120. Winners and Losers (7)
The Doppelganger-turned-Count Cyria rubbed the side of his face. His rosy cheek was now puffy, and his ear was stinging. It hurt, but for a trained soldier, it wasn’t all that painful.
However… However…! That didn’t mean it felt good! It actually felt really bad! He could barely endure bowing his head to avoid the nagging of his bear of a wife, but…!
“…You dare hit me?”
The Doppelganger kicked Benom, Count Cyria’s father, who was now tied up in the guest room within the palace. He was already knocked, a nasty bump sprouting from the back of his head, so he couldn’t feel any pain. Still, the Doppelganger couldn’t help but vent his anger.
“That’s right! Why were you insulting me?! Lowly…! To dare call an Apostle like me lowly…!?”
And Ellin was included in the outburst. She felt like she had been pointed at and insulted for reasons she couldn’t understand. So, she took the opportunity to step on the unconscious Benom until she felt better.
The other Doppelgangers took off their helmets and wiped away their sweat. Their expressions seemed to soften in relief as they did so.
“Phew… W-we managed to get in safely. Isn’t our infiltration skills quite something?”
“…Next time, I’ll never take this kind of mission. I’m especially never doing it with any of you…!”
Halsem let out a long sigh and shook his head. He had thought that a party of Doppelgangers, who were masters of disguise—no, capable of transforming themselves entirely—would easily infiltrate the palace. But what was this pitiful attempt? He was amazed that they were able to gather information from the various kingdoms without detection so far.
“Then, should we finish our mission?”
Halsem turned his gaze. First…Benom. This count looked like he had quite a high degree of authority, even within the palace. If they brought him along, it would be much easier walking around.
“Ellin, transform into him.”
“What do you mean, transform…?”
Halsem pointed toward the tied up and bruised Benom. “I mean into that old man.”
“…I-isn’t that a bit too much?”
Ellin scratched her cheek and averted her gaze to express her discomfort.
“A female Doppelganger can’t transform into a man. Not to mention, this human is large… It’s hard for a Doppelganger to transform into a human that exceeds their own physique.”
‘You can’t do it? No, why are you saying something so important just now!?’ Halsem poked his forehead as though he had a headache.
“…Y-you’re saying too much!” Ellin glared at him as though her pride was hurt.
“I’m saying a man is—”
“Into a maid.”
“Ah, well, that might be possible…”
Ellin changed her facial features and clothes. Afterward, they tied up Benom securely and locked the door on their way out.
“Okay. Now let’s get this mission started!”
Halsem’s group went out into the hallway. Not long after, a maid tried to enter the room in which Benom was unconscious with a platter of tea and cookies. She tried to open the door, but realized that it was locked. When there was no response after a knock, she grew suspicious.
‘Is he sleeping?’
She knew there was no way that he’d be sleeping with the door locked, so she called out to a nearby knight.
The Doppelganger Benom and the Doppelganger Count Cyria took the lead, while Ellin, now a maid, followed behind. Lastly, Halsem, dressed as a knight, and the other Doppelgangers pretended to be guards. As expected, they did not draw any suspicion.
Ellin peeked behind at Halsem and asked, “W-we’re okay, right?”
“…That should be the case, right? There doesn’t seem to be anyone that suspects us so far.”
When the servants and maids in the hallway saw the party, they lowered their heads to greet them. The guards, on the other hand, passed by with a bow. The combination of the nobles, Benom and Count Cyria, and the maid and the Knights ensured no one in the palace would question their presence.
They had only one mission: find Grapefruit, King Pygni’s son, and hold him hostage to end the war. However, this could only be completed once Tom and King Pygni met in secret to negotiate. After all, assassinating or threatening royalty during a war was not something any of the other nations on the continent would approve of.
“But what is that guy, Tom, doing? Why can’t we contact him?”
Ellin raised a birdcage covered with a cloth to her face and peeked inside. The crow within was currently sleeping, meaning that they couldn’t even send a proper report.
“H-hey…crow. Can you wake up? Hm?”
Ellin carefully poked it with her finger, but its eyes remained closed.
‘I don’t know if I can pull this off. I don’t know why Tom picked out someone like me for this.’
Halsem also began to feel nervous at their not-so-smooth line of communication. Still, he calmed himself down and recalled the picture of Grapefruit, which Tom had shown them before.
‘But I’m also quite a failure as a human… Even if he’s royalty, to hold a child hostage? Anyway, how do I even find this child?’
The palace was much larger than expected. Also, many rooms were only for those of royal blood, meaning they were off limits even to nobles. They knew that their speed in finding Grapefruit determined how many lives would be lost during the war. Hence, they moved quickly. Just as Halsem was lamenting their difficult task, someone tapped his armor.
When Halsem lowered his head, he met the eyes of a young child.
“Mister knight, who are you?”
Halsem froze. He recalled the picture of Grapefruit and immediately recognized the round boy in front of him.
‘He’s here! Right in front of my eyes!? What…? How could things become so simp—’
“Prince Grapefruit, there’ll be trouble if you go off on your own!”
The Knights who were guarding Grapefruit ran after him, complaining as soon as they caught up. Halsem simply watched the newcomers as his eye twitched. The guards roughly numbered around twenty. Practically half of an order of knights was watching over the prince. It looked like the current king really cared for his child.
‘…It just couldn’t be that simple.’
Halsem lowered his head nervously. The other Doppelgangers followed his example as well.
“I-I greet Your Highness.”
Ellin poked Halsem’s side with her elbow, keeping her head low.
“W-what are you going to do?” she whispered.
“W-wait. We will wait. There’s no way we can escape the palace even if we grab him now.”
“T-that’s true, but…”
As the pair whispered to each other, Grapefruit tilted his head and pointed his finger toward Halsem’s party.
“Who are they?”
The Knights were a bit perplexed. “Aren’t they Lord Benom and Count Cyria? You’ve seen them countle—”
“Yea, I know…but that person?” Grapefruit pointed toward Ellin, whose face froze. “It’s my first time seeing her. Is she from the palace?”
He acted as if he had memorized every face in the palace.
The eyes of every knight pointed toward Ellin, making her and Halsem sweat nervously.
The Doppelganger Benom replied in a panic, “Ah! She is, uh…my son’s maid!”
“…Eh? Lord Benom’s voice sounds weird. In fact, there’s something really strange about you. It’s almost like a completely different person!”
Although he spoke like an innocent and curious child, every one of his words caused the Doppelgangers to flinch.
In response to Grapefruit’s words, the Knights glared at Benom and Count Cyria before exchanging curious glances among each other. They couldn’t understand what Grapefruit meant.
“They look the same, but they’re weird…?” Just as Grapefruit was trying to wrack his mind to find the oddness, a knight rushed over in a panic and shouted, “Emergency…!”
“Immediately escort Prince Grapefruit to a safe location…!”
“What happened?” one of Grapefruit’s knights asked.
“Lord Benom was discovered unconscious in his room! It looks like he was beaten! I don’t know who, but someone has infiltrated the palace!”
“Lord Benom…? What are you talking about? He’s…”
All of the prince’s knights had turned away at the news, and when they turned back, Benom, Count Cyria, the maid, and the Knights were already escaping with Prince Grapefruit in tow.
They stood dumbfounded, unable to comprehend the sudden chain of events. After a few moments, the area was filled with panicked shouts.
“They’re the suspects!”
“T-the prince has been kidnapped!”
“Shit, we made sure to lock the door. How were we discovered!?”
Halsem tossed off his helmet and quickly unbuckled the cumbersome heavy armor. He was running, half-naked, with Grapefruit in one arm. The boy must have found the whole thing extremely amusing, as he was exploding with laughter in a carefree manner. To a child, it must have appeared like he was playing hide-and-seek with some knights.
Pygni, who had entered the commander’s tent, immediately began to peruse the documents stacked on top of his desk. They were only a few pages thick at most. Everything within the documents—the movements and actions of the Devil of Lania after having appeared dozens of years ago, his recent appearance in the Golden Fief, the battle with the Hero’s Allied Army, and the time he killed Holffmannn—all of it was impossible to connect. However, Pygni believed that there had to be some explanation for the Devil’s actions.
‘…Just what is it? What? I don’t know. I don’t know!’
Pygni read through the documents over and over again for several hours. After having focused on the contents for so long, he had almost memorized it all by heart. However, there just wasn’t enough information for him to draw any real conclusions.
‘…But, there is a commonality between these events.’
At the Golden Fief, a man had been killed with a Magic Gun prior to the Devil’s appearance. During the battle with the Hero’s Allied Army, an unknown Hero-grade human fought against Ludin before being burned to death by Aris’s magic. Even with Archbishop Holffmann, the diplomat sent by the Demon Kingdom had his head frozen solid. All these events shared one similarity: a single person was killed before the Devil of Lania appeared.
‘…Was he using the victim’s life as collateral for his strength?’
Sometimes, there were types of magic that did just that. The most notable example was Necromancy. Within Necromancy, the most forbidden among the branches of Black Magic, one used life as collateral for strength. The Devil of Lania’s power seemed similar, but something felt different as well.
Pygni massaged his tired eyes with his finger. He then drank the coffee beside him to forcibly shake off the exhaustion.
“Oh yeah… I heard rumors about that bat-shit crazy Pope. He was experimenting with creating something that used sacrifices. Could it be a similar type of magic? Using life as collateral to obtain great strength…something like that? If not, what else could it be?”
‘Using life as the price for strength, huh…’
In battle, someone would always die. Many had perished during their assault on the border wall, but the Devil of Lania hadn’t appeared then. Hence, it could only be concluded that simple life force wasn’t what he needed. Instead, a unique and pre-selected person had to die to produce that power.
As Pygni was pondering with his arms crossed, Oskal entered the tent. He carried a platter with warm coffee in his hand.
“Have you made any progress?”
“…Mmm, I would much rather prefer a beautiful woman. I feel like I might choke on a coffee made by some rough old man.” Even as Pygni complained, he extended his hand to drink it before frowning unhappily. “And it tastes so fucking good! If you weren’t a Knight, would you have opened up a shop instead?”
“I was thinking of it after retirement, but…” Oskal looked at Pygni and sighed. “A certain someone won’t release me.”
“Haha! Is that the case? It can’t be helped, though. You’re going to have to survive, not only for me but also for my son! Ah, it’ll be even better you’re around to help my grandchild!”
“You say that at least once a day. I’m scared that I’m going to be brainwashed at this rate. Also, your grandchild…? I’m not some immortal.”Oskal shook his head.
“The movements of the Demon Lord’s Army…?” Pygni asked while happily drinking his coffee.
“They are still the same. The only difference is that their numbers have grown significantly.”
Pygni held his coffee and narrowed his eyes. Did reinforcements come in that short period? Since they were reinforcing their numbers, it could mean that they were planning on sieging the fortress soon.
‘But in what way…? Did they manage to meet the conditions for the Devil of Lania’s power?’
As Pygni fell deep into thought, Oskal continued, “By the way, something… feels suspicious.”
Pygni turned to Oskal.
— Ω —