17. The Strong. The Weak. The King. (3)
Acting as though he could read Salem’s mind, Prince Pygni lowered his head and donned a self-satisfied smile. Salem had thought that everything had been plotted by Oskal, including leaking the news of Thoma’s capture and the secret information regarding his research on immortality. He was an undeniably childish prince.
‘You idiotic pope. Thanks to you…’
Prince Pygni’s lips curled into a slimy grin.
‘Oskal is mine! You have handed me the greatest sword and shield! Haha! Thank you for alleviating my burden, you foolish priest…!’
A few hours prior, Pygni had been faced by Oskal.
“Prince! I beg of you! Please save… my friend!”
Oskal had abandoned the honor and dignity expected of a knight and was on his knees, prostrating submissively, with his head pressed to the floor. Prince Pygni was taken aback by the sight and replied,
“I-impossible! H-how would I be able to do something like that? Regardless, if something went wrong, the diplomatic implications….!”
“I-I don’t want to. The king will resent me again…!”
Prince Pygni shook his head, failing to hide his fear. He truly had the appearance of a child cowering from their father’s wrath.
“I beg of you. Please…!”
Oskal was trembling, holding back his fist. Seeing this, Pygni’s face completely changed, like his facade of fear had disappeared. The corner of his lips curled up.
“…Greatest swordsman of this continent. The Blade of Salvation of the Kingdom of Lome. The Crimson Lion. Should one who can boast of so many lofty titles be lowering his head to an oaf of a prince?”
Oskal was surprised by the unfamiliar manner of speech the prince was using..
He raised his head to see Prince Pygni was reclining on a nearby sofa, looking down at him with an expression of pity mixed with amusement.
“Do you have no pride? When a land-owning duke, a captain of the royal knights, lowers his head like this, it troubles me.”
Oskal stared dumbly at the prince, who had just moments ago seemed like an entirely different person.
“Aren’t the creatures known as humans so tiringly simple?” he asked exasperatedly. “People take one look at a person and judge them based only on what is immediately apparent. If you give them the impression of someone stupid and foolish, they’ll jump to class you as being beneath them. What’s next? Of course, action! If you act like a beast lower than dogs and pigs, their prejudice will be cemented. ‘Ah, I was right’ and such. Hahaha!”
A peal of laughter erupted from his lips. It was an explosive noise, as though he’d heard something truly hilarious.
“That’s not even the end of it? Even when it comes to someone with a prestigious royal bloodline, if his mother was a lowly country girl that the ruler of a nation slept with impulsively while passing through her village, people will just expect the progeny to be common and remark that ‘that’s just how the common people are.’ Foolish, for the wise people of Lome to judge others based on their appearance and bloodline, no?”
He faced Oskal and continued his monologue.
“That’s right. All of them would think like this. Even the ruler of this nation, the Pope! Haha. Isn’t it funny to see adults being toyed by a fat pig who’s not even 10 years old? Ahh…! Hilarious!”
Prince Pygni continued to snicker. He was laughing as though he was drunk.
Oskal gulped audibly, completely caught off guard by this revelation of the prince’s true nature.
“Dear Oskal, people are animals that lie. Everyone tells lies and wears masks. The deceivers are the predators, and those that are deceived are their prey.”
“Prince… just what are you…”
“Everyone judges me on my appearance. A stray cat will always be treated as a stray. That’s right. They all see me as a beast.”
A beast? They were right. He was a beast, but nothing as harmless as a cat or a dog. He was the successor of the Kingdom of Lome.
“… Dear Oskal.”
He looked at Oskal with eyes overflowing with dignity. Prince Pygni lifted his chin and looked down at him again. Normally, Oskal could have overwhelmed him with his strength and authority, but at least at that moment, the prince’s aura seemed irresistibly oppressive.
“If… I grant your wish, what will you do for me?”
The prince voiced his demand. He was luring him into a trap with his silky voice. It was like the devil himself was whispering in his ear, offering him his heart’s desire in exchange for his soul.
“…What… do you desire?”
“What do I desire? Well you see, I’m frightened. The only thing that has ever mattered on this continent is strength. Strategy, wit, wisdom… none of it matters in the face of pure might.”
Regardless of how much strategy was used in organizing the army, how much acting was done to deceive others, or how much wisdom one possessed, there was one thing that surpassed all these things: overwhelming physical power. In this world, all it took was one person with enough military might to sweep through an entire army. Neither strategy, wit, nor wisdom had any meaning when pitted against pure strength.
“What I want is simple. It’s the one thing I lack, and that is strength! Will you be my sword and shield? A sword that will slay all those that wish to kill me, slander me, and disrupt me! A shield that will defend my life! If you become mine, I will grant your wish!”
Pygni was bent over at Oskal’s side, his eyes fixed on the profile of his face as he whispered into his ear.
“For me, Prince Pygni.”
The crazed beast. The one who would become king.
3 days passed. Roars poured out of Lania, capital of the Holy Kingdom. The imposing sound of drums echoed out and the beautiful voice of choral music began to flow. Flower petals fell from the sky in a bright shower and residents were poking their heads out from their windows to wave and cry out in merriment. Priests adorned in holy chasubles and white robes proceeded through the streets slowly, long cross staves in their hands. Holy Knights in glimmering white plate armor walked shoulder-to-shoulder in a dignified manner. Slaves with only a loincloth covering their lower halves carried the massive palanquin in which high-ranking priests and nobles rode as whips continuously curled against their bare backs. The imposing army was assembled in Lania and was in the middle of its procession. It was the Golden Cross Army gathered by the draft order by the Pope. There were almost 3 thousand Holy Knights, 10 thousand priests, and 50 thousand soldiers in a line coming out of the palace in a long train.
The eyes of Prince Pygni, who was riding on the palanquin carried by slaves, were twitching. In reality, he had been looking down on the Holy Kingdom. Regardless of how great it was, he believed the country would soon be in ruins if it continued to be led by the foolish Pope, Salem Gotteschuranche. However, this was a massive underestimation. The Golden Cross Army had been formed with absolute faith, and thus the members followed the Pope’s orders with no regard for their own lives. It was a fanatical faith that made his words equal to God’s. Even if the commoners or nobles began to revolt, they would be cut down by the army and mercilessly burned before the revolution ever made real progress.
‘…Ha…haha! Only an army with this kind of might would be able to cause our Kingdom of Lome to fall. Well, only if we didn’t have Oskal…’
What was more surprising was that this was only a small portion of the Golden Cross Army. If Salem had desired, he would have been able to deploy an army several times larger.
‘It’s almost unbelievable luck. An ordinary priest being noticed by a warrior and becoming a world-saving hero? And as a reward for his hard work, becoming the right-hand man of the previous Pope and eventually maneuvering himself into the ultimate position of power and ruling the world? A truly unforeseeable turn of events.’
Prince Pygni licked his lips.
‘It might have been luck… but he’s not someone I want to make an enemy of.’
It was not only Prince Pygni participating in the Golden Army, but also Oskal and Akareal, albeit Salem had placed those two in different areas to prevent them from meeting. Salem was filled with pleasure as he watched the impressive procession of the Golden Army from the balcony of the palace.
“Yes, this is my power!”
It was the mightiest army of Holy Knights. He was in a position of absolute authority which the world feared.
3 days after the Golden Cross Army was deployed, Pope Salem also began preparing to depart. His name would be further spread throughout the continent after having participated in the subjugation of the Demon Lord.
Earlier in the afternoon, Salem had ridden on a wagon with Helpharon, the Captain of the Holy Knights, behind him. Salem quickly got off the wagon before they left, calling over a nearby Holy Knight.
“Release the Hero. He can’t walk too well these days so doubtless it’ll take him a while to reach the abbey.”
After relaying his order, he handed the Holy Knight a letter. The knight tilted his head quizzically upon receiving it.
“The truth.” The knight still looked back in confusion, so Salem explained what he meant in more detail. “It’s the truth. The truth regarding everything that has happened to Brother Thoma. Leave this in the abbey. Tell him that it is imperative that he read it. You can just tell him it’s a letter pertaining to what happened to the ‘children’.”
As the Holy Knight lowered his head, Salem gave a contented smile before returning to the wagon to wait.
‘Ah… I wonder how he’ll react after having read the letter. Hero, now would be the time to truly resent me and hate me. I dearly hope that you’ll fall ever deeper into a pit of hatred and despair. Struggle with all you’ve got.’
Nothing pleased him better than defiling those who acted righteously or in the service of others. He had now confirmed with his own eyes that he was not the only one who could fall. It made him feel like his own sins were disappearing. Regret, responsibility. Everything. He thought of only himself and pursued only his own desires.
“Let us depart.”
Salem headed toward the allied army of the Hero in order to leave his own mark on this continent.
Thoma was released. He was barely able to walk without stumbling as he carried a staff in one hand like an amputee. He couldn’t maintain his balance and fell forward several times. His face soon became black and blue with bruises and the side of his leg ran red with blood. His right eye had been plucked and bound. He was disfigured beyond what any normal person could endure.
“So long, idiot!”
Soldiers stationed to protect Lania continued to jeer at him.
Ignoring the jeering, he continued to push on, barely able to catch his own breath. He took one step, then another, fell, and picked himself up again. He walked over unpaved paths and beyond a smattering of brush before reaching the hill. He only barely made it to the abbey after several hours of grueling, unsteady walking. He arrived to find a single letter at the entrance. Seeing it, he dropped his staff and began to lumber toward it as quickly as he could in his injured state. Half-way he fell and began desperately crawling to it. When he held it in his hand, he began to tremble as he tore it open and read the contents.
It contained the truth about all of the circumstances surrounding Thoma and the children. It talked of Kelvin, the pharmacist whom Thoma had trusted, and how he had given drugs to Ellie. It told of how Faron and the other priests had been used to corner him. It told of how all the children were used in Akreal’s magical experiments and killed.
Thoma opened his mouth in pain.
His eyes shook before a single tear leaked out.
He thought he could differentiate between fact and fiction, but what he was looking at was not entirely the truth, and the deceptions had been wrapped up so well in truth that they’d deceived him. All that he had believed to be true was shattered in a moment. Everyone he had trusted had betrayed him. There was only endless layers of contradiction, one on top of another.
His mind, which had been bordering on the precipice of insanity as it was, began to unravel. He felt like he was completely losing his grip on reality. His vision blurred and he felt his sanity draining from him. He could think of nothing but the fact that everything in his world had been polluted and sullied by lies.
Thoma looked down in surprise.
There was blood.
It was leading somewhere. Thoma raised his head once more. Blood had lead him toward the abbey’s chapel.
Thoma forced his body to crawl across the ground to follow it and grew stiff when he discovered the slender woman collapsed in front of the building.
Thoma hurriedly stretched his hand toward her. He forced his weakened body to embrace the fallen woman.
Thoma shook her, struggling to wake her. There was blood spilling out of her head. Thoma’s hand was slick with it.
“H-her bleeding is severe! M-magic…!”
Thoma held the back of Ellie’s head and activated his magic, but it was no use. His magic had no effect.
“M-magic isn’t working? Why!! She won’t wake up! Why..? Why…?”
His mana was lacking. Instead of producing magic, all that came was more blood spilling from every orifice of his body. Red droplets began to fall from his eyes, ears, and nose. As it fell onto Ellie’s limp body, she feebly opened her eyes.
Thoma looked up to see the statue of a beautiful woman embracing a cross. It was the statue of the God of the Holy Kingdom, Artarrk. It was the image of the mother of humanity as imagined by people. It was the image of a mother.
“Why…! Why-! God…! Please tell me why you have given me this fate…!”
“This is your destiny, dear hero. You have no choice but to accept. We are all subject to our own destinies.”
He recalled the repulsive words of Salem.
‘Destiny? This is my destiny…? I don’t want it… N…o! Fate cannot be so cruel… Why must I go through this torture…!’
He had only one wish, one thing he burnt with desire for: the salvation of this woman.
‘If nothing else, please save this woman!’
Hot tears spilled from his eyes, mixing with blood as he screamed his wish earnestly. His heart full of despair and frustration, he beseeched God with every ounce of will left in his body. And yet, God did not answer. The woman he loved more than life itself was bleeding to death in his arms.
Thoma looked down toward Ellie. Her breath was growing faint. Her skin was cold to the touch. Ellie barely managed to raise her hand to touch his pained face.
Thoma brushed his trembling hand across Ellie’s face.
“H…how come? That face… don’t be sad. I don’t want you to suffer.”
Thoma shook his head. He didn’t want to cry. He didn’t want to be sad! But…!
“I-it’ll be okay! J-just… wait a bit! I’ll bring a mage or priest that can cure you…!”
“It’s okay… I’m not in pain. So, Thoma… smile. Smile for me…” Ellie smiled, “… and I will be happy.”
Thoma’s eyes grew wide at those final words. Ellie’s hand trembled and her breathing stopped. Her eyes closed. She no longer moved. Her slack body lay heavy in Thoma’s trembling grip.
“Ah… Ahhhh…. Uwaaaaaack-!”
He screamed. He screamed with a ferocity that tore his throat. As he cried in anguish, a single word consumed his mind:
‘Salem! Salem!! Salem—–!!’
With Ellie’s limp body still in his embrace, he began to rampage. He kicked over a bookcase in the library, sending books scattering everywhere. He smashed the planks that were blocking the entrance to the cellar with his foot. His face, barely recognizable under the bloody tears, was contorted with rage and insanity.
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