127. Winners and Losers (14)
[You could see it that way.]
Pygni’s eyes trembled at Arrtark’s response. His mind was filled with thoughts of Grapefruit, but on the other hand, he was looking for a chance at victory. The Devil of Lania in front of him was standing stock still. Rather than being panicked at having the Demon Lord hostage, he was boldly threatening him. However, his appearance looked so stiff that it almost appeared like afront.
‘That bastard…might be struggling with concern, just like me! He must be hoping for me to buckle first…!’
But what if it wasn’t a front? What would happen after he potentially killed the Demon Lord?
‘…Everything would be over.’
Even if the Kingdom of Lome obtained victory by sparing the Demon Lord, it would only be a brief pause for negotiations before reaching a non-aggression pact. Besides these things, the Kingdom of Lome would be left in a difficult position depending on Salem’s whims. Of course, the benefit would be that he would solidify his seat on the throne for having defeated the Demon Kingdom.
‘However…it’s too weak of a benefit for this war.’
Everything would be destroyed once the Demon Lord died, including Pygni himself, his people, the land, his nation, and even his son, Grapefruit… It would all disappear without a trace.
‘…There’s nothing but despair down that path.’
It was a meager benefit at a high cost. Although he had gambled with his life countless times, the burden of the current situation was incomparable.
Pygni stared at Arrtark, who remained unmoving. His mystical golden eyes were watching him, emotionlessly, as though prying into his deepest secrets. His gaze seemed to be sucking out his soul. If he didn’t speak the truth, it was as if any lie would immediately be discovered. The silent pressure seemed to be warning him against a foolish move. This gaze… Pygni couldn’t help but submit to it.
‘…Let’s stop this idiotic gamble. Even if I win, the losses would be too great. Other than defeating the Devil of Lania here, there is no guarantee that the Kingdom of Lome will be safe. In case we sign an armistice and a non-aggression pact, the moment the duration is complete, they will surely use this war as the casus belli for an invasion…’
That would be dozens of years later, and the one sitting on the throne would not be Pygni, but his son, Grapefruit. Furthermore, at that time…not even Oskal would be there to hold the fort. It wasn’t befitting for a father to push such despair down the line to his son.
‘I guess I’m not fit to be a wise king.’
Pygni made a bitter smile and quietly muttered, steeling his resolve, “…Release my son.”
[You first, Pygni. After I guarantee that the Demon Lord is safe, I’ll have him return to the Kingdom of Lome without any harm.]
Pygni glared at Aartark.
“How can I trust that you will keep your word?”
[I swear upon the Demon Lord, Lily Golt. I shall release you all.]
Swearing to the Demon Lord? Pygni felt that there was truth in that more than anything.
He quietly closed his eyes and spoke into the crystal ball, “…Release the Demon Lord. We lost… It’s the Demons’ victory.”
<What!? Your Majesty, there’s still a chance. If we kill the Demon Lord…!>
“Shut up and let her go! You are not a part of the Holy Kingdom but a soldier of Lome; a soldier exclusive to me, Pygni! Just follow your orders!”
Pygni yelled back at Peter, shutting down his dangerous proposition
<…Understood. We’ll let her go, by your command.>
The voice this time belonged to Luis. He felt that, at the very least, Luis made smart decisions, and hearing him speak eased his concerns. However…
Pygni froze at the voice of a single woman. He felt an overwhelming sense of unease while staring obsessively at the crystal ball.
<…Losing to mere Demons? It doesn’t make any sense. We shall be victorious. Yes, we shall be victorious once the Demon Lord dies.>
Arrtark and Pygni’s eyes grew wide.
<Yes, a Demon Lord is an existence meant to die. She’s the nemesis of humanity, a devil and the source of evil that kills Heroes. She shall die by my hands.>
Pygni’s face paled at the female magician, Aris’s, words. She was a former member of Hero Ludin’s party and Ludin’s lover, a person with a grudge toward all Demons. That woman…was now saying some dangerous things in front of the Devil of Lania.
‘Dangerous! That hysterical woman…is going to go through with it!’
The reason for her dispatch was her talent. As she had a grudge against the Devil of Lania, he had suspected that she would show extraordinary ability in kidnapping the Demon Lord. However, the problem now was that she had realized the Demon Lord’s importance to the Devil of Lania. In other words, she might just kill the Demon Lord in order to exact her revenge against him.
“What kind of shit are you spouting!? Release her at once—”
<Is the Devil of Lania there as well? The one who killed…>
Aris cut Pygni off. Arrtark did not recognize the owner of the voice, but he knew of the Hero Ludin, the commander of the Hero’s Allied Army who had invaded the Demon Kingdom. He was the one who had torn out the man’s heart, and…he could easily suspect that the voice belonged to someone at Ludin’s side who was looking at him so dearly back then. As such, he understood that her words were truthful, so Arrtark spoke with weight behind these words.
[…Female mage. Release the Demon Lord immediately.]
<I can’t do that. If you hold the Demon Lord so precious, you must also feel what it’s like to lose someone so dear. Resent me and loath me. You must know this.>
The sound of teeth grinding could be heard beneath Arrtark’s helmet.
[I haven’t felt the pain of losing someone precious? Laughable! You dare say such things to me?!]
Arratrk’s golden eyes trembled. Shaking with rage, he shouted toward the crystal ball held in Pygni’s hand.
[If you don’t release her immediately, none of you will live! If Lily dies by your hands, every last member of humanity shall fall, including you!]
<The basic sentiment of a devil, as expected. Do it if you can. Even if you do, nothing will change.>
[Pygni! Command them! Stop the mage!]
Due to Arrtark’s fury, the Undead began to scream as they raised their weapons. They pressured Pygni, as if they would kill him immediately.
Pygni felt the danger creeping onto him and shouted with stumbling words.
“Wait…that is…not the intention of the Kingdom of Lome!”
Pygni turned to the crystal in his hand, which was gradually breaking apart. It was a consumable communication type crystal ball, and its usage was limited to 10 minutes. As that time has passed…the call would be cut before long.
‘It’s dangerous! If even the call is cut…!’
He would die. His son, all the soldiers here, and even the entirety of humanity might be crushed as well!
Pygni desperately shouted toward the crystal ball, “Peter! Luis! Stop Aris! It’s an order! No matter how…just stop her!”
<Peter! Luis! Stop Aris! It’s an order! No matter how…just stop her!>
A desperate scream resounded from the cracked crystal ball. Peter, who had been holding back the Demons, hesitated. He was gauging the situation while holding his Holy Sword against the Demon Lord, Lily Golt’s, neck. The Demons surrounding them were trying to think up ways to save her, and…he could also see Aris slowly approaching, gathering mana into her staff.
She was earnestly condensing her mana with all her might and aiming it toward the Demon Lord.
“W-wait…Aris! It’s His Majesty’s order! We have to release—”
“No, the Demon Lord dies. She has to die.”
Aris approached Lily with a cold gaze, but Luis blocked her path with an arrow aimed at her.
“…Aris, stop! We must obey the order from His Majesty! The war is over! The Demon Lord’s effectiveness as a hostage has been neutralized. It’s our loss.”
“Don’t speak nonsense. We are a Hero’s party made to kill the Demon Lord. For us, defeat is being unable to kill the Demon Lord, and victory is killing the Demon Lord. It isn’t that we can’t kill her, but that we didn’t…?” Aris said with a twisted smile. “Just where is such a Hero?”
“…Aris, calm down! Luis is right! We have to follow His Majesty’s order!”
Although Peter tried to stop her, his Holy Sword remained at Lily’s neck.
Luis, noticing this, shouted, “Peter, let her go!”
“What? B-but if I do that, the Demons will swarm in!”
“That’s why we have to let her go! His Majesty, Pygni, has already admitted defeat! If we forfeit our weapons and express our surrender, the Demons won’t take our lives!”
“Our lives…are you saying we could still die?”
“I’m saying we would live, you dolt! If the Demon Lord dies, we die as well!”
Peter looked back and forth between Aris and Luis. On the other side, Aris continued to gather her mana and approached him.
“Peter, kill her.”
“B-but His Majesty’s order…and what Luis is saying has merit. Just holding her like this won’t have meaning…”
“Kill her. Aren’t you the Hero? Aren’t you the Hero born to kill the Demon Lord?”
“Peter! Don’t listen to that bitch’s… Cough…!”
Luis’s voice was cut off. As though he was being suffocated, the arrow and bow he was holding fell to the ground. He clutched his throat and collapsed while glaring at Aris, gasping for breath.
“…It’s magic that takes away the air. I can only use it briefly, but it’s enough to shut your noisy mouth.”
“Aris, what did you do to Luis!? What are you doing to your companion…!”
Aris approached Peter, aiming her staff at the Demon Lord again. Lily glared at Aris.
“I’ve seen you before. You were the magician in the former Hero’s party, right?”
“You know well.”
“You think you can kill me? I might be the weakest Demon Lord, but I’m not so weak that I would die at your hands.”
Aris looked at Lily and smirked.
“You’re funny for someone who got captured, history’s most incompetent Demon-Lord.”
Lily bit her lips in frustration.
“Well, Demons have some inherent tolerance to magic, and Demon Lords more so. Instead of magic, how about a sword? It’ll be different if it’s a Holy Sword.” Aris turned her gaze toward Peter. “Peter… Can you kill the Demon Lord?”
Peter grabbed Lily in a panic and said, “What? No, what are you talking about…! I just told you I can’t kill her…!”
“Aren’t you a Hero? Weren’t you granted the title of Hero by the Pope in order to kill the Demon Lord?”
“For humanity…kill the devil, the Demon Lord! The sole purpose of Heroes is to eliminate heretics, cults, and devils! Kill the witch! If you don’t…the Pope will see you as a heretic.”
Peter hesitated. Not missing the opportunity, Aris quickly approached him. She grabbed his hand, and at the same time, light burst out from her staff. All the condensed mana seeped into Peter’s body and made his head numb. Her voice not only rang in his ears but in his head as well.
Luis, his hands wrapped around his neck, glared at Aris. ‘…Charm magic…?’
Peter looked at Aris, and his head turned dizzy.
With a miserable expression, Aris whispered, “For me…”
Peter’s eyes grew large.
“N-no… Aris… I…”
“Don’t you love me? If you kill the Demon Lord…I can reciprocate your feelings.”
As she whispered into his ear, Peter’s rationality snapped, and he nodded.
“Yes, I understand.”
Peter pushed Lily, who lost her balance and fell to the floor. The Demons desperately rushed toward her, but Peter turned to the fallen and dumbfounded Lily. He put all his strength into the hand holding the Holy Sword and raised it up.
His unfocused eyes stared at Lily, accompanied by a chilling laugh.
“For humanity, and for Aris… I, the Hero, shall slay the Demon Lord!”
He brought down his sword with all his strength. The sharp blade dug through a hand, almost cutting it clean. The Holy Sword was narrowly stopped before it struck Lily, leaving her trembling. Lily stared forward, wide-eyed.
“…Uwaaaack…! You’ve gone mad, Peter! You bastard, no matter how stupid you are, you became entranced by a woman in this situation? Are you insane!?”
Luis grabbed the hilt of the sword with his mangled hand. If he had missed even a little, his hand would have been severed entirely. Luis looked at his hand and ground his teeth.
‘Shit…! My hand…!’
For archers, their hands were their life. Thus, having his hand pierced through made his teeth tremble.
Luis glared at Peter with resentful eyes.
“Luis…? Don’t stop me! I’m only doing my job as a Hero!”
“Don’t make excuses! You got charmed by Aris, yet you call yourself a Hero!? There’s a limit to naivety…!”
Luis poured out profanities for his hand. Peter’s skill was commendable, but the development of his mind, concentration, and wisdom was lacking, so to call him a Hero was a bit of an overkill. No, it might be because of these factors that the Holy Kingdom or Aris had made him a Hero in the first place. He was easy to control
‘Shit…but this isn’t it! To think this fucker is a Hero…! Really pitiful…! We’ve left the continent to these idiots? The world has gone crazy!’
“Why are you interfering? Could it be… Luis, were you seduced by the Demon Lord!?”
At Peter’s words, Luis felt something inside him snap. There was a limit to how idiotic someone could be.
‘Aah… really… So mad-!’
“Shit, you dumbass Hero…!”
Luis gripped his dagger with his other hand and dipped it into the leather pouch on his waist. A white powder stained his dagger, which he stuck into Peter’s thigh. The blade dug into the gap between his armor, causing him to bleed.
Peter gritted his teeth and yelled, “If you’re with the Demon Lord, I can’t forgive even you! Luis! Die for humanity-!”
Peter wildly swung his Holy Sword. Luis’s hand flew off, but before the sword reached his neck, it stopped. Peter faintly opened his eyes and frowned.
“Damned Hero, are you awake now? It’s a paralytic that takes effect immediately. Looks like it’s useful against you.”
“What did I…”
The Demons finally swarmed Peter. Kuman had also regained consciousness. He grabbed Peter and slammed him to the ground. He then stood over him and swung his fist.
“S-save Her Highness…!”
Kulbo and the goblins frantically dragged Lily away and retreated. Aris lifted her staff to stop them, but Nordin Wood stood in front of her.
As a ball of flame appeared on Aris’s staff, Nordin Wood extended his hand.
“It’s not only humans that can use magic, brat!”
The ground underneath Aris collapsed. Tree roots grew wildly, restricting her legs and her entire body. The tree roots then tightened, and sounds of bones breaking and screams rang out in the hallway. Still, Nordin Wood had a sour expression, and he did not stop. The mana gathered in Aris’s staff eventually depleted, extinguishing the ball of fire.
“Ey! What…is happening! Ey…!”
Pygni was desperate. The communication crystal ball had expired, shattering into fragments. Amid transparent pieces falling to the ground, he slumped over with despair on his face. He couldn’t hear what had happened to the Demon Lord. If something went wrong…they could all die!
As Pygni swallowed dryly, Arrtark turned to the crow sitting on his shoulder. The crow opened its mouth and spoke in a familiar voice.
<…Is this Apostle Tom? It’s Nordin Wood. We’ve rescued the Demon Lord. She’s injured, but she’ll recover with a bit of healing.>
Relief washed over Pygni, but the next instant, he noticed a particular word, forcing him into silence. She was not released but rescued. The difference of a single word was like a chasm. Arrtark remained quiet and glared at Pygni.
[This is incredibly unsettling, Pygni.]
His killing intent and hostility caused the surroundings to turn dark. It felt like his enraged gaze was physically pressing down on Pygni.
[The responsibility of this incident, how will you bear it?]
Pygni took a step forward and approached Arrtark. The water of death flowed around him, making his feet wet. As Pygni’s shoes turned dark, his skin gradually grew black and rotten as well. All the knights hurried to rescue him, but he held out his hand and stopped them.
“I-I…will take full responsibility.”
Pygni kneeled, his action freezing the knights. A king of a nation, ruler of the Kingdom of Lome, the prideful land of knights, kneeled? It was an insulting act that had never occurred before. Also, if the other nations knew this, it could cause the Kingdom of Lome’s reputation to be crushed to dust.
Pygni opened his mouth to speak with great difficulty, the swamp of death continuing to decay his flesh, “…Please forgive us. Although there was pressure from the Holy Kingdom, the act of invading another nation and causing unrest to its people, we, the Kingdom of Lome, shall bear it and compensate you in some way. Also, we shall take responsibility for threatening the Demon Lord, and we, the Kingdom of Lome, formally apologize to the Demon Kingdom.”
Pygni slowly lowered his head, his voice trembling toward the end. “I accept defeat. It is your victory.”
His head was buried in the swamp of death and eventually swallowed up.
“If there’s anything you wish… I shall compensate you. As long as it is within my power…yes, even if it is my life…!”
— Ω —