28. Gambler’s Den (6)
Tom and Ellin were lost for words, and Halsem looked to be on the edge of despair. Holy Knight Rahon’s gaze was scanning over Halsem with all the intimacy of a lover. Goosebumps were popping up all over his body from the disturbing look.
“W-wait!” Halsen cried. “This is strange! Normal people would pick the lovely lady beside me!”
Rahon’s hand brushed over Halsem’s chin and gently cupped his cheek. It made him feel nauseous.
“Since the olden days, outstanding clergymen always had to keep far from women.”
Rahon’s utterance prompted Ellin to shoot a look of disgust at Tom.
“… I ask that you don’t look at me with such eyes. I’m not one of them.”
“I-it’s strange!” Halsem hastily yelled out in resistance. “Even if you do happen to swing that way, I sure don’t! I’m not your guy! Look to the side! This lad is way prettier than I am! This Holy Knight right here! Not me!”
Rahon glanced at Tom in response before shaking his head.
“Ahh, he’s unfortunately a Holy Knight as I am, you see. We should respect each other. Besides, you’re just the kind of fellow that I like. Why do you refuse me so? I merely wish to talk. It’s a simple inquiry… a full-bodied examination, if you will.”
“You just said full-bodied didn’t you?! You are clearly talking about getting physical, not speaking with words!” Halsem spun towards Ellin. “Help me!”
But she blushed and turned away, ignoring his desperate pleas for rescue.
“Sorry, I don’t know too much about this sort of thing.”
“Why are you acting embarrassed?! You don’t know too much, my ass! You know exactly what’s going on!” Halsem accused. “So save me! And I ask the same of you, my fellow Holy Knight! You’re my ally, too! Say something!”
Tom glanced at Rahon, but when the latter’s wicked gaze shifted to him, he hurriedly evaded focus by turning to Halsem.
“Halsem,” Tom began, “there are no boundaries when it comes to love between men and women.”
“It’s clearly between a man and a man this time! Not a man and a woman!” Halsem complained.
“All-father Artarrk said this, once: homosexuality is also a part of love.”
“You’re lying to me right?! Don’t you go speaking lies, clergyman!”
Rahon placed a hand on Halsem’s shoulder, and slid it gently down his body. He had been feeling Halsem up since the start of the conversation.
“It’s no lie. ‘Tis recorded in the holy scriptures that any and all boundaries shalt be ignored if thee share love with thy partner.”
“That’s in the case of mutual love! It doesn’t apply here!”
Feeling pity at Halsem’s cries, Ellin spoke up to help.
“I don’t particularly care about a man and a man doing this and that, but taking interest in a pissy-pants is a bit wrong!”
When Rahon repeated the word in a daze, Halsem thought it was his chance to save himself.
“That’s right! I dribble piss everywhere!”
Rahon looked enraptured at his words.
“… Amazing. Just my type!”
“Heavens—! Why don’t you kill me instead!”
Halsem’s pleading voice moved Ellin into action. She kicked Rahon’s feet.
“Stop! He doesn’t like it!”
Startled, the mercenaries surrounded her.
“Oi! What are you doing, woman!”
Rahon stared at Ellin before glancing down to where he had been kicked. He dusted that spot off with a smile.
“Don’t you kick me… miserable woman!”
He ruthlessly back-handed her with his gauntlet, sending her whirling to the ground. The force of the impact caused her to bounce, roll, and smash into the nearby furniture. Had she been an ordinary woman, she would have either been grievously injured or killed from an impact as strong as that.
The mercenaries took a step back out of shock, while Rahon gazed at the fallen Ellin. After a moment or two he tilted his head in curiosity upon noticing the fresh blood now staining the back of his gauntlet. It gave him a strange feeling.
“This is… demonic energy?”
His eyes widened as he backed away. Ellin’s cheek was swollen and blood was dripping from her lips. Rahon clenched his jaw upon noticing her unexpected durability.
“Could it be… a demon? Wench! Are you a demon?! A heretic like you dared to sully my holy hand with your filthy blood, and even kicked me?!”
The mercenaries were shocked at the discovery.
“She’s a m-monster!”
“Damn, do you mean it’s a devil in the form of a human?!”
They drew their weapons.
Ellin smiled at the reaction.
“Huuh~ Amazing. Finding out I’m a demon just from my bloodstain. Looks like you’re on a different level compared to a certain apprentice Holy Knight.”
She glanced at Tom, whose attention had been on Rahon and Ellin but was now squarely on Kelvin. The ever present smile on Tom’s face was wiped off as he just sat there with an expressionless face, as if he was ignoring Ellin’s very existence.
‘… What the?’
Ellin had expected him to at least be surprised or even furious at being fooled, but he was merely behaving as if she was not there, whereas Halsem had stepped backwards out of shock upon hearing that she was a demon. He covered his head in fear with his bound hands, avoiding Ellin’s gaze as he trembled. The corner of her lips turned up at the sight of his frightened expression. Every human present in this space was scared of her.
‘Yes, as they should be.’
The ropes binding Ellin’s wrists were cut off. Her fingers and nails elongated and shone with the sharp glint of a blade.
“What should I do now that I’m found out? Should I curse and kill everybody here?”
Her words caused the mercenaries to back-off in dread, while Halsem went over to collapse in the corner, seemingly worn-out.
Rahon stared at Ellin with a calculating eye. He was dripping cold sweat.
“… Body transformation? Ha! Don’t spout nonsense. You must be a doppelganger from the looks of it! Unlike other demons, doppelgangers don’t have any real power. What does a pathetic fake like you intend to do?”
The muscles of Ellin’s eye twitched; ‘fake’ was the word she detested most. Rahon drew his sword and held it at the ready.
Ellin raised an eyebrow at the sight.
“I’m quite strong despite looking like this. Enough to kill everyone here. You’ll lose your head if you underestimate me for being a doppelganger, you know?”
“What a clever tongue. I don’t know about the other types of demons, but I could take on doppelgangers like you by the crowd.”
Holy energy gathered in Rahon’s sword which gave rise to a white aura. As he prepared to swing it toward Ellin, Kelvin’s fear-filled eyes sparkled. He opened his mouth to speak as he blankly gazed at Ellin.
“Is that wench… a demon? Rahon?”
Rahon paused in surprise and turned to stare at Kelvin, whose eyes had become taken over with greed.
“If so, I could earn quite a bit! There might be gold to be had! It’s hard to find a source of money like this!”
Rahon wet his lips. Although he wanted to kill the doppelganger before him, he was practically an employee of Kelvin. It would be difficult for him to make a living should he disobey Kelvin’s order.
Meanwhile, a satisfied smile crossed the face of Tom, who had been paying attention to Kelvin expressionlessly. Ellin saw this and frowned.
Rahon licked his lips as he stared at Ellin and Halsem in turns.
“Then, both of these two…?”
“Yes! Send them to the arena right this instant! A fight between a mysterious doppelganger that can shapeshift at will, a human, and an ogre! Doesn’t it make for a wonderful picture?!”
Ellin stared at Kelvin.
“Oi, what are you…?!”
“Very well. Then…”
Rahon grasped Halsem by the neck and dragged him to his feet before tossing him to the mercenaries. Then he threw himself towards Ellin, coming to a stop only when the tip of his sword was at the girl’s throat.
“Don’t move, doppelganger. I’ll give you a chance to live. Follow me obediently to the arena.”
“Hah? You think I’ll stay still just because I’m told―”
“Ouch! It hurts!”
Ellin jumped in surprise and looked to the side, where Halsem had been caught by the mercenaries and was now being pressed down to the ground. The man looked back with fearful eyes.
“W-wait a moment! This is strange! Putting me in the arena together with that monster? Don’t kid me! W-wait… what do you want! I have nothing to do with this…!”
Ellin clenched her teeth at the sound of him going on and on.
“… Ha, okay I’ll play along a little.”
The blades disappeared from Ellin’s hands, and the two immediately went outside the reception room. The only ones who remained were Kelvin, the mercenaries, and apprentice Holy Knight Tom. Kelvin burst out in laughter at the thought of Ellin who had left.
“Haha! What good luck! A money source! Here I was worrying that with nothing but ominous things happening an opportunity like this would never arrive! But that wasn’t the case at all! A rare demon like that would sell incredibly well, even to slave traders! A demon that can transform? The nobles will be absolutely delighted! I wonder how much gold a trade will go for? Hahahaha…!”
Kelvin jumped in surprise and faced forward. Tom, who was now seated in a chair, was laughing.
He held his belly and laughed delightfully to the extent of tearing up.
Kelvin stared at him, bewildered at the sight.
“Hahaha! Truly. Her worrying for others hasn’t changed, has it? The likes of a demon being mindful of others. I still can’t believe it. She’s still a good child at heart. But what is she thinking caring for someone else at a time like this? Especially when it’s a matter that concerns her own life? It’s understandable for Karakul to be anxious about her.”
Kelvin asked out of puzzlement.
“What are you saying? Sir Holy Knight?”
“While in contrast…”
Tom continued to speak while gazing at Kelvin with a pointed look.
“Somebody else I know sure does change easily.”
Kelvin shrunk back at the accusation.
Tom rose to his feet, and drew closer to Kelvin one step at a time.
“Yes, somebody else I know betrays others with ease.” The corner of Tom’s lips turned up to form a smile. “Gold? Money? Just for those insignificant things he broke someone’s trust.” His footsteps stopped. “He doesn’t know, doesn’t try to know, the pain of betrayal and is merrily enjoying his life.”
He lowered his gaze to stare at Kelvin, who met his eyes directly. Golden light reflected in Tom’s eyes, and Kelvin’s expression gradually began to change at the sight. He felt his body temperature drastically falling at those familiar eyes, and his vision shook as he broke out into a cold sweat. Amidst Kelvin’s delusional sensation of being sucked into those golden eyes… Tom muttered one line.
“… I—found—you. Kelvin.”
Kelvin screamed, which finally brought the dazed mercenaries back to their senses. They grabbed hold of Tom, forced him down onto a chair and looked at Kelvin.
“A-are you alright?!”
Kelvin did not hear the mercenary’s question as he was currently covering his face and screaming. The violently trembling old man peeked through his fingers at Tom with terrified eyes. The same utterly ominous words spoken by the crow last night caused fear to take over his mind.
‘No! It couldn’t be him! It happened 30 years ago! There’s no way he could be alive! Even if he was, he’d have aged! No, he would have died from illness before that! There’s no cure for that illness!’
Tom continued to speak even as he was held down by the mercenaries.
“The incident 30 years ago. I’ve come to repay you for what happened back then! Kelvin! How astounding! Money, money, money! Gold, gold, gold! You still can’t throw away your attachment to these things?!”
Kelvin’s shaking grew worse at Tom’s accurate indication of time.
“Y-you, who are you?! Who are you I say?! Who are you to know me?! I-it can’t be…” Kelvin drew out all the possibilities in his head. “Are you a relative of that person?! Have you come to take revenge j-just for that blasted clergyman?!”
Tom sneered at Kelvin’s words.
“You don’t understand. You know who I am, don’t you?”
“… Know? Me?” Kelvin listened to him speak. The man’s voice full of hatred and rage, containing delight amidst the madness, echoed in his ears.
“Yes, you know well. Oh so very well! You gave it to me with that hand of yours, that packet of medicine… and you told me, remember? ‘I’m sorry’.”
The past rose in Kelvin’s mind, and the figure of one monk slowly began to overlap with the young man before him.
His eyes were the same as that monk. The shape of his face was the same as that monk. His voice was the same as that monk. Every single thing about him… was exactly the same.
“If you still don’t know, then I’ll teach you who I am. You know well what my name is at least, yes?”
Kelvin opened his lips he was keeping shut.
“… Don’t do it.”
“My name is…”
“Don’t. Don’t do it! Shut your mouth—!”
Tom uttered one name, a syllable at a time.
“Aaaaaaaaaagh! Kaugh?! Ah… uh… c-can’t breathe…!”
Kelvin started seizing and hastily took out some medicine from a nearby cabinet and swallowed it, gritting his teeth to endure through the fit. It was too much, however, and his broken and rotten teeth fell out onto the table in front of him. He glared at Tom with bloodshot eyes as he tried to catch his breath, and pointed a shaking finger at the man.
“Throw that… that man inside! Throw him inside the demon cage right this instant!
“What? B-but… he’s a Holy Knight…”
“Shut up! Toss him in! Or I’ll have you lot go in there instead!”
Kelvin’s bellow prompted the mercenaries to force Tom to move.
“Wait there for me, Kelvin! I shall hand you your judgement. In the name of the faith that you people so firmly believe in… your corrupted soul will perish!”
The door of the reception room closed.
Dazed and trembling, Kelvin covered his head with his hands at the lingering words, akin to a curse, that echoed in his ears.
Walls covered all sides of the cells. The only gaps that existed were the iron bars in front of the prisoners. Torchlight was the only illumination that could reach this far down in the underground lobby. Amidst this gloomy atmosphere, the slaves who would soon be entering the arena to pay off their debts retreated in fright at the sight of one girl.
“That one’s a demon! Why is she being put here with us?!”
“That’s a doppelganger, isn’t it? A monster that takes the form of a human and eats other people!!”
“Horrible devil spawn!”
The girl, squatting down and leaning against a wall in the corner, listened to it all. When she lifted her head to look at the speakers of those words, the slaves urgently reached out of the iron bars and yelled out for help.
Ellin giggled to herself, but while a smile hung on her lips, the mirth did not reach her eyes; she was glaring at the humans with an icy gaze of annoyance.
‘Ahh, so it came to this again. Put behind bars and gawped at by humans again. It’s what I go through every journey I make, but… I just can’t get used to it.’
Humans were always like this, judging by outward appearances. They would approach when she was in the appearance of a girl, but would stay far away in fear when they knew what kind of being she was. Even that confident gambler Halsem had been terrified, while the apprentice Holy Knight had outright ignored her. She truly felt awful.
Ellin buried her face into her knees, but it was at that moment that she was startled by a presence right next to her; she lifted her head and looked to the side.
“Ah, oh my… we meet again?”
And there he was, one swollen-faced apprentice Holy Knight. Tom and Ellin were sitting in the same pose, leaning their backs against the wall.
Ellin blankly gazed at him, blinking her eyes in non-comprehension, but then she turned to look at the nearby slaves. The human slaves were all gawking at the apprentice Holy Knight Tom in astonishment.
Halsem, who had come here together with her moments ago, was shocked. He furtively eyed Ellin before bringing up the courage to speak to Tom.
“O-oi! B-brother Holy Knight! Don’t you know about that kid? She’s a doppelganger! A vile devil that transforms into a human to eat people!”
It was then that Ellin finally came to her senses and frowned.
‘Why’s this Holy Knight beside me?!’
She quietly muttered under her breath, looking at him.
“You. Just what are you?”
— Ω —