16. The Strong. The Weak. The King. (2)
“What… are you talking about?”
When he understood that Thoma didn’t quite comprehend what he was saying, Salem’s face grew red.
“Why can’t you understand!” He grabbed Thoma’s head with both his hands and shouted at his face. “Why don’t you understand when I’m struggling this much!”
Salem began to shout as though he had lost all of his composure.
“Are you so great? So great to look down on me so much…!? Shit, shit! Shit-!”
Salem stood from his spot. He wiped the blood on his hands off on the clothes of the interrogator beside him before letting out a deep breath and speaking calmly once again.
“Fear not. The children will not be sent to the battlefield. Instead, they will find a more glorious…” Thoma’s ears twitched at Salem’s words, “death. And whose fault is that? It’s yours, Hero…! Accept it, Sir Hero. This is simply fate, you only have yourself to blame.”
Thoma suddenly lunged forward with his mouth open. The Captain of the Holy Knights reacted quickly to his sudden attack, but not quickly enough.
Salem’s right ear was ripped from his head. Thoma had actually aimed for his neck, but because the Captain had grabbed his head just in time, his aim was a bit off.
Salem grabbed at where his ear had just been and quickly retreated away from Thoma.
“Uwagh! You damned Hero…!”
“I’ll kill you, Salem!” Thoma yelled. “I’ll curse you!”
“You… you bastard…!”
Salem glared at Thoma while the interrogator looked around in a panic, unsure of what to do.
“Truly resilient. Yes, resilient! That’s why you’re worth breaking, but…!” Salem pointed his finger at Thoma’s face. “Both your eyes and your mouth are too dangerous for my liking. The eyes that can see through lies and a graceless tongue. Pull them all out.”
The interrogator grabbed Thoma’s body and forced him back down onto the iron chair, making sure to strap him on tightly with leather restraints. He pulled off the blindfold covering his eyes and forced Thoma’s mouth open, shoving in a pair of forceps.
Just before he could get ahold of Thoma’s tongue, Salem stopped the interrogator.
“Ah, wait…” The interrogator looked at Salem, forceps in hand. “Now that I think about it… he needs eyes in order to see the pain I have planned for him, and a tongue so that I can hear his pitiful wails when the time comes. Leave the tongue, and as for the eyes… well, one is enough. Only pull one of them out.”
“I understand.” The interrogator gave a quick nod.
Salem cast healing magic on his own ear before approaching the Captain beside him.
“Are you al-…”
“Stupid bastard.” The Captain immediately shut his mouth. “Be more aware next time, understood?”
“… I’ll keep that in mind.”
Salem entered a garden in the palace after leaving the prison. Many Holy Knights were gathered and moving in an orderly fashion. They were the warriors that would join the allied army of the current Hero. Also, there were children gathered a little further away from them. They were in a pitiful state, wearing nothing more than a thick cotton clothing and carrying kitchen knives tied to sticks. Salem looked at the children before speaking to the Captain.
“And the kids…?”
“They are the children from Brother Thoma’s abbey. They will be drafted as valorous soldiers who will support the new heroes. The girls will assist the medical unit while the boys will all be sent to the front lines as soldiers.”
“… That won’t be necessary.”
The Captain cocked his head in confusion. Salem looked at the children with amusement as he continued.
“For the greatest of honors, it will be better for them to assist me, who is the center of the world, rather than aid the Hero. Take the children to Akareal. They will be used as sacrifices.” The Captain remained silent, understanding exactly what awaited the children. “Also, have her participate in the subjugation of the Demon King this time around as well. She was a companion of the former Hero, so she should be able to sweep away something like the Demonic Army easily enough.”
“And if it looks like she will refuse…?”
“Hasn’t she promised me the magic within 3 months time? It won’t take more than a month to subjugate a Demon King.” Salem grinned insidiously. “If that doesn’t work, just tell her that Sir Thoma is currently being interrogated here.”
In other words, threaten her. It was cruel and cold-blooded, no different than saying he would use Thoma as a hostage to control her. The Captain of the Holy Knights lowered his head toward the twisted Pope. Regardless of how much he had fallen, Salem was still the master of this place, and of him.
All he had to do was follow the orders of his master, just like the rest of the Holy Knights.
After Salem left, the Captain sighed. While he stood there, other Holy Knights walked, chattering among themselves.
“Ey, what should we do?”
“You gonna do it?”
“Aren’t they criminals anyway? Even if they had been sent to the front lines… it’s obvious they would’ve died.”
He happened to overhear a bit of what they were saying. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the group moving into a dark alleyway. They were talking to a lone woman and were leading her away somewhere.
‘That woman, wasn’t she from the Hero’s abbey…?’
He decided to follow them down the alley, making sure to stay out of sight. Right before rounding a corner he heard a woman’s scream.
“W-wait… what are you doing?! You promised you would get food for the children!”
“What are we doing?” one of the Knights guffawed. “We’re performing the purification ritual!”
“Hahaha! They’ll die anyways. You bitch, they said you were doing drugs? Doesn’t that mean you enjoy pleasure? Enjoy this as well! We’ll let you enjoy as much as possible without ruining your body!”
One of the Holy Knights grabbed her and began forcefully removing her clothes.
“Stop! I said stop!”
The Holy Knights were stripping off their heavy armor piece by piece. At the same time they were ripping off the clothes of the nun brutishly. The woman was in tears, screaming until they shoved the torn clothing into her mouth.
This wasn’t a rare occurrence. Among the people sold off to the allied army of the Hero, the ones who were even slightly attractive would end up as their playthings. If they weren’t even someone of rank, but a criminal, there was nothing more to be said.
“Haha! Now let’s…!”
As a pantless Holy Knight was about to assault the woman, she kicked his face.
The other Holy Knights were enraged by this. One of them picked her up by her hair.
“This crazy bitch…!”
He slapped her and threw her down .As she stumbled and collapsed, another Holy Knight grabbed his sheathed sword and swung it at her. As the sheath struck her, blood spurted out of her mouth.
The Holy Knights were all shocked and stepped away from her crumpled body.
“Ey! What are you doing! We’ll be in trouble if she died!”
“… I couldn’t control my strength. It’s not my fault. If only that bitch didn’t fight back…!”
The Holy Knight’s words were cut off, replaced with the sound of his now severed head falling onto the ground.
The other Holy Knights quickly moved back out of surprise. They all went stiff when they realized it was their Captain standing over the body of their fallen comrade.
“… What are you doing in this holy place? You dare harm someone who’s to be drafted into the Hero’s allied army?”
They paled under his withering gaze, none daring to so much as speak. The Captain picked up the severed head and tossed it toward the group of Knights.
“Hang that where everyone can see it. If anyone else is caught doing this I’ll tear off their limbs and use their body as a flag.”
Having heard his threat, the Holy Knights ran away with the head of their companion. Now that they were gone, the Captain turned his attention to the only other person left in the alleyway. The woman, Ellie, stood up with great difficulty. She wobbled over to where her torn clothes were and gathered what she could. Her head was bleeding profusely and it was unlikely she’d survive without treatment.
Realizing this, the Captain let out a sigh. “You’ll die from blood loss if don’t get that gash on your head treated. The injury’s too severe to be fixed with medicine.”
Offering a curt thanks, Ellie began hobbling away. Seeing that she planned on ignoring him, the Captain decided to make the reality of her current situation clear.
“… Choose one.”
Ellie stopped and turned back around. “What…?”
“Join the Hero’s army… and you’ll receive treatment. I’ll make sure you’re assigned to the rear, even if I have to put you there myself. If you accept my offer, you might survive. However, if you refuse the draft and return to the abbey… you’ll die. That wound won’t get better on its own. So, what will you do?”
Ellie thought silently for a moment. “… Where… is Brother Thoma…?”
“He’s being tortured,” the Captain said matter-of-factly.
“Can… he… be… released?”
“Possibly, possibly not.”
The Captain purposefully gave her a vague answer. He didn’t know why he’d even given her a glimmer of hope. Thoma’s fate was up to the Pope, not him.
“… And the children of the abbey?”
“They won’t participate in the war. They’ll be left here in the palace.”
‘… as sacrifices.’
“Will… the children be happy?”
The Captain remained silent. Ellie took his silence as a yes and smiled faintly. Even as the blood spilled from her wound and trickled down her face, her smile looked beautiful.
“Then… I’ll… return to the abbey. I’ll… wait for him.”
And with that, SIster Ellie was gone. The Captain, Helpharon, covered his face with his hands.
‘… Shit. I’ll have to keep this a secret.’
If the Pope caught wind of her escape, he would definitely be killed. He too had once been a simple priest, but he stole donations to help feed the poor. When the Pope learned of this, he was tortured and ‘purified’ of his sins. Those who he had helped suffered worse fates, their lives the cost of his arrogance.
“Why don’t you know your master!”
It was during that time that the Pope’s insanity had been etched into his flesh. Helpharon shivered. He had already been sullied. He had yielded to the pain and committed all manners of evil as the lapdog of the Pope. For someone like him, a small act of kindness like this was not nearly enough to make up for his sins.
Salem was checking on his healed ear in the mirror. There was no longer any pain and the bleeding had stopped. Regardless, half of it had been torn away.
“Shit, the archbishops are bound to be noisy when they learn the Pope has lost a part of his ear.”
Salem headed to his bedroom, shouting more profanities along the way. Just as he was taking in a breath, ready to unleash another torrent of insults, Salem heard someone running toward him. He turned around to find someone standing there, breathing roughly and already drenched in sweat. Anyone who saw them would have thought they’d just finished running through rain. Still, ignoring his ridiculous appearance, Salem was surprised to run into him.
‘Prince Pygni? What could have brought this pig here?’
“W-wait… a minute…” Pygnia said, gasping for air. “Ah, I’m dying.”
Prince Pygni plopped onto the ground as though he was completely exhausted. Despite his royal blood, he had neither an air of grace nor authority around him. He looked so pathetic that he looked more like a well-dressed pig than a person, at least to Salem.
“What is the matter?”
Salem worked to the best of his ability to control his expression, but there was only so much he could do to keep his facial muscles from twitching. In his heart, he wanted to pummel the boy in front of him. Despite his irritated-looking smile, Pygni spoke as though he hadn’t noticed anything out of the ordinary.
“W-well it’s just that…”
Salem invited Prince Pygni into the VIP room to continue their conversation. In that empty room with just the two of them, the Prince still looked nervous. His fingers continued to fidget as he repeatedly peeked at Salem before looking away. It was an expression that was easy to read.
‘He wants something. What could it be? Women? Even though he lacks experience, maybe he’s following his instincts? Money? Someone of royal blood should not be in need of money…’
“W-well it’s…” Pygni tried to speak with great difficulty. “Are you holding the former Hero, T-thoma, or whatever?”
Did he lack the ability to beat around the bush? He had laid out the topic so bluntly.
Salem frowned. ‘This stupid prince. As if his lack of grace wasn’t enough, does he only know how to speak like a simpleton?’
“How did you know about this?”
Prince Pygni looked overwhelmed by Salem’s gaze and turned away.
“What? No, t-that is… Oskal…”
‘Oskal? That can’t be true. Oskal found out?’
He had locked Oskal in his room and kept him tied him up using his obligations to the prince. Salem thought there was no way that he could know that Thoma had been captured.
‘How does he know? Does he have some other means of communication? Could he have already established some network of informants before arriving? No, that can’t be… but could it? I had thought the guy’s brain was made of muscle, but this is strange.’
Salem looked back at the prince while feeling a newfound sense of respect for Oskal. If his assumption was true, that meant that Oskal had sent the prince. Therefore, there was only one thing that the prince could want from him right now.
‘The freedom of the hero. What a foolish request. Does he really think I’ll acquiesce to this shitty prince?’
It was already too late for Oskal to do anything. He couldn’t openly defy Salem nor protest against his actions. To him, Thoma’s life was important, but so were both the Kingdom of Lome’s reputation and its diplomatic ties to the Holy Kingdom. Even if he cut ties with the kingdom to rescue Thoma, there was no way that Lome would come out unscathed.
“Did you perhaps receive a request from Oskal? To liberate the Hero? I cannot do that.” Salem reached for his tea. “As you know, he committed a crime, and received the appropriate…”
Out of the blue, Pygni said a single word that sent shivers down Salem’s spine.
His eyes grew wide. The prince looked surprised by Salem’s reaction and lowered his head.
“O-Oskal told me to tell you! If you release Thoma, the Kingdom of Lome will provide you with their research on the Ancient Kings relating to the extension of life…!”
“… Just where did you hear about such magic?”
“T-that is something Oskal… Even I don’t…”
Salem scowled. Something was off. Too much information was being leaked, to an almost nonsensical degree. He had been keeping his research on immortality under strict control, treating it as top-secret information.
‘Did Akareal leak it?’
She was not the type to do so, but Salem couldn’t come to any other conclusion.
“I-it might not be comparable to the Kingdom of Aylans, but it is still supplementary material related to their research, so… it might be helpful.”
Pygni continued bumbling his words as he trembled. To anyone watching, it would have sounded like he was stumbling through a practiced speech. Salem, who noticed this, put down his cup and leaned back on the sofa with his fingers crossed.
‘… Life extension?’
The Kingdom of Lome had been a kingdom that had been born by the sword. It was completely different from Akareal’s motherland, Aylans, whose people put everything into their development of magic. Even if Lome had anything related to immortality, it would be of a lower quality than Aylans.
‘But it could be that because of this, they might have approached the concept through a different route that we haven’t considered. Regardless of how useless the technique is, it could prove helpful. But it’s still not enough. To free the Hero with just that? No way.’
“M-more than that… Oskal would personally step in to help in case of a diplomatic emergency…”
This time, Salem smiled. Oskal was someone that he had a use for in the future.
‘Oskal will personally step in?’
Oskal’s influence within the Kingdom of Lome was immense. He was known to be impulsive and thoughtless, but he could face a reasonably-sized army alone and come out on top. It was because of this that he was considered a figure of absolute strength within the kingdom. It wasn’t for nothing that the previous Hero’s party was regarded as being the most powerful in recorded history.
On top of that, according to rumors, Oskal was currently in his prime in terms of strength and skill.
‘Having such a person bow down to me? It wouldn’t be a terrible feeling. More than anything, he will personally step in for any diplomatic emergency…?’
That would mean that in times of war, he and his soldiers could be deployed to aid the Holy Kingdom.
‘It’s a good offer.’
In any case, Thoma’s illness was growing worse. He could die at any time. Putting his body through any more physical torture would cause him to die, and that would be nothing more than an empty victory.
‘But… it’s still not enough. Another condition… that’s it!’
“In exchange, I have one more condition.”
Prince Pygni raised his head.
“Three days from now, the Holy Knights from my kingdom will be deployed against the allied army of the Demon Kingdom. I would like a promise that Oskal will be personally deployed in the front lines there.”
“W-will that be enough?” Pygni asked hesitantly.
“Yes, of course.”
Salem smiled. He would make Oskal owe him a favor and Akareal would also be deployed alongside the Hero’s allied forces. The two people who most want to save Thoma would be separated from him. Regardless of whether he was freed, he would be defenseless and unable to resist. Salem would continue to make him fall deeper and deeper into an endless despair.
“I understand. I will let Oskal know!”
“Then I will release the Hero. Three days after the main force of the Holy Kingdom is deployed, before I leave here to join them. I will release him then.”
Prince Pygni let out a sigh of relief as he lowered his head. Salem chuckled mockingly while watching the prince tremble.
‘It’s cute watching the pig tremble in fear.’
— Ω —