2. Abbey of Some Border Region
[Those with souls have hearts, and those with hearts fall into depravity all too easily. Are you confident enough to remain free of corruption?]
– Words of the God of Creation.
Thoma felt goosebumps running across his entire body. He had discovered an old set of stairs leading underground as he was organizing the more decrepit areas of the library, and ventured down out of curiosity. After entering a basement and following a long, suffocating passage, Thoma found himself in a massive cavern. Though he could see nothing beyond the pitch black of this subterranean space, Thoma felt a strange and eerie sensation radiating from somewhere further in. He lit a lantern and stood in abject shock at the existence before him.
An ancient corpse lay in the center of the cavern. Despite the humid air—which had already caused Thoma to become drenched in sweat—its body shows no signs of rotting. It was as if it was frozen in time, unaffected by the happenings of the world around it. The lack of decay allowed Thoma to absorb every detail of the mummy’s form. And what a strange form it had! With its malevolent figure, the massive creature cast a deep dread into him—the likes of which he had never felt before. It appeared to be 20 meters tall, and its body was an amalgamation of various animal parts. Its head looked like a lion’s skull with two deer antlers sprouting out the top. The creature’s body was covered in various scales and shells, while its thick arms were those of a furred beast. It had the legs of a bull, though the creature’s legs were far larger and more muscular than those of any bull Thoma had seen before. Finally, at the end of its long tail lay the head of a serpent.
Thoma’s body trembled in fear at this truly bizarre and hideous monstrosity.
‘What an ominous feeling…! I have never seen such a demon!’
He raised his lantern and saw words etched onto the floor beside the revolting mummy. It was an ancient language composed long ago, likely tens or hundreds of thousands of years old.
– Are you confident enough to remain free of corruption?
‘… Could this truly be a message written by the ancients?’
Thoma turned his gaze. There were statues resembling all manners of devils around the cavern. Before them were skeletal figures wearing armor, hunched down on their knees. No matter how one looked at it, the only reasonable interpretation was that this had been a cursed ritual performed by devil worshippers.
‘This is a dungeon! This is the grave of some… one. For such a crypt to be right beside the capital of the Holy Kingdom… Is this what the saying “it is dark below a lit lantern” really means?’
Thoma continued reading the words scrawled onto the ground.
– Are you prepared to resent and curse others?
Thoma was shocked by these words, but carried on nonetheless.
Wrath Anger Rage
Hatred Loathe Detest
Begrudge Resent Blame
Lament Grieve Deplore
Abandon Despair Resign
Rebuke Scold Reproach
– Do you have the resolve to curse others with these thoughts in your heart?
“…What does this mean?”
Thoma had learned the ancient language a while back. It was considered forbidden knowledge within this continent, but he had studied it in secret for fun while organizing the libraries of nobles during his time as a slave. He would not be punished for learning it as long as he wasn’t exposed—and no one ever paid much attention to a mere slave—so he hadn’t been in any danger of discovery.
– If you are unprepared, then leave this place. However, if you have decided to forsake everything, offer your blood and soul here. Do so and you shall be granted the curse of immortality! You shall be granted the power to destroy everything and create from nothing.
This was a devil’s contract. Sorcery meant to entice another to sell their soul! Thoma had also researched magical texts whenever he had the chance. He knew the dangers of such deals.
“I need to seal this place,” he muttered to himself. “It’ll be dangerous if any children find their way down here.”
Of course, there were no children that knew of the ancient language, let alone able to understand it. If they did end up reaching this cavern, it was likely that they would simply run away in fright. However, as there were such things as happenstances, Thoma thought it better not to leave it to chance.
As he left the underground dungeon, he covered the small opening at the back of the library with a wooden plank and nailed it completely shut. He even went as far as to conceal the passage behind a bookcase.
“Ugh, my hips! Even though I was quite well-known as a Hero back in the day… This is exhausting. Well, I haven’t exercised properly in 20 years and, now that I’m in my 40s, it’s catching up with me. I suppose that’s what happens when you get old enough to be called middle-aged.”
Thoma leaned on the bookcase and massaged his hips. As he did so, he heard the voice of a woman calling him.
“…Hm? Oh, If it isn’t Sister Ellie?”
Thoma turned around to see Ellie standing behind him. The pleasantly simple looking woman was in her mid-twenties and had silvery hair and scarlet eyes. She looked back at him with a smile on her face.
“So this is where you were. Reading books again, are we?” Ellie asked with a slight tilt to her head.
Thoma unconsciously took a peek at the bookcase blocking the passage behind him and shook his head in response. “Ah, no. I was organizing the library.”
“Is that so? Well, there really is too much dust here! Not to mention the smell…” She waved her hand with an awkward smile. “It’s time for breakfast. If you stay cooped up in the library like this without eating, the kids will call you a bookworm again.”
“Haha, yes,” Thoma laughed sheepishly. “I’ll do that then. I was feeling a bit hungry anyway.”
“Then follow me. The kids,” As Ellie turned around to open the door, her silver hair caught Thoma’s eyes, “are complaining that they’re hungry as well.”
Thoma stared at Ellie blankly with a bitter smile.
‘She’s like an angel.’
Thoma’s golden pupils saw her ‘color’. A pure white soul that was clear of all impurities. She was a good and honest woman; she could honestly be mistaken as an angel from the Bible. A woman who could suddenly grow wings and fly away from this abbey at any time.
He finally managed to tear his gaze away from her as they walked down the hall and glanced back at the library.
‘If you have decided to forsake everything, offer your blood and soul here. Do so and you shall be granted the curse of immortality! You shall be granted the power to destroy everything and create from nothing.’
Strangely, those words continued circling in his mind. The curse was probably written to entice those that read it, but this place was next to Lania, the capital of the Holy Kingdom. No such heretic existed anywhere near here. He smiled mockingly at the fools under the library.
‘I don’t know the reason behind the devil’s temptation,’ he thought.
“But no one will fall for such tricks. Myself included.”
Ellie watched Thoma mutter under his breath and tilted her head in confusion. Noticing her concerned gaze, Thoma looked up at her with a smile.
“It’s nothing. Nothing at all.”
Blood spilled forth from pitch black armor. The Demon Lord, whose heart had been pierced by a sword, coughed up blood. As an endless crimson stream oozed out of his helmet, he raised his head. He looked toward the ‘Hero’ and spoke with a vigour unbecoming his state.
“What wrong did we commit?”
The Hero did not reply. He simply gripped the sword and pulled it free by pushing against the armor with his foot.
The Demon Lord screamed as more blood spurt out. He begged in earnest through moans of pain—for a reason, any reason.
“Why! Just tell me why you had to do this! What wrong did we commit? What crime could we have committed to deserve this!?”
It was a sorrowful wail brimming with despair and frustration. It was more of a condemnation than a question.
“All we wanted was to live in peace! So why!?”
Still, the Hero remained silent.
The lack of any response finally caused the Demon Lord to snap. “Curse you! I shall curse you! I will surely curse you!”
At this outburst, the Hero raised his blade with a cold, indifferent expression on his face. The Demon Lord could only pathetically crawl across the floor to grip the Hero’s leg. He pulled himself up and held onto the Hero’s waist. The bloodied and tear-stained face that stared up at the Hero was that of a broken man. In an anguish-fueled frenzy, he let loose his final words with a roar.
“Curse you! I shall curse you even after I die! I shall curse you! Curse! Curse! Curse! Curse! Curse! Curse! Curse! Curse! Curse! Curse! Curse! Cur…”
Finally, the Hero spoke. “… For the sake of humanity. Die, Lord of the Demons.”
With a single slice, the Hero lopped off the Demon Lord’s head.
Thoma woke with a start. His forehead was soaked in a cold sweat and his breathing was ragged. He looked around frantically like a startled rabbit. Once he realized he was not in the Demon Lord’s castle, but safe within the abbey, he let out a sigh of relief.
His room was made of brick and lacked decorations of any kind. It was a simple and cozy room adorned with only the most necessary of furniture and ornaments. It was a pitifully sparse room that could only be described as meager.
Thoma let out a rough groan before he wiped his brow with his bed sheet. “What a horrid dream! Hah~ How am I suffering from a nightmare of something from so long ago?!”
Over 20 years had gone by since then. Ever since he was young, he had worked tirelessly to raise his status from that of a slave. After becoming a Hero, he and his companions invaded the territory of the Demon Lord, who had been disrupting the peace of this world. He had just relived that Demon Lord’s final moments in his dreams.
‘The Demon Lord is dead, so there’s no need to worry any more, but…’
The Demon Lord was certainly dead, but his army was still scattered across the land. It was inevitable that the world’s peace would be threatened again once these demonic creatures chose another leader. In response, humanity would bring forth another Hero. This was the neverending arms race between the humans and the demons.
‘Though, peace will reign whether or not the Demon Lord exists.’
There had been countless Demon Lords until now. Each and every one had been pitifully slain by a Hero. Thoma had been the Hero 20 years ago and had killed the Demon Lord of the time. After his victory he constructed this abbey near Lania, in a forest where there were few people. He had been living a quiet life here with the monks and nuns, looking after orphans and helping the elderly. Consequently, his current lifestyle was far removed from that of a Hero who had faced the Demon Lord and his armies.
Thoma had barely managed to lift his heavy body when he was overcome by a coughing fit. A sharp pain stabbed at his lungs and he hacked up a thick sputum—along with some blood—into his hand.
‘Ugh! I know sickness comes with age, but it’s quite the headache since my body only seems to be getting worse, even with healing magic.’
Thoma covered his mouth as he used his other hand to block the blinding sun peeking through his window. His body was heavy like a soaked sponge and his mind muddy, but the warm rays of the sun felt good.
“Another day begins again.”
Thoma filled a bowl with water to wash his face and hair. He dried his face with a towel made of some rough material before dressing himself in the humble attire of a monk. Once changed, Thoma studied his features in the mirror. He saw his golden blonde hair, golden pupils, and a modest beard that needed to be trimmed. He was in his 40s, but his tired expression made him appear to be an older man in his 50s. The orphans were always making fun of his appearance.
Thoma shrugged his shoulders as he watched his reflection in the mirror.
“Well, it’s charming in its own way,” he said, trying to justify his neglected beard’s scraggly look.
The daily chores at the abbey were simple. They consisted of providing food to the children—orphans of war—and the monks and nuns of the abbey, praying, and laundry. Other than that, there were times when he gave blessings to people who made donations to the shabby abbey. It was what one might call a truly relaxing and peaceful life. At least that was how Thoma saw it, and it was what made him decide to live out the rest of his days as a monk.
‘Yep! It might be next to the capital, but it’s still in the mountains so the air is good. It’s nice and quiet unlike the constant hustle and bustle of the city…! It’s the ideal place. It’s a joy for a retired Hero like me to be able to raise these children as my own, and grow old alongside them.’
Thoma was extremely pleased that everything had fallen in place to make his dream a reality.
After getting ready, Thoma made his way to the chapel. Most members of the abbey were headed there as well and they greeted him along the way.
“Lord monk, you’re up?”
“Good morning, Brother Thoma.”
Upon entering the room of worship, the other monks and nuns that had already arrived bowed to him respectfully.
“Ah, have you all slept well?”
Those that heard Thoma’s greeting smiled. Albeit briefly, they glanced among each other tactfully before one of them finally approached him.
“What’s the matter?” Thoma asked, trying to discern the cause of his brethren’s apprehension.
“T-that is… the Honored Elders have arrived to pray, but…”
Thoma tilted his head in confusion.
The old chapel was shabby at best. There was a worn sheepskin carpet placed at the center of the room and a set of rickety pews—that looked ready to break at any moment—on either side for those wishing to pray.
A statue of a goddess stood at the end of the room, adorned with linen clothing and hugging a pot and cross against its chest. Visitors could leave donations at an altar placed in front of the statue. An old man and several old women were praying and each pulled a coin from their purses to place into the altar.
A murmur of disapproval arose from the monks and sisters that were present.
One young monk stepped forward and chastised the elderly worshippers. “Elder! This paltry amount of money cannot be considered a donation!”
“Hm? Ah, i-is this too little? But, this is all we have!”
The old man and the women looked at each other before smiling awkwardly. It was obvious that they wanted to say, ‘please let it go just this once’. Seeing this wordless exchange, the monk’s brow furrowed further.
“This is a place of worship for our Holy God. All of the money donated to the abbey becomes blessed by God and is used to help the poor children and elderly! It’s all for your sake! To donate so little to such a precious and important cause…do you think that’s acceptable?”
The group grew restless in the face of such a stern lecture.
“T-that’s because the taxes are too high! We can’t even properly farm with our weak bodies. We can hardly make enough to get by.”
The young monk scoffed at their excuses. “Then you should offer what you’ve harvested.”
“T-then what are we supposed to live on?” The old man asked in exasperation.
“That’s your problem!”
When the young monk began to shout, the group of elders shrank back in dismay.
“How many times has this happened now? How much longer are we supposed to just let this go? Do you know what would happen to this abbey if news of this spread? Do you know what would happen to our children!?”
The young monk was interrupted by a hand on his shoulder. He looked over his shoulder and saw someone unexpected.
“… Brother Thoma?”
Thoma patted the young monk’s shoulder. “You’ve grown too angry. Please calm yourself.”
“I-I apologize.” The young monk lowered his head in embarrassment.
Thoma began to rub the monk’s back to help him relax.
“I will handle this situation. Please take a rest.”
“But, Brother Thoma! If we let them off the hook this time, we’re truly finished! How will the Kingdom react…”
“It’s okay. It’s fine.”
After Thoma flashed him an awkward smile, the young monk let out a sigh and backed down. The group of elders looked at Thoma with bright faces. Having found a ray of hope, their expressions were as cheerful as someone receiving divine salvation.
“Ah! Lord Hero!”
Thoma smiled stiffly at their praises. “What do you mean Hero? How long has it been since anyone addressed me as such? Just call me Thoma. That old title is too grand for me now.”
“No, not at all, Lord Hero!”
“You’re the one who saved the world for people like us…!”
‘It’s already been 20 years since then…’
The thin smile on his face helped mask his inner turmoil. He was happy that the elders still remembered the old him, but was also a bit embarrassed that they kept bringing it up.
Thoma quickly looked around. After confirming that he and the elders were the only ones around, he carefully questioned them.
“Are you all doing well?”
— Ω —