably won’t realize it unless she examines you. Even I thought you were just drunkenly falling over earlier.”
“Really?” Thoma chuckled. “Was I that clumsy?”
“… That’s right, it was hilarious! Shit, the friend I haven’t seen in forever is dying? Isn’t this a bit crazy? Akareal going to be shocked for sure when she finds out! The Hero she had a crush on is sick…!”
Thoma burst out in laughter at Oskal’s words. “Haha! You’ve misunderstood all this time.”
“The one Akareal likes isn’t me, but His Holiness, Salem.”
“…Eh?” Oskal took a moment to process what Thoma had just told him. “Ehhhhh?! Salem? She likes that damn bastard?!”
“She… how do I say this… Rather than having affection for me, it’s more like… camaraderie. Well, she did mistake that emotion for love in the past, but I’m sure she’s over it now…”
“… You sure?”
“Yep.” Thoma said confidently.
“… This is also shocking in its own right. Phew!” Oskal jabbed at Thoma’s abdomen. “In any case, just you wait. I’ll find a way to save you no matter what.”
“… It’s a waste of time.”
“Don’t you want to live?”
“… I used to be the Hero. I was prepared to die at any time once I was sent to subjugate the Demon Lord. Also…” Thoma looked at Oskal. Seeing his face, Oskal was left speechless. Thoma was smiling; it was the biggest smile he’d shown in a long time. “I can’t die just yet.”
Oskal stared at him silently. It seemed like he wanted to say more, but the two of them arrived at the abbey’s entrance.
“We’re at the abbey now. Go on and sleep. Have a good night.” Thoma said his goodbyes and retreated to into the abbey.
Oskal, who watched him leave, furiously rubbed his head like a child having a tantrum. “Fuckkkkk-! Shit! Shit! Shit! You bastard! You were trembling just now! Prepared to die? Don’t fucking joke around! There’s no way someone laughing like that… is prepared to die! I’ll definitely find a way to save you!” Oskal roared into the night and followed Thoma inside.
Akareal was in her room at the inn packing up her belongings. She continued to stuff various magical tools and materials into a large bag, until it looked ready to burst. Akareal looked over all of the things still strewn about and sighed.
“Why did I have to bring so much? Oskal… I should have asked that gorilla to help me carry everything.”
Despite the ban on magic in the capital, magical tools were a hot commodity in the Holy Kingdom. She had only brought items that looked to be profitable, but they didn’t sell as well as she had hoped, leaving her with more luggage than she’d planned for.
‘But, I got to meet the Hero after so long, so it’s fine!’
Akareal continued packing her bags with great effort. As she finally managed to leave the inn, dizzy with fatigue, someone approached her while she took a break to catch her breath.
Hearing that voice, Akareal was at a loss for words. In her peripheral vision, she could see everyone around her quickly lowering their heads in fear. Even passing Holy Knights stopped to kneel down and and show respect to the owner of that voice. Akareal felt increasingly nervous as she slowly raised her head. In front of her was a man in his late 40s, beaming a magnanimous smile which accentuated the wrinkles on his aged face. He was a man whose most noticeable features were his head of thick, blonde hair and his vibrant, blue eyes. A miter sat atop his head and he wore a multitude of other vestments as well.
Akareal frowned as she finally spoke his name. “… Salem Gattschuranche.”
“Ah, it’s been so long, Lady Morgana of the Aylans Mage Association. Or would you prefer if I called you by the name you went by during our time as companions in the Hero’s party, Akareal?”
Salem’s smile widened.
Akareal, who had been invited to Salem’s personal office within the palace, continued to fidget restlessly. She felt strangely uncomfortable despite sitting on a luxurious sofa; perhaps the reason was that it felt too comfortable, more so than Akareal was used to.
“Now then, let’s at least drink some warm tea together.”
Salem placed a pot of tea onto the table and sat across from Akareal, before pouring some of the tea into two teacups he’d also brought.
“Ah, thank you,” she said, as he handed her a cup of tea.
After she received her tea, Akareal warily observed Salem.
‘Ah, this is a problem. I wanted to avoid having to see this bastard at the very least…’
Unfortunately, she ended up meeting the person whom she least wanted to see. No, this seemed too convenient to have been a chance meeting. Could it be that he actively sought her out? Akareal held the teacup to her lips and fell into thought; her main concern was figuring out why the Pope wanted to meet her so badly.
‘Could it be because we were comrades in the past? Is this nothing more than a greeting?’
While such thoughts raced through her mind, Salem narrowed his eyes and spoke mischievously.
“Oh, right! Have you met with the Hero yet?”
“Hm? Ah, of course.”
‘Is this even a serious question?’ she wondered, taking another sip of tea as her mind wandered.
“So,” Salem smirked, “do you still have a crush on the Hero?”
“Puu-cough! Cough!” Tea spewed out of Akareal’s mouth.
Salem found this amusing, snickering with a hand over his mouth. “Haha! Still?”
“Ah, n-no.” Akareal was quick to deny it. “It’s already been 20 years. Isn’t that too great a time to wait longingly for a love that won’t be reciprocated? I’ve already had several partners since our adventuring days.”
‘The only problem was that they didn’t suit me.’
“But, you haven’t married yet?” Salem asked questioningly.
“That is… because I’ve been so preoccupied with my magic research…”
Salem nodded a few times in understanding, causing Akarel to smile awkwardly.
“Ah, magic research? That explains it then. Your magic research.”
He looked at her from top to bottom.
“You’ve got a lot of luggage.”
“I-it’s because I have to sell magical tools to fund my magic research, so I brought a lot with me.”
“That must be hard,” he said.
Akareal laughed sparingly, not knowing how else to respond..
‘Ah, it’s always so fucking awkward with this guy! I want to get out of here quick! His constant smiling is so unnerving!’
Unable to reveal her inner thoughts, Akareal let out a sigh and spoke.
“T-then I’ll be going.”
“Where are you going?”
“To see the Hero.”
Salem’s smile grew stiff. “… I see.” His fingers began tapping on the table. After a moment of hesitation he spoke with a pained voice.
“So… it appears that you do still desire the Hero.”
“No, I said it’s not true!” she denied, yet again. “Haha… it was so long ago…”
Akareal rose from her seat, but was stopped when Salem grabbed her hand.
“I want to ask you something.” he said somberly.
“Eh? Ah… yes.”
‘Just ask then! Why do you have to grab my hand?!’
Akareal swallowed the words she wished she could say and accepted that she would have to listen to whatever idiotc thing Salem would ask next.
“Immortality Magic,” he said.
Those two words sent a shiver down Akareal’s spine. Nobody outside of a select few people should have known about that, least of all Salem.
“I’ve heard there was research being done related to that field.”
“How…? Ah!?” Akareal cried out in pain.
Salem was practically crushing her wrist with an iron grip, refusing to let go.
— Ω —