11. Intertwine (3)
“I see. So it really…!” Salem could hardly contain his excitement. “Magic that can prevent aging, death, and illness! You’re researching such a thing?”
“Um… Y-you’re hurting me. Please let go.” Akareal struggled to break free, but the Pope refused to release her.
“Magic that grants immortality—able to save those who are close to death—does it truly exist?!”
Akreal trembled as Salem’s expression became that of a madman. His sinister smile exuded a sense of true evil and unquenchable greed.
“Ah, forgive me…”
Salem released her wrist and put some effort into controlling his expression. Still, he couldn’t stop the corners of his mouth from twitching up and down. His was a joy that simply could not be contained, despite his best efforts.
Akareal gulped as she rubbed her wrist, looking at Salem with suspicion.
‘He knew about Immortality Magic?’
It had been one of the forbidden magics she had discovered while researching ancient magic. It was a terrible magic that emperor of the ancients had used to maintain his youth by sacrificing the lives of countless young children. It was immortality in word only. In reality, it simply prolonged the inevitable for as long as sacrifices were made. Ordinary people would also receive unbelievable strength. However, that’s all it was. This magic was far from true, everlasting immortality.
“This research, can you continue it?” Salem asked hurriedly.
“What are you…?”
“That’s all I desire! Please research this magic!” Spittle flew from Salem’s mouth as he drew closer to Akareal. “I will provide anything you need to complete your research. Yes, anything and everything!”
Akareal frowned at his request. “Do you even know anything about the research your asking me to do? It is a taboo magic. This is a sinister spell meant to preserve one’s youth through the sacrifice of young children.”
“Young children?” Salem grinned in delight. “All the better!” he shouted as he spread his arms wide. “There are child slaves littered all over the continent, as well as orphans should we run out of slaves. No one will mind if they disappear! No, rather, they would rejoice! We’ll be doing them a favor by cleaning up the trash…”
Akareal shot up from her seat. Salem’s excitement turned to surprise, as his attention returned to her. She was looking at him with a cold gaze.
“… You’ve changed. This is the reason I never wanted to meet you. This selfishness that lets you trample over the happiness of others if it means you can get what you want. You disgust me.”
“…I haven’t changed.” he denied.
“No, you’ve fallen further than I ever thought possible. I’ll be taking my leave. Speaking with you has made me ill enough to vomit.”
“Your words go too far, Akareal.”
“… Shut up.”
Salem let out a snicker of derision. “Haha! Finally, you’re back to your usual self! You always acted so coy in front of the Hero while the rest of us were given the cold shoulder, subject to your harsh words and distant attitude. Oh, I do miss those days so!” Salem said mockingly. “We all had such fun!”
“Yes, I also miss those days. At least back then, you bastard, you were still innocent.”
Akareal grimaced, not wanting to stay a second longer. “Like I said, I’ll be going. Che. Such a dirty thing grabbed me…” she said while holding up her wrist. “I’d better wash this later.”
Salem’s eyes shot open in rage. “… Dirty?”
Akareal struggled to lift her bag and slung it over her back. When she opened the door to leave, Salem began to mutter under his breath.
“Acting all coy and innocent and graceful. The hypocrite thinks herself to be a good person… Isn’t it amusing?”
Akareal stared back at him accusingly.
“What are talking about?”
“I’m talking about you, Akareal. Don’t you need money?”
“For your research…”
Salem smiled savagely, taking delight in toying with her.
“I’ve heard rumors that you’re forced to sell your body to the aristocracy of Lome.”
Akareal’s luggage fell to the floor with a loud thud, dropped out of shock at what he’d said. All manners of magical tools scattered across the floor. Salem couldn’t help but slap his knee and laugh at her reaction.
“Haha…! The former mage of the Hero’s party is selling her body for money? Was there such a lack of funding for your research? It’s truly amazing what they say! That you’ll sell your body and act all cute for anyone who can afford it? They also say that there’s not a single person left in the Mage Association that hasn’t enjoyed you at least once!”
Akareal gritted her teeth. “Don’t slander me. I didn’t do those things!” she exclaimed. “All those rumors are lies…”
They were lies spread by those envious of her talent. Rumors started by people who resented anyone above them, willing to resort to anything in order to drag their betters down! Because of those rumors, Akareal had become the black sheep of the Mage Association, looked down upon by her fellows. She had continued to endure the constant ridicule, believing that this was just another bump in her path to success; something that anyone with real talent had to face eventually. However, now that very same slander was being spat out by someone who had once been her companion. Akareal shivered as she wondered how far the rumors had spread for Salem to know of them.
“Lies? I am a ruler! The Monarch of the Holy Kingdom! How could I be wrong!” Salem spoke confidently as he looked her up and down.
“Well, you are very beautiful. A sexy, sensual mage with an attitude who’s willing to whore herself out? Haha! It’s no wonder those perverts are all head over heels for you! You haven’t, perhaps, sold your body to the king of your motherland, Aylans, have you?”
The words he spewed were vulgar, unbefitting of any servant of God, let alone the Pope. Akareal’s face crumpled with rage; she was staring daggers at him. Salem seemed to find her expression amusing as laughed uproariously.
“Haha! Are you still doing it? Aha! It must be true since you’re still peddling your wares!”
Akareal approached Salem and grabbed him by the collar. As she raised her fist, Salem smirked and asked her a single question.
“How would the Hero react… if he knew the truth?”
Akareal flinched and relaxed her fist. Seeing her reaction, he brought his face to her ear and whispered quietly.
“Do you want to protect it, the truth? This can be our little secret.” Salem’s expression grew more sinister. “If you want to keep this between us, why don’t you put on your little cute act for me? Just like you’ve done for those other nobles-Kwak!”
Salem crumpled onto the floor, kneeling down with his hands wrapped between his legs. Akareal calmly brushed off her knee as though it was dirty.
“Ah, sorry. My legs seem to have a mind of their own.”
“…Uh… Aah!” Salem moaned in pain.
“Oh right, my little secret? Yeah, tell him. I don’t care. No, rather, I hope you do, because the Hero will believe me regardless.” Akareal stood over Salem, looking down at him with a smug grin. “Unlike you, he doesn’t judge people solely by the rumors surrounding them. Also, can’t he discern between the truth and lies? That’s even better!” she said cheerfully. “If it’s him, he’ll know my truth! Still, it would bother me if such a nasty rumor were to reach the Hero’s ears. Even though it’s not true, I’m sure he’d still be worried by it—especially if you told him. I’d be really annoyed if the Hero’s happy life was interrupted by something as stupid as this! So, if you tell the Hero…” Akareal stopped down and grabbed a fistful of Salem’s hair. “I’ll kill you.”
“…Y-you go too far. I-it was… only a joke… and you took it so seriously… Haha! I wasn’t… going to really say it…? …Ugh.. It hurts! You should’ve at least hit me somewhere else… You just had to… urgh…”
“A joke? You’re really rotten down to the core… Okay, fine! I was joking as well. Come on, I didn’t even hit you that hard. But you’d better hurry up and use healing magic or else it might end up becoming useless. Oh, maybe it’s already useless and you were hoping that Immortality Magic would cure your impotency? Well, it does get harder to use with age, especially for frail little priests like you! Such a shame! Start taking care of yourself better; y’know, exercise a little, you rotten old bastard.”
Akareal smirked at him as she gathered her things. Salem watched her from the floor as he gasped for air through the pain, a cold sweat forming on his face.
“Ha… Ha… Haha… If you ever change your mind… you’re welcome back at any time, Akareal. If you can research Immortality Magic for me… Not just me, the entirety of the Holy Kingdom will support… Ugh… you.”
“I will not help you, nor will we ever be meeting again, Salem.”
Akareal left him with those parting words as she slammed the door behind her. Salem slowly got to his feet, continuing to stare at the empty space where she’d been standing. He dropped his head and kicked the table in rage.
“Shit…! A mere whore…! Acting all high and mighty…! Ugh! It hurts!”
Akareal sighed while massaging her forehead. She’d finally managed to reach the abbey, far later than expected.
‘Am I crazy? I could have made the Pope a eunuch!’
There was a chance that Holy Knights would be sent after her. After all, it was unimaginable that a mere mage from a foreign country had smashed the Pope’s manhood with her knee. Akareal imagined that under normal circumstances, she, her family, and anyone related to her would have been imprisoned immediately, left to rot in some cell in between sessions of toruture for the rest of her life.
‘Aah! I don’t know and I don’t care. We won’t be meeting again anyway, not if I can help it!’
Though she thought as such, Akareal still hesitated at the entrance of the abbey, remembering Salem’s words.
“How would the Hero react… if he knew the truth?”
“… It doesn’t matter,” she said to herself. “Thoma will believe me, but won’t he be worried? Ah! This is so annoying! I feel so dirty because of that bastard! It’s late, I’m tired, and now I’m stressed…!”
Akareal opened the door and entered the abbey. She was greeted by a single man standing stock-still in the foyer, arms crossed. Their eyes shined brightly, reflecting the moonlight that was flooding through the open door. Akareal was so startled by his presence that she nearly screamed, narrowly avoiding waking the entirety of the abbey. It took her a few moments to realize that it was just Oskal who was standing there.
“What are you doing?!” she hissed at him. “You scared me half to death. I thought you were a ghost. Hm? What’s wrong…” she asked, noticing Oskal was acting strange. “Did something happen?”
Akareal looked around. The abbey was quiet, which made sense when one considered the time. The monks and nuns of the abbey, along with the children they cared for, were more than likely already deep asleep. Akareal couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed when she noticed that Thoma wasn’t with Oskal.
“Has Thoma already gone to bed?”
“Akareal.” Oskal said, ignoring her question.
“I want to ask for a favor.”
Akareal frowned. Thoma and Oskal hated asking for favors. For him to have gone through the effort of waiting for her meant… The only explanation was that there was a problem which neither Oskal nor Thoma could solve. Akareal was already beginning to feel anxious.
“A favor…? What do you need?” she asked.
“… I want you to examine Thoma’s body.”
Oskal quietly opened the door to Thoma’s room. When the old door began to creak loudly, Akareal felt a tinge of panic. However, Thoma never stirred, and their infiltration ended up being much easier than she had expected. Standing over his sleeping figure, Akareal was surprised to hear how ragged his breathing was; the sound of sickly wheezing worried her. Oskal walked to her side, looking down at Thoma with equal concern.
“It’s like he was knocked out or something.” Oskal noted.
Thoma was shifting around restlessly on the bed. It looked like he was suffering through a nightmare. His body convulsed and spasmed. Even so, he didn’t wake up. Rather, it was almost like he couldn’t wake up. It was as if he was imprisoned within himself, suffering with no way out. Without warning, Thoma let out a piercing scream, sending Oskal running for the door in an attempt to shut it. Akareal jumped back in fright and held a hand over her mouth.
‘T-Thoma? T-this is a lie, right? He was fine earlier! How could the Hero of humanity…!’
They had been laughing and sharing stories over drinks just a few hours ago, yet here he was seemingly on death’s doorstep. It was a miracle that nobody had noticed his screams and moans and come to check on him. In fact, it was downright unbelievable.
Akareal turned around to look at the door, finding a paper charm covered in runes hanging on it.
“… It’s a magic that blocks sound.” she muttered.
Akareal was only barely able to stay standing—rather unsteadily—by leaning on her staff for support, her legs having lost their strength. It pained her to see this, to see Thoma struggling to keep his suffering a secret from everyone else..
“O-Oskal, just what’s going on…!”
Oskal silently looked at the nightstand beside Thoma’s bed. Following his gaze, Akareal saw an empty medicine bag and a glass of water. Oskal gritted his teeth and clenched his fists tightly, so much so that his hands were shaking.
“… He told me that he was barely sustaining himself with medicine for the time being. I thought that sounded suspicious, but for things to be this bad… Akareal, please examine him.”
“Move!” she demanded, pushing Oskal aside and quickly approaching Thoma.
She clasped his hand while reciting her spell. Akareal poured all of her concentration into her magic, causing her to start sweating from the strain. Whether it was to double check Thoma’s condition or to find some way to help him, she continued holding onto his hand for several hours. Unfortunately, as time slowly passed, she failed to find even a glimmer of hope. By the end of her extensive examination, a pale-faced Akareal’s lips quivered, as though she were about to cry.
“…How is it?” Oskal asked, his voice strained. “Thoma’s condition?”
“How is it?” Akareal glared at Oskal, taking out her frustration on him. “Did you seriously just ask me how he’s doing? He’s… this is impossible! His body is well beyond the help of any medication! His heart is beating erratically, his muscles are completely rigid, and his blood’s barely even flowing! Because of that, the mana inside his body can’t circulate properly. This… this isn’t the body of a living person! A normal person would’ve died twice over by now!”
Akareal tightly gripped Thoma’s hand again, burying her head into his palm..
‘That’s right. If this was an ordinary person, they… would have died after just three seconds in a state like this… Thoma’s mental strength has pushed him beyond the limits of what should be humanly possible.’
He was the former Hero, after all. If anyone was going to surpass their limits it would be someone like him. But, be that as it may… even he would eventually succumb to his illness, no matter how strong his willpower was.
“Is there,” Oskal hesitated, “no way?”
“Shut up!” Akareal shrieked at him.
She also wanted to believe that there was a way, but she knew Thoma’s condition all too well now. Akareal was forced to admit that there was no way to treat him.
‘A way? How could you possibly heal a person in this state!’
This was already at the level that even hundreds of priests and mages casting healing magic in conjunction would be unable to save him..
“Treatment… is impossible.”
Oskal felt faint at Akareal’s death sentence.
“Is… that true?”
She couldn’t respond. In despair, Akareal buried her face in Thoma’s hand once more.
‘It’s impossible. My magic can’t help him! There is no way to save the hero…!’
Akareal suddenly raised her head as a new idea entered her mind. It was something that she’d known this whole time, but had subconsciously avoided even considering. Until now. ‘… Is there truly no way?’
Salem’s repulsive voice began to whisper in her mind.
“I see. So it really…! Magic that can prevent aging, death, and illness! You’re researching such a thing?”
Akareal looked at Thoma with trembling eyes. His groans and pain-filled screams reverberated in her ears.
“Magic that grants immortality—able to save those who are close to death,”
Akareal shot up from her chair.
“… There is… a way.”
“What? There is?” Oskal looked at Akareal in surprise.
“Yes, there is, but… we… can’t… do that. We can never do that!”
Oskal grabbed the mage by her shoulders and shook her out of frustration. “Just what are you saying! What do you mean we can’t? Are you saying there’s something more important than saving the Hero’s life?!”
“No, but… It’s forbidden magic!” Akareal emphasized. “Something… we must never…!”
“Why are you saying we can’t! Why? Just why…! There is no way we can’t!”
“That magic is…!”
“What is more important that Thoma dying!! Are you scared that you’d be expelled as a mage? Hm? Is that it?” Akareal stared back at Oskal in a dazed silence. “Listen, Akreal! Whether you must use some forbidden magic or whatever, it’s not important to me! I’m not as conservative as you mages! I’m not as stuffy as you mages! I will do whatever it takes to save that bastard! Whatever it takes…!”
“B-but…” she mumbled weakly.
Seeing her hesitation, Oskal grabbed her shoulders with more force.
“Akreal! Think of Thoma! That bastard gave everything he had for the sake of humanity! Even though the other countries turned their backs on him, this bastard risked his life for those damned nobles and royals and killed the Demon Lord! Even now, he’s working for the sake of others as a monk! Are you hoping that such a man to die… A man who has only shown kindness his entire life? Without any reward? Huh? Akareal!”
Oskal’s face was an ugly mess. There were tears flowing from his eyes as he begged her desperately.
“I beg you. I will bear all the blame! So, please… save Thoma!”
Akareal buried her face in her hands. Her body was trembling. She was contemplating, struggling, suffering, and continuously thinking. Finally, a quiet whisper escaped her lips.
While Oskal’s face brightening, Akreal’s voice was filled with forlorn resentment.
“Yes, but the blame for this, you don’t have to bear it.” Despite Oskal’s shocked stare, Akareal finally smiled back at him. “I… will bear responsibility.”
A lantern lit with magic brightly illuminated the room. The entire room was thick with a fragrance that dulled the mind and several nude nuns were rolling around on a luxuriously large bed, on which dozens of people could lie. Salem was in the midst of these nuns, sweating and breathing heavily. Euphoria permeated his body as he groaned in pleasure.
The woman in Salem’s embrace looked similar to Akareal, and he was imagining her face on this woman. That woman… the woman he was nostalgic for…!
The beautiful mage. The woman with whom he had explored and adventured with 20 years prior. The stubborn and strong woman he loved.
‘I’m filthy? Don’t kid yourself, Akareal. I-I am a noble ruler!’
“That’s right,” Salem said gleefully. “I am a noble…!”
“W-wait! Don’t do it!” His thoughts were interrupted by a sudden commotion outside the room. “This place is forbidden… It’s dangerous! It’s a magic attack! Evade!”
There was a loud explosion following the screams of priests outside. Walking over the splinters of what had once been a door was a female mage wearing a black robe and holding a crude staff. Noticing her surprise at the scene she’d walked in on, Salem quickly turned back away from her and began stuttering out an excuse.
“No, Haha… this is. I know how this looks, buy you’re misunderstanding something. T-this… is purification ceremony…! It seems unbelievable, right? It sounds crazy even to me.”
‘… Just what kind of excuses am I making?’
Salem shook his head while rubbing his brow.
‘Why is someone of my position concerned with this sort of woman?’
Akareal frowned while watching the buck naked Pope fly into a panic.
Salem lowered his head at that word, gritting his teeth in frustration.
‘F-filthy..? Just how many times do I have to hear that today… This… is really the worst.’
His chest grew tight. All he could hear were the words of the woman before him echoing in his mind. He felt like his heart might burst out of frustration. However, Salem hid his emotions and put on one of his all too perfect smiles for Akareal.
“Yes, I am an audacious priest~!” Salem spoke in a humorous tone. “Without strength nor wisdom nor benevolence. I am a filthy priest that abuses his vast authority to get his hands on these faithful nuns…” He raised a hand to his chest. “However, I am the Pope of this land! For what reason have you sought me out? Ah, could it be because I said I would spill your little secret to the Hero? To seek me out just for that! Haha! Do you know how this situation looks? To carry out an assault on the bedroom of the Pope of the Holy Kingdom… If the king of your motherland, Aylans, knew of this, they’d be appalled. Imagine the diplomatic repercussions of your actions.”
“Ey, you filthy priest.” Akareal said nonchalantly.
Salem’s eyes twitched in response.
“… It hurts when you say it so openly.” he complained.
Akareal couldn’t help but feel disgusted seeing him act this way. However, she didn’t let her feelings get in the way of what she’d come here to do.
“Your Immortality Magic research. I’ll help you.”
Salem’s eyes grew wide, his eyes nearly bulging out of their sockets.
“… Are… are you telling the truth?”
‘Why would she change her mind so suddenly? Is this a joke? Is she toying with me? It’s a lie, isn’t it?’
Salem was beyond shocked. Knowing her personality, he knew that she would never sacrifice others for her research.
After staying silent for so long, Salem finally laughed.
‘Why would she say this? Isn’t it obvious, she got scared! She was definitely scared after having provoked me! Now she’s trying to scrape up the last bit of dignity she has left!’
Salem looked up to find Akareal aiming her staff at him.
“I will complete my research in three months, so support me.”
“Yes! Of course, I’ll help you! Anything you need! The entirety of the Holy Kingdom will assist you!”
‘The magic of True Immortality! It’s the magic that could grant me eternal life! Eternal youth and immortality! Also… it’s a magic that requires the sacrifice of young children!’
Akareal felt nothing but contempt and disgust at Salem’s expression.
“Just ready yourself properly…” she warned him.
“Haha! Don’t worry! There’s no need to rush.!” he joked.
‘I’ll help you whether it costs the lives of thousands, no, tens of thousands of children! I may be repulsive for going through all this just for the sake of extending my life, but you…’
The corners of Salem’s lips looked as though they would tear from how wide his grin had become.
‘Are filthy. However, that filthiness will grant me what I desire, so I don’t mind.’
Salem smiled happily.
— Ω —