13. Traitor (2)
After being lead into a luxurious bedroom, Oskal kicked the nearest piece of furniture. The table shattered noisily after flying across the room and smashing into the wall. Seeing the expensive looking table suddenly destroyed, the other knights stood shocked, mouths agape, before trying to calm their captain down in a panic.
“Please calm yourself, captain!”
“It’ll be a big issue if they use this as an excuse against us!”
Oskal clenched his teeth and shouted at them.
“Hah! They have plenty of other things to complain about! You think they’re going to break the alliance now? Hah! As if. That bastard is completely looking down on Prince Pygni. He’s not the type of person to let go of such a convenient puppet! Shit…!”
Oskal threw open the door to the bedroom. The Holy Knights standing outside took one look at Oskal and immediately blocked his path.
“Oi. I’m going to the bathroom. Move aside.”
The Holy Knights stood their ground and replied to Oskal’s order. “There is a restroom inside the room.”
“Huh?! I’m sorry, but I hate bathrooms that are that white. I’d rather squat in an alley to relieve myself, so move aside.”
The words he spoke sounded too vulgar to have come from the mouth of a Royal Knight; the other knights could only reach for their brows or shake their heads out of embarrassment.
However, the Holy Knights remained indifferent. In other words, he was literally being ignored.
“I said move!”
“These are the Pope’s orders.”
“I am a Knight of the Kingdom of Lome!” he yelled.
“And it was also an order from Prince Pygni.”
Oskal frowned when he heard this.
He was a Royal Knight of Lome, but he was also the head of the La Penrose duchy, which had protected the royal bloodline for generations. More than anyone else, his family valued their loyalty to the crown and would absolutely follow the orders of the royals.
He groaned before kicking another piece of furniture—this time a chair—across the room as the Holy Knights were watching.
“Shit! Why?” he complained noisily. “Why are we forbidden from leaving the palace?!”
There was a festival outside, celebrating the alliance between the Holy Kingdom and the Kingdom of Lome, but also in celebration of the news that the newly dispatched Hero’s party was gaining ground against the Demon Lord. The merchants, as well as the wealthy residents of the capital, were gathered in celebration.
‘That bastard, I’m still worried about him.’
Oskal was concerned for Thoma. He could imagine his old friend collapsing after he’d left, with nobody but the children of the abbey around to help him.
“This festival, just how long is it going to go on for?” he asked the Holy Knights. “Aren’t you pouring tons of money into it? Perhaps a month?!”
As Oskal was shouting, he noticed something strange going on outside.
“First Row Complete!”
“Second Row Complete!”
“Third Row Compete!”
He could see large formations of Holy Knights gathering in lines across the palace’s plaza. They were all dressed in hardened plate armor, carrying cross spears exceeding 2 meters in length in one hand and large full-body shields in the other. The one who appeared to be their captain was shouting with a roaring voice, while carrying his own shield and warhammer.
“From this point on, we are going to capture all of the heretics committing blasphemy!”
Oskal frowned internally.
“What is this?”
‘Heretics committing blasphemy?’
They definitely had excessive numbers for such a task. This was a military force capable of razing a small kingdom. Organizing this many troops right in the capital, were they planning on starting an uprising? Regardless of what it was actually for, it seemed serious, seeing as hundreds of Holy Knights had been gathered.
‘Could it be a show of military force for us?’
“Oi? Isn’t that strange?”
The other Royal Knights gathered at Oskal’s call.
“Well… couldn’t it be for keeping the peace during our diplomatic visit?”
“… For what?”
“There’s also the matter of increased crime we heard about earlier, but I’ve also heard that the newly dispatched Hero party is doing well. The demons are probably getting worried, so they might launch a counter-attack.”
“… Is that really the case?” Oskal asked, unconvinced.
He rubbed his chin in contemplation, finally starting to notice just how much the Royal Knights admired the Holy Knights.
“Wow… The Holy Kingdom is really amazing. Each of those Holy Knights can face off against one of us. They say there are several thousands of them guarding the capital alone… Ugh… I wouldn’t want to make this kind of nation our enemy. Anyway, the Pope seemed like he was of good character, didn’t he?”
“Eh? That bastard?” Oskal asked incredulously. “You really don’t have an eye for people!”
“… The same could be said of you as well captain. Anyway, he’s much better than that loser prince.”
“… Loser prince?”
Oskal paused and looked at the knight in disbelief. The knight quickly covered his mouth once he realized his mistake.
“Do you all share that sentiment?” he asked, turning toward his men.
“Huh? No… t-that is…”
The Royal Knights were sweating nervously while glancing at each other, until Oskal nodded.
“Yeah, I think so too.”
“… Huh????!” A collective cacophony of surprise rang out from the Royal Knights.
“No, captain! Isn’t that too much?” one of his men asked hastily.
Oskal was surprised by their reaction, frowning as he spoke. “What? You guys can make fun of him, but I can’t?”
“Well, the captain of the Royal Knights shouldn’t do that!”
Oskal crossed his arms and furrowed his brow. “… Aren’t you guys the subordinates of said captain?”
“But, isn’t the situation different for you?”
“… You’re not wrong,” Oskal finally conceded. “Mmm, he’s a loser prince in your eyes as well, is he?”
Oskal sighed as he said this, and recalled what had happened a few months ago. Prince Pygni had been expelled from the kingdom after he had molested a maid right in front of the king. In that moment, Oskal had wanted to shout profanities at the little fool. He’d wondered how it was possible for such a garbage person to exist? The incident was enough to make him doubt whether such a person could have been born in Lome, known for its wisdom.
He remembered what the King of Lome had asked him afterward.
“Oskal, how do you view Pygni?”
“…He is the prince.”
“That’s not what I am asking, do you see him as a dog or a pig?”
Oskal had stayed silent under the weight of such a question. At the same time, he didn’t deny the king’s implication. Prince Pygni’s actions had plummeted both the authority and the reputation of the royal bloodline to such a degree that even the king could no longer ignore his actions, and his current questions showed as much.
“There are two things I fear the most in the world. First is the Pope of the Holy Kingdom. The one person who has the power to force other rulers to bow to him, and also the one person who has the power to crush our kingdom. Next, is…”
He weakly shook his head.
“Prince Pygni, my son. I am scared of him.”
“What do you…?”
“Others say that he is nothing more than a beast, like a dog or a pig. How could the words ‘loser prince’ reach my ears otherwise? But, more than a beast, I think he is,” the Wise King of Lome trembled faintly, “a monster. A monster that is hiding its identity.”
Oskal couldn’t help but blurt out a response to the words in his head. “… No, no! How could that be! He was just grinning pervertedly at those women, that’s all!”
He shook his head in vexation. Pygni was already enough of a troublemaker to concern the elderly King of Lome, who was nearly past his 70s.
Outside, the Holy Knights were getting ready to move out.
“Are you all prepared?”
The gathered Holy Knights looked toward their captain. He spoke loudly to ensure that everyone could hear him.
“We will now enact justice on those heretics spreading evil; we must suppress those blasphemers! Now, remember the Pope’s orders. Do not kill them! We are the soldiers gathered by our God, Lord Arrtark. Blessings of…!”
Every Holy Knight shouted as they slammed their spears into the ground
The captain held his hammer up in the air. “Now, forward!”
Thoma, who had returned to the abbey, sat at the table in his room and covered his mouth.
He muffled his scream with all his might and yelled into his clenched fist. The pain had grown worse; it was growing worse with each passing day.
He pulled out his bag of medicine, and took some. The pain began to subside almost instantaneously, but as it disappeared, his mind grew murky.
He surrendered himself to this strange—yet comforting—sensation, but…
“…Are you in pain?”
A phantom had suddenly appeared, and it was speaking to him. A headless body clad in armor stood tall, right over him. The head of the Demon Lord lay on the floor beside its feet, staring at him wide-eyed. His mouth was moving abnormally fast as he spoke.
“Are you in pain? Suffering? How does it feel like to be cursed? Isn’t it painful? Hm? Painful, isn’t it? Hahahaha! Die, die, die, die!”
Thoma stared at the specter in silence, before finally speaking. “… You are an illusion.”
“An illusion?” the head asked mockingly. “Did you say that I am an illusion? Is that what you think? Hahaha!”
This illness was definitely a naturally occurring disease. It wasn’t something like a curse, but there were times when he considered whether it truly was the work of the Demon Lord, trying relentlessly to make him suffer out of revenge. Those times of uncertainty were signs of his regret. It was the self-hatred that came from the whisperings of doubt in his mind; the thought that he might have killed an innocent demon. This doubt had never truly surfaced in his conscious mind, instead it had been an unknown burden on his heart for decades. However, now that his body was breaking down, so was his mind. Those repressed thoughts were freed from their previous shackles, and were slowly floating up out of the subconscious.
“Kihihihihihi! An illusion? I am a lie? It doesn’t matter! I am merely here to curse you! I only exist to make you suffer! Die! Die! Die!”
The Demon Lord’s voice began to change in strange ways as its head split, the pieces rolling in different directions across the floor. Thoma covered his ears as its terrible voice could be heard all around him, from every direction. He hoped to shut the voice out, but the hallucinations continued unperturbed.
“…You’re loud.” Thoma complained.
His fingers began digging into his ears. Deeper and deeper, in the hope of eventually blocking the cacophony of voices assaulting him.
“Die, die, die, die, die, die, die, die, die, die, die, die, die, die, die, die, die, die, die, die! Eh…? You died?”
The scenery changed with those last words from the Demon Lord. Thoma looked around in surprise. It felt like he was in a coffin, and the lid was slowly being closed. He could hear the voices of the children spilling in from above.
This was ‘death’. He was at death’s door.
‘I… will die?’
Thoma opened his mouth to shout. He reached out to push the lid open, but black hands spilled out from within the coffin, covering his mouth and wrapping around his arms. His voice wouldn’t come out, and as the lid slowly drew to a close, he could no longer see any light. Thoma’s trembling eyes fell into despair as tried to shout with all his might; it felt like his lungs were going to explode. He had heard something right before the lid closed… it had been Ellie’s voice.
Thoma’s eyes shot open as he was shaken awake.
It was then that Thoma realized he had been screaming, and closed his mouth. Ellie was clinging onto his arms. Thoma pulled his fingers out of his ears and looked at them in shock. They had pierced his eardrums and were now slick with blood.
He couldn’t hear very well now, and what he could hear sounded distorted. On top of that, his throat felt like it had been ripped open. Having calmed down to an extent—though his breathing was still ragged—Thoma looked to his side.
“Sister… Ellie? Your health…? Are you okay?”
Everything he said sounded slurred and was spoken slowly, as if he was having trouble putting together the words.
“Is this the time to be checking up on me? What’s going on with you, Thoma! Why are you acting this way? Why are you screaming? Why did you hurt your ears? Just tell me why you’re acting this way? Please?! Tell me! Are you sick? Are you feeling unwell?”
Thoma couldn’t respond to Ellie’s tear-filled words, and was unable to decide what to do. Ellie was overcome with fear and shock, and still, her eyes were full of concern. Her frail body trembled as she gripped onto his shoulder.
“J-just why are you doing these things? Your ears… what happened to them? Hm? Can you hear me? Brother!”
“…No, Sister Ellie. I-I… am fine.”
‘I’ve been caught! Sister Ellie ended up seeing me in this state!’
“Lies! You’re lying!” she cried out. “Are you sick?”
“No, it’s… a nightmare! That’s right. It was just a nightmare!”
Thoma tried to quickly change the topic as he always did, but Ellie only grew more confused after having seen the true state of his health.
“B-but…” she mumbled, unsure of what to say.
Thoma looked at Ellie and forced himself to remain silent. He was currently filled with fear. He was overwhelmed by the terror that came from seeing his death, and couldn’t decide what the right course of action was. He was struggling with all his might to continue holding onto his last thread of sanctity. He had to. If he loosened his grip even a little…
‘… I might scream out in terror.’
He might end up relying on the woman standing before him. He might end up telling her the truth out of fear, rather than the lies she needed to hear. He might end up confessing all of his many worries, the ones that he had been accumulating and protecting her from. If he stayed here any longer he would surely crack, so he decided to avoid Ellie and retreat. However, his legs became tangled as he tried to stand, and he ended up falling back down.
Ellie rushed over to him in surprise.
“Just why are you acting this way? Really… why? What is wrong?”
“No, nothing… it’s nothing…”
There were suddenly tears flowing out from Thoma’s eyes. Seeing something so unexpected, Ellie froze. Finally, as though she had come to some decision, she nodded and held out her hand.
Thoma was scared of that hand. It was a gentle and warm hand. Thoma was scared of the hand offered by someone with such a delicate heart, and tried to push himself away. However, Ellie softly brushed her hands against his cheeks before bringing her face closer to his. He felt an incomparably soft sensation on his lips. A warm breath entered his mouth and froze his thoughts.
Ellie pulled her head back with a smile. She was laughing and smiling innocently as her eyes filled with tears.
“Thoma. Ellie is on your side, so do not be scared of me.”
At that moment, Thoma’s guard collapsed. The facade of strength that he had been building and reinforcing around his heart cracked and crumbled away in an instant. Thoma covered his face with his hands before bursting into tears.
“Ellie… I want to live! What should I do? Am I just going to die like this? Am I going to die…?! I wasn’t scared of dying… or so I thought…!”
It was terrifying. Death!
He felt more terrified than anything else at the thought of leaving behind the precious things around him. Ellie softly embraced Thoma’s crying face and whispered.
“It’s okay. It’s fine. Brother, I am by your side, so don’t worry. Wasn’t it scary? Wasn’t it terrifying? Cry all you want. Lean on me.”
Thoma felt comforted by her whispers. His body was in pain, but his pain and even his fear began to subside. The comforting warmth of her body began to untangle his heart. He let himself, for the first time, cry to his heart’s content.
— Ω —