4. The Abbey (2)
“Brother Faron really stole the money?!”
Thoma was currently busy cleaning the library, but that didn’t stop Ellie from pestering him with questions. He stopped what he was doing for a moment and held a finger to his lips. Ellie covered her mouth with both hands before quickly scanning the room. Luckily, the only people that ever visited this old library were her and Thoma.
Letting out a sigh of relief, Ellie immediately returned to gossiping. “So it’s true? I can’t believe it.”
Thoma rubbed his temples in vexation. He had accidentally spilled the beans about Faron to the young sister. Wasn’t it bad that he had confessed such an important secret himself? He hadn’t dared tell anyone else about the incident, except for her.
He couldn’t help but trust and rely on Ellie whenever he saw her dazzling smile. Consequently, he was loose-lipped—on matters both big and small—during their conversations.
Ellie slyly peeked over at Thoma with a concerned look. Her mouth opened and closed as she considered questioning him further. She was a mature woman well into marriageable age, yet she still acted like a child at times.
Noticing her curiosity, Thoma couldn’t help but let her know a little more. “It turns out that his wife was very ill.”
“What? Is that true?” she asked in shock. “That’s very serious. I haven’t met her all that often, but she looked very kind. Is she seriously ill?”
“I’m not sure. Speaking of… I’ve heard she has improved quite a bit. Ah! This incident… don’t tell the others about it! It’ll put me in a tough spot.”
“Of course! Don’t worry!” She said, while confidently pumping her fists in the air.
Thoma smiled bittersweetly, and went to put a book on top of the bookcase. Suddenly, his vision turned hazy, then black. His grip weakened and he dropped the book he was holding. It landed on his head, causing him to fall over. Ellie watched as Thoma crumpled onto the floor with a loud thud. His landing launched a cloud of dust into the air, giving him a hacking cough.
Ellie held in her laughter and approached him. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” he said, fervently waving his left hand to shoo her away. “cough cough… Ahem! cough! I’m just getting anemic with age cough!”
“Why’re you talking like some precocious child! Brother Thoma, you’re still young and full of vigour! You were once a Hero, so please don’t speak so pitifully about yourself.”
Thoma covered his mouth, trying to stifle another bout of coughing, but his eyes shined at her praise.
“Is that so? cough cough…! Well, I’m still getting on in years”—he rubbed his aching back—“so my body’s not quite in its prime. In fact, my cough still isn’t going away. Could you get me some water?”
“Yes! Just wait here!”
Thoma watched her hurriedly leave the room, grinning despite the metallic taste permeating his mouth.
His heart hurt, and his lungs felt like they were being pierced by dozens of needles. His mind was muddled and his body wavered on the edge of exhaustion. He had barely managed to stay conscious when his vision faded in and out.
“Aaah!” he shouted as he noticed the blood on his hand. “…Poor health is bound to come with age.”
Thoma wore a bitter smile as he wiped the blood from his lips. He was still alive, his lungs were still full of air, and he was still conscious enough to feel the pain in his beating heart. His body was suffering, but he wasn’t dead just yet. How sad would Ellie and the children be if he were to pass away now?
Thoma put strength into his legs and stood up.
“This was once the body of a Hero,” he said, trying to psych himself up. “Will you submit to a mere ailment?! He asked himself. “I’m still as healthy as ever!”
“Hah… hah… I thought I was still full of vitality, but it’s still… hard. Ugh… To be so out of breath from merely walking up this hill! I scaled a castle wall when I killed the Demon Lord… Ugh! I guess you really can’t fight time! If only it didn’t pass so quickly! Thoma yelled in jest. He felt better after complaining to himself. “The weather is still nice, though!”
Thoma viewed a small open area on the side of the mountain while wiping his brow. It had just started snowing, so there were only a few piles of snow gathered in patches here and there. He saw a mountain hare hopping around and watched as the children chased after it, until they lost sight of it in the underbrush.
Thoma smiled at the heartwarming scene. He felt that all of his life’s struggles had been worth it. Now he was able to watch the children—his children—grow up healthy and strong. Still, he couldn’t help but feel a tinge of regret when he compared his current state to their boundless energy.
“You’re still wearing that sulky expression. Aren’t you ever so happy to see your cute grandkids playing? G.R.A.M.P.S?” Ellie snickered with a hand over her mouth.
She sat beside the rock that Thoma was on, with a mischievous grin.
He quipped back, “If you’re going to mock my age, at least call me father. I’m not a grandpa just yet.”
“See, I told you. You’re still in your prime. A youthful young man!” Ellie spoke with conviction, as if she really believed what she said was true.
Thoma watched her silently, contemplating her words. Her silver hair fluttered in the wind, akin to a flurry of snow. The scarlet eyes staring back at him stood out against their semi-white surroundings. Thoma smiled at the sight.
“Yes, I’m youthful. However, it’s a part of youth that’s hard for me to achieve now.”
“No, it’s nothing.”
Ellie looked at him oddly, but she didn’t press any further. Her eyes simply sparkled as she gazed at the snow-capped peaks in the distance.
“Beautiful,” she murmured. “It’s my first time seeing so much sno—wachoo!”
Thoma took off the thick coat he was wearing and draped it over her shoulders.
“Ah?! I’m fine!” Ellie protested in surprise.
“It looks like you caught the cold,” he said, sounding concerned. “You’re frail so it’d be best to keep warm.”
She wiped her nose with the back of her hand and spoke assertively. “What are you talking about! I’m healthy as—achoo!”
Thoma laughed heartily. The children were gleefully throwing snowballs at one another, playing much too loud to overhear either of them. Ellie silently watched them run to and fro with Thoma’s fur coat wrapped around her. She started to move her feet nervously, and asked him another question.
“… Sir monk.”
“What’s your wish?”
Thoma paused at Ellie’s question.
He contemplated it for a bit, before finally answering. “My wish… Well, I don’t really have one in particular. I’m content to watch the children grow up and live my life with them.”
“… That’s so simple! Even a child would have something better!” Ellie began to snicker once again.
“… Is that so?”
He had answered her rather seriously. Having his dream teased like this was a little discouraging.
“Do you want to know what my wish is?”
Her sudden question broke him out of his melancholy. Ellie’s guarded expression evoked his mischievous spirit. He wasn’t sure what her wish was, but he would make sure he teased her about it.
“Sure, what is it?”
“You won’t laugh?” she asked sheepishly.
“Of course not.”
‘Even though I will!’
Ellie drew in a deep breath and quickly stated her wish. “I wish for everyone in the world to be happy.”
It was a simple wish, but an unachievable one. Faced with her sincere and innocent wish, he gave up on teasing her.
‘Ah, I can’t make fun of this.’
Thoma smiled awkwardly. “It’s a good wish.”
“Don’t patronize me,” she said, puffing her cheeks, “You probably think it’s just some naive nonsense, right?”
Thoma felt a prick in his heart and evaded her question with silence.
‘Too clever! It’s not like she has the power to discern the truth like I can.’
“I’m well aware,” Ellie muttered to herself dispiritedly. “It is a hard wish to achieve, but…”
She turned her head to look at the children and smiled affectionately.
“Even if it’s not a world where everyone could be happy, I can keep wishing for a better world! A world more comfortable than this one. More free. More happy. With less hunger. A world with less worries…!”
Thoma looked at Ellie in surprise.
“My wish is to be able to see that kind of world come to pass.”
Ellie returned Thoma’s gaze, tilting her head curiously.
“You’re very gentle.”
“Really? W-what all of a sudden…?!” Ellie blushed, taken aback by his unexpected praise.
Thoma only barely managed to suppress his laughter. “Erhem, No, It’s nothing. It’s just that you look like a little startled bunny when you get surprised.”
“T-that’s too much! You’re teasing me, right? Is this revenge for earlier?”
Ellie only blushed harder as Thoma burst into laughter.
“…Did you know rabbits die when they’re lonely? They might feel happy just by being together, but more than that, rabbits want to be loved.” She paused for a moment, working up the courage to say what was in her heart. “So…”
Ellie hid her face behind her silver hair, though the parts of her face that could still be seen were beet red.
“Sir Monk, you should—eep!”
Ellie let out a small shriek as a snowball crashed into her face. The children were laughing at her while hurriedly packing more snowballs.
“Hahaha! I hit Sister Ellie!”
“She’s like a bunny covered in snow!”
Ellie’s body trembled as she grabbed the pile of snow plastered over her blushing face.
“You brats?! Right when I finally mustered up the courage to say it…! Ok, let’s have a go!”
Ellie ran toward where the children were gathered.
She looked back toward Thoma and shouted, “Brother Monk! What’re you doing! Let’s go together!”
“Sister, your wish might be hard to achieve.”
Ellie froze at his words.
“But… There are definitely people that are happy due to your presence.”
Thoma smiled at the warmth he felt spreading through his chest as he reminisced on all that Ellie had done for him.
‘That’s right. Like me. There are definitely people that have felt the same happiness.’
Thoma didn’t voice the last part of what he wanted to say. Ellie looked dumbstruck; she had never expected Thoma to say such things—directly to her at least. She was still frozen in place, with her eyes glued to his figure.
“What are you doing, sister! Let’s play!”
The children knocked her from her stupor as they pulled at her arm.
“Hm? Ah, ah… yes! Okay! I’ll show you my snowball skills!”
Ellie left with the children as though she was fleeing from the scene. Thoma only watched as she left.
‘Sir Monk, you should… !’
He felt like he knew what she was trying to say, but he could not accept her feelings.
‘That’s right. I can’t.’
It was at that moment that someone interrupted his thoughts.
“… Brother Thoma.”
A tired-sounding voice caused him to turn around.
Brother Faron stood limply behind him. A deep-set look of despair was etched onto his face, making him look quite pitiful.
His voice shook and his face twisted in agony as he forced the words out. “has died.”
The funeral was a humble affair. The body was set into a coffin made by the monks, which they nailed shut and covered in flowers. It was carefully lowered into a freshly-dug grave using rope.
Even though everything had been made by hand to save money, the funeral wasn’t inexpensive. The only way to fund it had been to spend nearly all of the abbey’s remaining donations.
“Why are we spending money on this when we’re already in such a poor state?!”
“To go and die after using such expensive medicine bought with our stolen money…?”
“Hey, your voice is too loud!”
“So what?! For goodness sake! First the medicine and now the funeral expenses? Just who does brother Faron think he is, to be so insolent!”
Ellie recoiled in shock at the content of their whispers.
After firmly patting down the last shovelful of dirt, Thoma wiped his brow and walked over to Faron.
“Brother monk. What do I do now…?”
He was fixedly watching the soil under which his wife was buried, with a dumbstruck look.
“… Be strong,” was all that Thoma said.
There was nothing he could do for Faron other than offer him some encouraging words. Suddenly, Ellie appeared beside Thoma. She reached out and gripped the hem of his tunic. He could tell something was bothering her just by looking at her. She was smiling, but it looked forced, like she was trying to suppress her emotions.
It was then that he finally heard the hushed voices of his brothers and sisters.
“… Isn’t this very dangerous?”
“Maybe. With this funeral our funds are dry. We’re already behind on payments…”
“At this rate, the state might suspect the entire abbey of embezzlement.”
“What about us then? What will happen to us…?”
“We’ll probably be abandoned by the Church. If this gets any worse, we might be interrogated and face trial…”
“The Holy Kingdom has been providing us with food, water, and a small salary. Will that get cut off? And we’ll also face trial?!”
“Nonsense! What would we do if we don’t get paid? We’re innocent! Innocent! We won’t be handed off to the Court of Heresy… will we?”
Thoma looked at his companions in disbelief. His entire congregation was looking at brother Faron with rage in their eyes. Thoma realized that Ellie wasn’t trying to hide her sorrow regarding the loss of Faron’s wife, but her fear of the other brothers and sisters. She was frightened by their spiteful nature. The air was thick with sinful emotions: anger, loathing, and resentment ran rampant in the crowd. Even Thoma couldn’t help but gulp apprehensively.
‘… Everyone is too caught up in their emotions.’
It was because times were tough and everyone was tired. At least, that’s what Thoma convinced himself of; he didn’t want to consider the alternative.
Within the center of Lania, the capital of the Holy Kingdom, there existed a beautiful and extravagant palace in which the nobles and priests resided. It was a massive palace built in a helical shape, with a pearly white exterior, which extended high above the surrounding buildings. The Pope—who had the greatest influence and held the ultimate authority in the Empire—was one of the companions of the Hero that defeated the Demon Lord 20 years ago.
A miter sat atop his head, over his pale blonde and white-speckled hair. His eyes were a piercing blue, like the sky above. The Pope, Salem Gottshuranche, had just turned 50 this year. Time had been no kinder to him than anyone else, as evidenced by the deep-set wrinkles etched into his face. But, rather than spending his twilight years resting, he was was carefully looking over financial reports detailing the Kingdom’s resources. Salem was in charge of setting and adjusting the tax and donation rates across the country. Not even the smallest of churches or abbeys escaped his purview. No discrepancy ever slipped past him, even the smallest amount of money was accounted for under his watchful eye. Not only did he consider the priests beneath him untrustworthy, but he personally detested the thought of them selfishly stuffing themselves with ill-gotten gains. Salem looked over a particular section of the report in his hand and smiled.
“… The donations from this place are long overdue.”
His tone was polite, but he threw the report onto his desk as though it bothered him. The priest broke into a cold sweat and lowered his head further.
“Yes, that… that place is the Hero Thoma’s…”
Salem stared down the priest. His eyes were sharp and full of displeasure.
Seeing this, the priest quickly corrected himself. “Pardon me, it is where Monk Thoma resides.”
Pope Salem brought his hands together and leaned forward. “Ah, that man. Isn’t he an old friend of mine? And yet, his donations and taxes… they are a bit behind. Not just one or two days, but 5 whole months…?”
“It couldn’t be that he is thinking of keeping what’s due because he was once the Hero… How come the donations are abysmally low? Even if no one seeks out the place other than some old fogeys, this is a bit too…”
Salem glanced over at the priest and corrected his own speech. “Ah, excuse me. It’s too little even with the visitors being exclusively elderly.”
“That is… The wife of one of the monks passed away. Some funds were diverted to cover the funeral expenses…”
“How long ago was this?” Salem asked.
“They said it was a week ago.”
“A week? It only happened a week ago, but they’re 5 months behind on taxes and donations? This is a bit odd. No, it’s very odd. I’m just suspicious that this might be a case of embezzlement.
Salem licked his lips and stood up from his seat. “Well, it can’t be helped. Pack your things.”
The priest remained silent, confused by Pope Salem’s sudden order.
“We’re going there.”
“Eh? R-right now? What need is there for the Pope himself to visit such a backwater area? We’ll dispatch some Holy Knights immediately. So, I think you should…”
Salem shook his head. He made a dreary expression, showing his displeasure.
“Backwater? Isn’t it an abbey in which God resides? Not to mention that one of the loyal lambs of our great Lord has recently departed from this world. We are going to bestow our blessings upon them. Also…”
He put on a warm smile.
“I wish to meet my dear old friend.”
“I-is that so?”
Pope Salem nodded and brought his mouth close to the priests ear.
He whispered, “Also, wouldn’t it have been much more convenient for everyone if you had taken proper measures so that I wouldn’t have to go to such a backwater place?”
“I-I’ll mend the error of my ways!”
Salem patted the priest’s shoulder.
“No, it’s alright. In any case, I’m excited! To be able to meet Sir Thoma once again? He was once a Hero that defeated the Demon Lord. He was a pure and noble person! However, even if he was such a great Hero…”
Salem smiled smugly as he spoke. “Time changes people after all. He might not be the pure Hero of justice I once knew.”
The priest said nothing in response. He knew it was best to not interrupt the Pope in his current mood.
“Also, how did that thing I asked you to do turn out?”
Salem looked at the priest expectantly.
“Yes? Oh, are you talking about the ‘Ancient Gods’ Ruins’? We are continuing to search for any clues regarding it… but our efforts have yet to bear fruit…”
“… Is that so?” Salem’s voice was steeped in disappointment.
“B-but, the ancient literature contains clues to the locations of each of the Ruins of the Ancient Gods. Even if we can only find one of them, it’ll help us locate the ruins of Our God, Lord Artarrk!”
“I’ll be expecting good news, then. Still, I ask that you hurry. If not…”
Salem smiled once again.
“I’ll grow old.”
— Ω —