159. Fallen Monarch (3)
Roars and screams roared throughout the capital, echoing into the palace. The soldiers of the Golden Cross Army held their breaths, peeking through windows and holes through the castle walls.
“So this is hell.”
A blackened ocean spread through the streets, and the Undead that rose from it advanced. They thirsted after and charged the living. The Imperial and Kingdom forces tried to resist but were mercilessly slaughtered, their efforts for naught. The survivors were overcome, bit by bit.
The Undead shambled about the palace. The soldiers in the palace had ceased their shouting of heretics and devils, choosing instead to hide themselves away.
“… Just what…”
From inside the throne room, Akareal gawked at the one she thought was Thoma. In his place was an armor-clad Devil surrounded by scores of Undead. The armor seeped out a thick dark magic that sent shivers up her person, and Akareal clamped her jaw shut. It was an unholy amount of power, enough to give her goosebumps, her own experience of Magic only enough to deepen her alarm. An ordinary person could not wield it without giving over their mind and body. Even an ordinary Hero would be crushed by it if they tried to use it for more than a few moments.
No. This body.
It had to have been destroyed. His mind too.
Flesh made of Magic. Armor made of Magic.
The danger of his mind was no longer a question, Akareal realized with a new horror: what about his soul? It would be completely crushed and disappear as well.
Pope Salem looked to his Evilesse Holy Knights, impaled at the spears’ end by the Undead. They couldn’t die and were screaming and squirming in agony.
“Your Highness… save us…”
The knights reached out to him, and their fingers began to rot. The Undead turned to Salem, their eyes turning to embers at the sight of new prey.
Salem stepped back. His forces, the Hero-grade order of knights, were instantly destroyed. Swallowed by the black liquid, unable to fight, skewered by spears. Against them, what could he, someone who had not yet held a blade, do?
‘I’ve got to get out of here!’ Salem took a step back in shock.
The Undead, perhaps spurred by Salem’s movements, opened their maw and let out a horrid roar. They flung the corpses from their spears, their eyes turning over and their bodies reanimating as they touched the water, trembling as they got to their feet.
The Undead knights let out a cry, their commander now their prey. They got on all fours, forgoing their weapons, and rushed Salem.
Salem looked at the ghouls, his former knights, and raised a blade, feeding it his Holy Power. Channeling his might, he fumbled a swing, the blade caught and stuck in a blackened Ghoul’s hand.
The Ghoul turned to the blade in his grip. The Holy Power poured out, the Magic Power animating its flesh, began to burn away.
Salem channeled his Holy Power, as much as he could muster. The Ghoul’s hand incinerated, the blade swinging through. Even if he was not a swordsman, he was a Hero-grade priest and one who had held the papacy for decades. His strength was dictated by the great amounts of Holy Power he wielded. As the blade began to cut through, he smiled.
I-I may just yet live! I’ll take care of these bastards and escape from this palace… and run however I can…!
The Ghoul tilted his head and narrowed, and clicked a peal of laughter. It gripped the blade. His body changed, white light pouring out. It wasn’t Magic Power, but Holy Power.
The Holy power seeping from the blade dissipated, and the blade snapped.
The surrounding Ghouls jumped him.
“W-wait… l-let me live…! Uwaaack! I’m sorry…! Let me live! Let me live!… Save me!”
Aratrrk impassively watched Salem beg with his golden gaze, his spear plunged into the Lake of Death. The Ghouls overwhelmed Salem, their nails and teeth overtaking him. Spurts of blood flying in all sorts of directions. Salem’s cries went unheeded to the Undead, and so he turned to the only other human in the room.
“S-save me… Save me… Save me…! Akareal! Akareal! Save…!”
Akareal turned away, covering her mouth. She moaned, a mixture of nausea and pain churning in her stomach.
Her dress dyed red between her legs. She clutched her stomach, and Artarrk was spurred. He began to approach her, and the surrounding Undead not attacking Salem prostrated themselves in his wake.
Akareal screamed and fell to her side. As her vision began to fade in and out, she saw Artarrk approach.
[… It’s dangerous.]
He could see blood and fluid flowing from her. He reached for her, his armor shedding its blackness for a pure and radiant white. The Lake of Death, with its fetid black depths, suddenly ran clear; the undead were similarly transfigured, their visages white and radiant with Holy Power.
[It must be responding to the forces around it. Poor thing, a forced creation with a mother’s soul so twisted.]
Akareal’s suffering of horror after horror had finally manifested. That she was able to endure so long itself was to be praised.
“Aah… Aah… Tho…”
Akareal extended her hand, tears in her eyes. She had scarcely had time to take Artarrk’s hand as she closed her eyes and drooped her head. Holy Power flowed from him into her, enveloping her. As it settled in her stomach, the blood ceased flowing from her, and color returned to her face. Artarrk smiled.
The Ghouls that piled upon Salem were cast off with a scream, the air around them clapping like thunder. The Ghouls turned to ash mid-air, destroyed.
There was no mistake: it was the unique power used previously by the Necromancers to summon their own Undead.
Salem teetered on his feet, unsteady. His body had been practically obliterated, remnants of his skin and flesh hanging off like rags. Seeing him, it was difficult to recognize him as human.
[You’re quite like an Undead. More resilient than a cockroach…!]
Artarrk spat out his words. Salem surveyed his surroundings inscrutably, apparently ignoring him. He was looking for an escape, a way out.
The Death Knights and Liches moved. The knights rushed Salem with spears and swords, and the Liches cast their magic. Salem trembled.
“Hiik!? D-do you think I’ll die? I’m going to live! I’ll live! No matter what…!”
Salem drew a breath, drawing and guzzling Holy Power and engorging his stomach. He gathered and inhaled Holy Power until he brimmed with it, and then he bellowed it out, its force like a storm. The knights were stopped, the tips of their blades inches from him. All their magic and Holy Power were rebuffed, turning to ash.
The Undead couldn’t overcome Salem’s breath. One knight was caught in the explosion and was destroyed utterly. The Liches conjured their defenses, but their barriers shattered and their forms were cast out of the palace.
“Hah…Haha… I… will make it! Just a bit more…!”
Salem shambled towards the exit, his legs quivering beneath him. The rain had ceased, and storm clouds had passed. Even the night seemed to disappear by some invisible command, the sun rising. As light poured into the palace, it’s many walls breached with holes, Salem felt as though it shone only for him, a signal that he was saved. Filled with a new hope, he limped towards that place.
[Where do you think you’re going?]
Artarrk grabbed the back of Salem’s head and thrust it into the ground. The sound of his skull hitting the floor with a thud rang out through the area.
[And now our damned relationship comes to an end, Salem Gottshuranche, my old friend and companion.]
“Release me! L-…let me go!”
Salem floundered. He beat and struggled uselessly against Arrtark, unable to overpower him.
[I cannot. If I let you go now, you’ll just be back with more trouble.]
“Why are you doing this to me? What did I do?”
[… What did you do?]
Tom lifted Salem. He gripped his neck and drew him close so that Salem couldn’t avert his gaze.
[Don’t tell me that you’ve forgotten, Salem!]
Salem whimpered, gazing into the searing golden eyes. He knew whose eyes they were: they were too clear, too pure, eyes that seemed to see through him. Salem hated those eyes.
[What you did, what you did to me and those of this world! You must not have understood anything! After all this time!]
Tom’s voice bore into Salem’s ears. Salem whimpered again, so close to Artarrk’s rage.
“…Thoma? The Hero? Is it really you?”
[I was called this once.]
Salem’s teeth grit in anguish. Hero Thoma, the once ordinary man who came from nothing. Who became a hero after standing against the Demon Lord’s Army and killing the Demon Lord himself. Salem had worshipped him, as a man who had achieved such greatness through his own efforts. The hero who had sacrificed himself for the good of all.
But that hero had deceived him.
-In truth, I… am not an ordinary person, but a former slave. A runaway slave.
That was the truth the ‘Hero’ had confessed to him so long ago. He wasn’t even a common man; he was a slave, and the one who had received the love of the woman Salem himself could never have: Akareal. A slave had won the praise of a hero and the woman Salem desired jilted Salem to stand by that slave’s side, leaving him only resentment and sorrow. So he tormented Thoma. He destroyed everything around him, captured Thoma and tormented him. To disabuse him of the illusion that he was anything more than a slave. To remind him that his station was a privilege, not a right, and certainly not his right. And yet… he rose again to stand before him.
“Why… why… are you alive? Why are you alive again and tormenting me!?”
He gathered the Holy Power into his mouth.
“I’ll kill you! I’ll turn your body into pieces!”
He drew in his breath. As he brimmed and finally released, Artarrk clenched Salem’s mouth shut.
The attack exploded in his mouth as Artarrk’s finger shot back and he retreated. Salem’s jaw popped out, the muscles around his mouth snapping off like rags, and he let out to scream.
Artarrk looked at his hand. It was beginning to melt, the armor falling away and evaporated, leaving no trace. […It destroys… Holy Power?]
He reverted his body back to black. The Holy Power became Magic Power again, but the melting away didn’t stop. [It even destroys… Magic Power?]
Artarrk was made of Holy and Magic Power. Salem’s power, if it could corrode both, might destroy him.
[If it destroys both Magic and Holy Power… the Fragment of God will disappear as well. If my body is destroyed, and the Fragment of God disappears… will I completely die?]
“Why?! Why?! Just why is it you?!”
Salem cradled his jaw, despairing.
“Why were you chosen to bear Fragment? I’m a holy man! One that has risen to a greater position than any of those honorable bastards! It should have been me to answer the call of God to receive his power. It should have been me. I should have been balancing the world. So why… why?!!”
Salem glared at Artarrk.
“Why did God choose a bastard like you, who only thinks of vengeance!”
Salem glared at Arrtark, his eyes red with resentment. If Thoma was on the other side, he must’ve been scheming, waiting for his chance to take what was rightfully his. He was the Devil responsible for everything going wrong.
Artarrk stood before Salem.
[What are you talking about?]
He looked up on Salem, tilting his head. Then he smiled, a genuine, disarming smile.
[The one that God had chosen from the start was you. Salem Gottshuranche.]
— Ω —