138. Sociable (4)
As soon as Helpharon opened the door and entered, he shut his mouth. His face was frozen stiff with anxiety as he looked around. Usually, this place was like a drug den, with bottles of alcohol and nude women lying around, drunk on euphoria. Furthermore, there would be high-ranking priests giggling all over.
However, what he saw now was a far cry from that crudity. The palace’s sacred floor was dyed in blood, and on top of it was a trembling man on his knees. He was a member of the Black Priesthood. At the moment, his companions were surrounding him with bloodied bats. An Evilesse Knight stood nearby with a cruel smile, as though he was watching something amusing.
‘…Rather than crude, it’s just detestable now.’
They must be playing the ‘public torture’ game. Helpharon swallowed drily as he turned forward. Sitting on his throne, there was a man in his mid-40s with blonde hair and blue eyes. It was Pope Salem Gattschuranche.
He let out a long yawn while stretching leisurely and spat out a single order.
“W-wait…! It’s not me! I didn’t lie! Please believe—”
The pale man tried to shout with all his might, but there was no one to hear his pleas. The bats struck his face, and with a dull sound, blood splattered all over the floor. His flesh tore, and his face became bloated and ruined. His limp body collapsed on the floor, but the priests raised him back up and beat him again.
Soon after, the man lost consciousness with a groan. However, his companions didn’t stop; they poured Holy Water onto him and forced him back up.
The Black Priesthood exploded in laughter and shouted, “How dare you lie to the Pope! Speak the truth!”
“N-no! It’s the truth…! Truth…!”
His former comrades had no sympathy. They snickered, as if his struggles were amusing to them, before they continued to beat him. The echoes of the man begging for his life rang out, but they all just burst into laughter and watched him with stony hearts.
“Haha! It’s like some mutt being beaten!”
“Ey! Make some last-ditch effort!”
“Perhaps you might be able to survive…?”
Hearing those words, the man lunged at one of the Black Priesthood members that were beating him. He tried to fight back with his fists, but eventually, he was stomped on by the other members, causing him to drop back on the floor and keep getting pummeled.
Helpharon frowned and continued moving.
It was apparent that the man must have done something that got on Pope Salem’s nerves, as they were publicly torturing him. Helpharon simply passed by the tragedy unfolding in the middle of the throne room and lowered his head before Pope Salem.
“I’ve come to meet Your Holiness.”
With a simple greeting of formality, Helpharon went to Pope Salem’s side. He was responsible for Salem’s security, so he couldn’t leave his side without permission. Beside the throne, Helpharon peeked over at the man being beaten.
“Did that man do something wrong?”
The Pope tilted his head and turned to Helpharon. His eyes were dilated, and he spoke with a lisp, as he was still not in his right mind.
“Ehhh? Haha! Look who it is! Isn’t it Helpharon?”
Despite knowing that Helpharon had arrived right beside him, he insidiously rose from his seat and welcomed him with both arms wide open. Salem tapped his shoulder and tilted his head again.
“Eh? Weren’t you on break? You said ‘give me a bit of time’, and I replied ‘Aah, go and get yourself fucked and have a good rest’? You returned alive… You already came back? Aha! Did you miss me that much…!?”
“…Ten days have already passed.”
“…Is that so~? I see. Yes. Eh…? Already?”
It seemed like Salem’s mind was wandering all over the place. The next second, he turned expressionless, and as though he had lost all interest, he flopped back on his throne. He then dumbly watched the man get thrashed before becoming surprised and turning to Helpharon.
“…Do you know why that guy is being beaten?”
“Of course, Your Holiness should know.”
Like an old man with dementia, his words were getting jumbled up. It wasn’t just one or two incidents. Even if he had managed to extend his youth at the cost of human life, his drug-addled brain was deteriorating over time. His body might be healthy, but obviously, his mind, weakened by drugs, was not going to last.
“Me…? Ah, I did that. Mm… Why was it? Why did I beat that guy?”
Salem peeked over at Helpharon, as though he was giving him a quiz.
Helpharon replied in a low voice, “Was it from boredom?”
“Boredom? Haha, do I look that crazy to you? To beat that fucking bastard out of boredom!”
Was it in his right mind that he trained criminals out of boredom? Without digging further, it was obviously due to one stupid reason or another.
Helpharon let out a small sigh.
Seeing this, Pope Salem laughed innocently and continued, “Ah! I remember. It’s quite simple! The answer is…he lied to me!”
So, in the end, he didn’t trust the report that the man had brought and just punished him? Helpharon could only pity the man in front of his eyes. The Pope only listened to things he wanted to hear. If he heard something that wasn’t to his liking, violence was the only result. Beat, break, and destroy was the motto of Pope Salem, the current ruler of this land. Helpharon contemplated what the man might have reported.
‘Why would a Black Priesthood member report something? These people don’t do anything except surveilling the citizens from the streets.’
What was this man trying to report…?
“It’s…true! It’s the truth! I saw it with my own two eyes!”
The man extended a hand while still trying to cover his head as he pointed toward Helpharon.
“T-that Holy Knight was with the Cardinals that betrayed the Holy Empire!”
Helpharon grew stiff. On the other hand, Salem burst out into laughter.
“…Hah, Haha, Hahahaha! Look! Isn’t he saying some interesting lies? I had him follow you, just in case, Helpharon, and he’s saying these things! Hahahaha!”
Salem burst out into laughter while holding his stomach. He then clenched his hand, tore off his clothes, and bore into his stomach with his nails, bleeding himself. Even as he hurt himself, his maniacal laughter did not stop, and his crazed eyes rolled all around.
His laughter gradually turned strange. Helpharon’s back was drenched in a cold sweat. Salem rose from his seat and slowly walked toward the man. He held the man’s throat and lifted him up.
The man’s feet flailed in the air, but his struggles were all in vain. Salem breathed roughly while shouting with the man in hand, “Speak again. The truth…! If you lie, I’ll break your neck!”
“I-I’m… the truth.”
“The truth? What is it? Speak clearly and carefully!”
The man knew his life was at stake, yet he still lifted his trembling finger, pointing toward Helpharon. His bloodshot eyes were glaring at Helpharon obsessively.
“T-that man…! That man…! He met with the rebelling Cardinals…!”
With a crunch, the man’s neck was broken, and his man’s eyes rolled up as his body grew limp like a doll. Salem threw the man aside and washed his hands, as if they had touched something filthy.
Finished, Salem looked at his own hands and proudly held them out toward Helpharon.
“Isn’t it amazing, Helpharon?”
Salem walked over to his throne, and as he did so, he turned to Helpharon with a smile.
“Now that I’ve managed to get Hero-grade strength in my hands, killing a person like that is no work at all! It’s quite brilliant!”
Salem sat on his throne with a smile, his neck still in Helpharon’s direction. Helpharon’s stiff expression grew relaxed, though. He couldn’t do anything that would bring unnecessary suspicion.
‘Was there someone following me…?’
But how…? He had walked alone all around in case of pursuers…
“That bastard, isn’t he quite nasty? He should be suspecting things that are at least reasonable! Isn’t that so, Helpharon?”
“Yes…you should say so.”
Salem scratched his chin as he continued, “…One of the Cardinals came to me.”
“The bastard led that group of Black Priests. He said… ‘Helpharon is plotting a rebellion’. Something along the same lines as that man.”
Helpharon swallowed drily. Had Salem already recruited someone from the rebels?
He tightly shut his eyes to avoid the quivering and muttered, “…That’s nonsense.”
“Yes, it’s nonsense. If you were trying to rebel, there were countless opportunities. Why would you miss those? You…? Haha! That is why I killed the bastard! By twisting his neck like a rope!” Salem mumbled to himself, “However, I am quite paranoid.”
As soon as he finished, the white-armored Evilesse Knights approached Helpharon.
He was truly suspicious that Helpharon would betray him…! And that he had other ideas…!
Helpharon gritted his teeth and spoke in a low voice, “Are you… suspecting me?”
Salem looked at his own belly, acting surprised while rubbing it. He then groaned upon seeing blood pour out from the flesh torn out by his nails.
“It hurts. It hurts! Shit, the mood is ruined, thanks to you. This disgusting mood, how should I resolve it? Ah…!”
The Evilesse Knights stopped. Salem’s hand had struck Helpharon’s stomach.
His nails, imbued with Holy Power, melted the steel and pierced Helpharon’s stomach. Helpharon spat out blood from his mouth as he watched Salem with trembling eyes.
“…Would I feel better if I tore out the stomach of another bastard?”
Helpharon’s flesh was burning. The nails had torn the skin and were penetrating his muscles and into his organs. Helpharon forced his mouth shut, even as his body shook from the pain. He tried with all his might to keep his legs from giving out.
“…I-I’ll ask again, Your Holiness…. Are you suspecting… me!”
Helpharon barely squeezed out the words from his clenched teeth. He tried his best to keep his expression still. If he looked even slightly pained…everything would be over. Salem would relent to his mood swings and destroy his entire body. He, who felt pleasure from the pain of others, must be shown the utmost indifference.
Had Helphaon’s thoughts worked? Salem’s expression had grown sour.
“I’m a rather paranoid person.”
Salem loosened his fingers and removed his hand from Helpharon’s stomach. Helpharon collapsed right then and there.
He vomited blood, along with the bread and milk he had this morning. To avoid his strength leaving the body, he supported his stomach and healed himself with Holy Power.
Salem raised his arm onto the throne’s armrest and spoke with his head leaning on his hand, as though he had lost all interest. Even as the blood and vomit dirtied the tip of his own clothes, he paid it no mind.
“Did you ask whether I suspect you? Isn’t that obvious? I trust no one, including you… Along with all these fuckers!”
Helpharon ground his teeth, but Salem ignored his penetrating gaze.
“…Ah, the sacred stomach of the Pope was torn… How should I mend it? Ah-ha!”
Salem clapped. His eyes rolled around everywhere as he tilted his head.
“That’s right! I just have to perform that ritual again to heal it! I’m talking about ancient magic!”
Helpharon knew full well what ancient magic he was referring to: the magic that gave him youth and power.
It extended his life and reinforced his strength by sacrificing children. With the materials Akareal had researched, Salem used its perfected form to sacrifice hundreds of children to perform that rite once a year, maintaining his youth, curing his diseases, and cultivating his strength.
Helpharon was too busy injecting Holy Power into his stomach to pay any attention to Salem’s words. He was using all his focus to ease the pain.
After losing interest in Helpharon, Salem continued, “Prepare the ritual. We’re doing it here.”
Upon his command, the Order of Evilesse opened the throne room’s door and herded the children inside. Soon, the place was filled with the pitiful cries of boys and girls. However, Helpharon was in no shape to divert his attention. His hand gripped the ground as he struggled for his life.
It was at that moment. He heard a familiar voice.
“Wait! Just what did we do wrong!?”
Helpharon’s eyes grew wide, and he turned to the owner of the voice. The faces of all the children that the Black Priesthood had brought were familiar: they were from Helpharon’s church. Also, there was one that made his heart sink.
— Ω —