Salem’s maniacal laughter made his voice hoarse and blood froth from his mouth, much to his ignorance, as he reveled in his own madness. From beside the palanquin, Helpharon looked on.
‘He’s expended much of his power.’
Power through human sacrifice, one that consumed both Holy and Magic Power—and even destroyed mana itself. It was also a power that consumed its user’s very existence.
‘It should be obvious, even to Salem, but it’s just ironic.’
Power without restraint was caustic to the body; though his body was augmented through the devouring of human lives, his mind had dulled and dimmed through his use of drugs. Salem had not the wherewithal to wield such power.
Salem was going to crumple even if he was left to his own devices. His greed would do him in. Helpharon absentmindedly clenched his fist.
“Blood? Ptoo! Disgusting. Shit. It’s all in my mouth.”
Salem retrieved a handkerchief and wiped it off before tossing it to the ground. Helpharon shook his head.
‘He doesn’t even recognize the taste of his own blood anymore.’
“It’s like you said, Helpharon!” Salem sneered. “Once I let the Army leave, the rebels attacked! I was able to sweep them up, of course. I’d cut off your head if your brain wasn’t the craftiest one around.”
“So you’ll keep your promise?”
“Promise?” Salem cocked his head. His eyes darted about, searchingly. “What promise?”
Helpharon felt a sting of contempt, and through gritted teeth reminded Salem, “… My and Lord Egil’s freedom.”
“Oh, that. I’ll free you on some island with some country bumpkins live. Enjoy your days there.” Salem waved his hand, then shook his head. “Although, why would you want to leave behind such fun? You could play all you want here, by my side.”
“Slaughter and torture are not my preferred hobbies,” Helpharon said icily.
“That’s a laugh!” Salem said, a deep grin setting on his face. He pointed ahead, where the Golden Cross Army gathered the bodies of the citizenry for burning. “That is your hobby. It is your instinct. Those dead and dying are none other than your people, and my subjects. You’ve sold these people for yourself. “Dignity, guilt– cast it all off for the sake of survival. That is the natural instinct–the preservation of self. To be indestructible and immortal, these are the natural extensions of this desire. That same desire rests in you. We are the same.” Salem’s eyes narrowed as he continued. “You raised me after all; how different from you could I possibly be?”
Helpharon said nothing. Salem spoke again with a sly smile. “Now, speak. How do I do it? Find–no, possess–that Fragment of God!”
A month had passed since the collapse of the Revolutionary Army. Tom’s was in his office, in the Demon Kingdom, turning the details over in his head.
“What a blow. I’ve lost all the people won because of Belve’s blunder, for what amounted to a pyrrhic victory. Lily’s reputation may suffer because of that.”
Tom reached for the report Karakul brought and pinched his brow. Belve had completely undone Tom’s effort to minimize casualties by relying on the Revolutionary Army. The pagan group leading the revolt against the chapel was decimated, and the Golden Cross Army regrouped their forces that had been attacking the neighboring kingdoms and were preparing to assault their next target: the Kingdom of Aylans, between the Demon Kingdom and Lome. The report read that Pope Salem was traveling with the company–irregular, but not surprising.
‘It’s likely because of her.’
The Queen, Akareal. Salem was obsessed with her: he was likely going there to claim her or had learned that she was with child and was pursuing vengeance.
‘It almost makes sense, but thinking along logical, systematic lines with erratic men was folly. If he was truly mad, he’d raze every village between him and her. He’s moving with a purpose.
He had stopped reading, lost in his thoughts. Karakul let out a small cough. Tom returned, skimming the report again.
“It doesn’t look like he’s aware that Akareal is with a child, if his actions are any indication.”
“What should we do? Alyan’s forces currently stand at 70,000. The Holy Kingdom’s is…”
“Closer to 200,000.”
A staggering number. Holy Knights and Priests accounted for 30,000, with 70,000 regular soldiers, and 100,000 slave soldiers gathered from other kingdoms.
‘It’d be difficult to sustain such an army.’
Slaves in particular would be a logistical hardship: they might not be able to feed them consistently, and their weapons might be closer to kitchen knives and farming equipment and cotton clothes for armor. If they didn’t starve, they’d revolt. That’d be difficult against the might of the Golden Cross Army, the Order of Evilesse Holy Knights, and Salem’s unknown power.
“Salem managed to gather 30,000 men of Holy Knights and Priests.”
“From what I’ve heard, the Golden Cross Army is gathering the Holy Knights and Priests from across the continent, recruiting on the Pope’s orders. The Priests must have another level of loyalty.”
“Rather than their loyalty being high, they must have a stake of their own.”
“Should we be victorious, a new faith will gain a foothold, and zealots will declare their way a lie. The Holy Kingdom’s faithful will likely be branded heretics, and persecution may follow.”
If the Holy Kingdom won, the priests would continue to rule the continent through their faith; if the Demons won, those same priests would be considered the pagan faith, they could even be excluded from the continent.
“They are jumping in so they can maintain their status,” Tom said. “They once followed the Pope out of loyalty to him, but now act out of collective self-interest. They are like mercenaries, propelled to action through greed and the lifestyle which they’ve become accustomed to.”
“They are still only humans; Demons can easily overpower them.”
“Physical might may still bend beneath overwhelming numbers. Their numbers dwarf the Kingdoms of Aylans and Lome combined. Tell Lily–” Tom stopped, and Karakul followed his gaze to a spying Ellin, watching through the crack of the open door. The two clumsily wrapped up their conversation. “–get her highness’s permission and plan on moving the troops.”
Karakul shifted his gaze back to Tom. “What was that?” He whispered.
“I don’t know! She’s been following me everywhere. I even caught her watching me sleep. It’s unnerving.” Tom was suddenly clammy. Her movements were unnatural to him. Karakul, surprised at Tom’s response, asked, “Is there something you need, Ellin?”
“No Sir, you may continue as you were. Just think of me as a fly on the wall!”
“Is that really possible?” Karakul muttered under his breath. He sighed and turned back to Tom. “Envoys from other nations have arrived. They claim abuses from the Pope, so they may be willing to contribute the forces. We could use those.”
“Understood,” Tom said in a low voice.
Karakul bowed and left. Outside the office, he turned to Ellin. “Know your limit.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean regarding matters of your past.”
Ellin paused, and instead headed into the office. Karakul looked on at the two of them and smiled bitterly.
‘Looks like she may have already figured it out.’
If she hadn’t, then she wouldn’t pursue Tom in such a matter. Ellin surveyed the disarray inTom’s office.
“We just cleaned this area,” she said lightheartedly.
“Entropy is the natural state of things, especially when work is being done.”
“Why not employ the habit of tidying?”
“If it were that easy, it’d be done.” Tom rose from his seat. “Cleaning will come when the work is done, and we are far from done.”
“You’re going to be busy for a while I take it?”
“The Kingdoms invaded by the Holy Kingdom are amassing. We’ll coordinate with them and mobilize our forces. From the looks of things, they’re headed for the Aylans Kingdom. Their force is large, so moving them through the territory will take some time. Her Majesty should think of moving as well.”
“So, more war.”
“It could be the last one.”
“There’s an end to wars?”
“At the very least this one…” Tom said confidently. “It’ll be the last for me.”
Ellin frowned. “What do you mean…?” Tom returned to organizing his documents. Her suspicion sat plainly within her, and she spoke. “Speaking of, Tom?”
“Were you a Hero in the past?”
Tom paused and turned back to her. “Why do you ask?” he asked with a faint smile.
“Oftentimes, skillful people like you were called Heroes amongst humans. Hero? Hero-grade? Something of that sort.”
“I’ve heard something to that effect. Can’t say that was me.”
“Not you? If you weren’t a Hero, were you a priest? Or some sort of monk?”
Tom didn’t respond.
“If you were a monk, where were you stationed? The Holy Kingdom? Were you near the capital? Or a local village?”
Ellin pressed. She had attempted to find a way to broach the subject, but even her attempts at tact came across as thin. She already had a clue to Tom’s identity, he knew.
‘I should have begun to suspect her after her recent encounter with Akareal. Something must have happened after the battle at Lome. The question is, how much does she know?’
In Thoma’s time, he looked to be in his 40s, much different than how he looked now, and Ellin had been so young, she wouldn’t be able to clearly put his face to her memories.
Tom resumed his organizing. “I was raised by a nun and monk some years ago.”
“Did you know anyone named Ellie?”
Tom felt lighter at the question. With Akareal and Oskal knowing the truth, he felt safer telling one more.
“I just figured that you might know.”
“How would you like me to answer?”
“Answer how you want.”
“I just want to know your response. Whatever you say, I’ll believe it. If you can’t tell me the truth, I’m sure there is a reason why.”
He hid it from her because it was too incredulous to simply say. But if she had already heard the story from Akareal, if she was already considering the idea, then maybe a careful explanation could suffice.
‘Telling her the truth.’
There suddenly was little reason to hide. He looked at her. She seemed to stand proudly, all grown up from the years that he knew in his previous life. Only her gaze, still curious and expectant, seemed to betray her as that same little one he once knew. Tom began.
“Apostle Tom?” They both turned to the door. Lulu’s sister, Luli, bowed, announcing her presence. “Her Highness is calling for you.”
Lily Golt pursed her lips. An audience had gathered before her, exhausted and desperate. They prostrated themselves before her.
“Help us Your Highness, Demon Lord!”
The audience was royalty of a nation that had paid tributes to the Holy Kingdom in exchange for protection. With their borders restricted, they enjoyed relative prosperity. Now the Holy Kingdom had gone against their word and attacked even them, the forces of the Golden Cross Army attacking and quickly routing them, enslaving their subjects and conscripting them in the war effort. They had come to Lily, the power at odds with the Holy Kingdom and their last hope.
Lily spoke softly. “I understand your plight, but we cannot take on your burden without gain to us.”
Nobles and Royalty of desirable nations were good bargaining tools: even without their forces, their status could be of interest to the empire. Compassion was a virtue, but unconditional charity was unbefitting of her position.
“Of course, our full efforts would be to assist the war effort.”
This was useful; though their nations were threatened, they still had diplomatic authority, attractive to the Empire and Hell alike.
‘If we save these fallen royalties, nobles, and their refugees, our reputation on the continent might improve.’
Lily smiled warmly and spoke again. “We cannot very well ignore your plight, in that case. We shall lend our aid, and expect your best in return. We support the rebuilding of your nation.”
“Thank you, Your Lordship.” The audience bowed their heads, their relief evident.
As they departed, Lily rubbed her head.
“How many is that now, Lulu?”
“Three, Your Highness.”
Three. That was the number of nations that had been plundered by and fallen to the Holy Kingdom within a month. Now reports spoke of the Army advancing on the Kingdom of Alyans. King Paulie had requested inforcements, and the Demon Kingdom was preparing its answer. Salem was among the forces they were to ride out against; his capture could end the war.
“What’s the status of the troops?”
“We’ve gathered 7,000 Demons. They await your word.”
“And the advice of Tom and Karakul.”
“They would be able to answer your questions, but it would appear that the situation has become dire.”
The Imperial Army would arrive at Alyans before long. Waiting too long would risk the reinforcements arriving too late. Lily thought of Akareal’s face, and the rare beam the Queen had at the knowledge of being with child. Lily couldn’t bear to see that face come to know misfortune.
Lily smiled absentmindedly, then responded. “Then call the Apostles, all of them except those defending our kingdom. We are to move our forces to the Kingdom of Aylans. They are to give their best in helping them. And do send the request from the other nations, too. Tell them we are to end this aggravating war. Tell them that the one to lead the army this time…” Lily rose. “Will be me.”
— Ω —