6. Corruption (2)
Salem turned around to face Thoma.
“You bastard, why have you changed so much?” Thoma asked. “You used to be so kind and caring. Why…?”
Salem spoke with a smile. “Hah, just what are you talking about? What change? I’m the same person I’ve always been.”
Pope Salem Gottschuranche smashed his fist down onto the desk once again while glaring at Thoma.
“There was once a time when I idolized you! Truly, I did. To the point that I worshipped you in place of our God! As a priest, I abandoned God and put my faith in you! The Hero who had slain the Demon Lord! The symbol of heroism! I felt it praiseworthy for a commoner to reach such heights through effort alone! Because of you, I believed that anyone could succeed with enough effort. That was why I worshipped you so! However…” Salem moved his trembling face right in front of Thoma’s, close enough that Thoma could feel Salem’s hot, rage-filled breath. “You tricked me.”
“Tricked? Salem, I…!”
“For so long I believed that you were a commoner! A commoner who, against all odds, had succeeded in slaying the Demon Lord. Doesn’t it sound like a story straight out of a fairy tale? I loved such tales! If a commoner could accomplish such feats, then why couldn’t I? But…” Salem’s body shuddered, “but… you weren’t a king or a noble; neither a priest nor a commoner… The entire time, you were nothing more than a pathetic, runaway slave!”
Thoma stood in stunned silence.
“I finally understood why no kingdom would support you after our triumphant return. It wasn’t that they couldn’t but, rather, they wouldn’t. The Hero sent to die returning alive? They must have felt it wasteful to support some slave pretending to be a Hero any more than they already had. Lower than even a commoner, a simple slave becoming strong enough to defeat the Demon Lord? If such a story were to spread, slaves and commoners alike might rise up! The hierarchy of our world would be thrown into disarray; everyone would hope for more than they deserve, thinking they too could live like a noble or king!”
Spittle flew from his mouth as he screamed. “Know your place! Act in a way that befits your station! If you’re a slave then don’t pretend to be anything more! The least you could have done was hide away for the rest of your miserable life… Instead, you shattered my faith by pretending to be a Hero! Sometime after our fight with the Demon Lord, I learned the truth that you had kept from me; I still remember how it sent shivers down my spine. A slave… a mere slave… I… We… had been tricked!”
Thoma grit his teeth in an attempt to soothe his raging emotions. Salem, on the other hand, was visibly overwhelmed. He shook his head and forcefully calmed his ragged breathing, trying to regain his composure.
“Haah,” he huffed, “all those memories of listening and smiling to every word you said, the words of a meager slave… I didn’t realize how humiliated that memory would make me feel…”
“Salem, you’ve said too much. You may be my former companion, but to insult me to this extent-”
“I feel sick thinking about it even now,” Salem said, interrupting Thoma.
“Salem!” Thoma yelled, unable to contain his anger any longer.
“A mere slave dares to threaten the Pope-?!” Salem stopped himself from finishing what he had started to say. “… I apologize. I’ve overstepped my bounds. I’ll come again some other time, Sir Hero.” Knowing he could no longer control himself, he hurried to leave the office. “Ah, and one more thing before I go… The demons have finally brought forth this generation’s ‘Demon Lord’.”
Thoma felt his stomach drop at the news.
“The battle against the Demon Lord will begin once again, which means…” Salem paused for emphasis, “the tax rate will rise from 40% to 60%. We plan to conscript enough soldiers to wipe out the demons once and for all, so we’re going to need more funds for the troops’ equipment. We all need to do our part and support the new Heroes to come.” Salem opened the door, stopping to say one last thing. “… This is all for the sake of the world, Brother Thoma. I hope that you will step up and cooperate with the younger generation.”
The Pope bowed deeply. Others might have been astonished to witness such a scene—the Pope himself in deference to a simple monk—but Thoma felt no respect in Salem’s action. He knew Salem was not bowing out of sincerity. He was mocking him.
Salem glowered upon exiting the room.
“How dare he act so virtuous!”
Suddenly, he sensed a presence approaching him from behind.
A nun with pale hair and red eyes was carrying a tray of tea. She shivered as he stared at her, which meant that she must have seen his outburst just now.
Realizing that he hadn’t been controlling his expression, Salem quickly returned to wearing a pleasant smile.
“I apologize if I startled you, dear sister.”
Ellie looked at him wordlessly, still somewhat frightened.
“… I leave Sir Hero in your care.”
Salem patted Ellie’s shoulder and walked past her, continuing down the hall.
Ellie hurriedly opened the door and entered the office. She saw Thoma leaning on his desk with his eyes closed while pinching his brow.
“Um… Sir Monk?”
Hearing Ellie, Thoma looked up.
“Are you okay…?” she asked, concerned.
Thoma smiled at her, but his smile looked weary.
Salem was watching as the abbey he had just left slowly grew smaller in the distance. Despite having been built a mere twenty years ago, the building looked as if it had weathered a century’s worth of dilapidation. It was honestly surprising that the abbey hadn’t collapsed already. Such a shabby and worn down building could hardly be considered a House of God.
“That’s right. The place looks old enough to fall over at any moment. God might be angered if we worship him in that sad excuse for an abbey.” Salem said, before looking toward the priests beside him. “How is the investigation going…?”
“As far as we’ve discerned, there is no evidence that Thoma has stolen any of the donations or tax money. Rather, there appears to have been multiple cases of other monks and nuns embezzling the abbey’s funds.”
The priests had managed to finish their investigation within the span of a few hours. This speed was due to the priests’ position directly under the Pope, which they used to pressure and interrogate the monks and nuns under Thoma. Their lies were flimsy and they were all spineless. The priests simply had to raise their voices and watch as a monk or nun they were questioning cracked under the pressure, divulging all they knew. On top of being cowardly, they had noted that the monks and nuns of this abbey tended to be quite selfish. They turned on their fellow brothers and sisters all too easily in the hopes of avoiding punishment.
“It is truly regrettable. Since it seems that Sir Hero himself is innocent… even though he’s a dirty, thieving slave? There is no greater hypocrite. He managed to go so far with the filthy blood of a slave…”
Salem turned to the Holy Knight that spoke, intrigued.
“Thoma has been seeking a healer.”
“A healer?” Salem asked.
“Yes, it seems that he recently sought out a pharmacist.”
“Why…?” When Salem inquired further, the priests only shook their heads. They didn’t have an answer.
Salem smiled at this small bit of information. His intuition told him this was more than a simple checkup.
“Well, there must be a reason. We can take our time figuring it out. Yes, bit by bit…” Salem looked back toward the old abbey one last time, “we can crush him beneath our feet.”
Thoma was being examined by an elderly man standing over him. A pharmacist by the name of Kelvin. He was a good-natured old man who had been looking after Thoma’s health since long ago. Thoma had travelled all the way from the abbey to Lania just to see him.
He carefully inspected Thoma’s hand and then drew some of his blood, all while while wearing a long, bird-like mask. Holding the syringe up to the light, he observed the lumpy blood within.
“… As expected, this is dangerous.”
“Is that so?” Thoma asked sullenly.
“You know, this can’t be fixed with medicine…”
“… Still, please prescribe me some. It helps me deal with the pain.”
Kelvin took off his mask and stood up at Thoma’s request. He walked over to a cabinet and pulled out two bags of medicine, tossing them onto the table. Thoma looked at them oddly, opening one up and peering inside.
“What is this?”
Not only was this medicine different from the usual stuff he’d received up until now, there was also way more of it than the normal amount Kelvin provided him with.
“That’s a year’s worth of medicine.”
“A year’s worth?” Thoma asked, making sure he’d heard Kelvin right.
“Yeah. It’s also quite rare and hard for me to obtain, so use it carefully.”
“I don’t have the money for such expensive medicine.”
“It’s fine,” Kelvin said nonchalantly, “just take it.”
Kelvin fiddled with his mask as he spoke. “Your body will improve if you use this.”
The unusualness of the situation alongside Kelvin’s apprehension left Thoma confused. Looking at his soul’s color, Thoma watched it turn from blue to red—as sure a sign of deception as ever. Kelvin was lying to him.
Thoma was unfazed by the Kelvin’s white lie. He knew his body had already received a ‘death sentence’, so to speak. The illness that plagued him had no cure. There was no way that his body would recover by taking the medicine Kelvin was offering.
Thoma pushed the bags back toward Kelvin. “I can’t accept this. Why would you give away such expensive medication anyway?”
“Just take it,” Kelvin insisted. “It’ll be hard to endure the next few years without it.”
“This is also the last of the medicine I’ll be able to give you.”
“The last?” Thoma asked, perplexed.
Kelvin turned away as he started to speak. “I’m thinking of closing up shop.”
Thoma’s eyes opened wide in surprise. The sudden announcement took him by shock.
“The costs of materials here in the capital are getting too expensive, so I’m planning to move out. I’m thinking it might be nice to go live quietly in some remote village, I’m not getting any younger after all. If you don’t take this medicine I’ll just have to throw it away. I’d rather not be so wasteful, so please accept my offer.” Kelvin gestured toward the other bag of medicine. “Also, give some of this to that nun that’s always with you.”
“Isn’t that young lady’s body frail? She seems to be suffering from anemia, but her health should improve with this medicine.”
Thoma, finally convinced, grabbed the bags and spoke with gratitude. “Thank you. I will repay you some day…”
However, Kelvin didn’t let go of the bags in his hand. Thoma gave him a questioning look, confused by the old pharmacist’s sudden reluctance to give him the medicine.
“… I’m sorry.” Kelvin said, his voice filled with regret. Kelvin clenched his jaw and remained silent for a moment, before speaking again. “I’m sorry that I couldn’t heal you.”
“… It’s okay,” Thoma reassured him. “It couldn’t be helped.”
Thoma was fairly proficient in healing magic himself. For serious illnesses or wounds, his magic had better results than most holy water or medicine. There was no way that a pharmacist could heal an illness that Thoma himself could not.
Thoma smiled at Kelvin. Though his old friend may have felt remorse, Thoma felt that it wasn’t a burden Kelvin should bear.
“I’m grateful for you taking care of me all this time. I hope you’ll be able to enjoy a peaceful life in the countryside.”
“Thank you,” Kelvin said with a bitter smile. “I’m sorry, Thoma. Truly…”
As he watched Thoma leave, Kelvin pulled a handkerchief from his pocket to wipe his brow. He turned around and calmed his anxious breathing, walking toward a drawn curtain at the back of his pharmacy. He usually used the room behind this curtain as storage for his medicinal supplies, but today it was serving a different purpose. He pulled the curtain aside to reveal another man. White-gold plated armor covered his body and a large cross adorned his chestplate; it was undoubtedly a Holy Knight. As the knight walked out of the storage room, Kelvin grabbed a glass of water on the counter, downing it fervently.
Once the glass was completely empty, he let out a sigh and spoke. “Hah, that was hard! That monk has the power to discern lies! It would’ve been dangerous if I hadn’t improvised my lines! Either way, I managed to trick him in the end. Just don’t ask me to do something like this again!”
The Holy Knight ignored Kelvin’s complaints. He was focused solely on the mission he had been tasked with. “… The medicine?”
“It’s a vasodilator with hallucinogenic effects.” Kelvin lowered his face into his hands as he continued. This drug can induce nightmares! It’s commonly sold on the black market despite being banned in the Holy Kingdom, since some claim that it’s a drug made by the devil.” Kelvin continued to talk as he wiped his face. “In reality, it’s a simple narcotic, and an extremely powerful one at that! It erases the feeling of pain at the cost of stiffening one’s body. It also causes sensations of euphoria and stupor after multiple uses. It’s perfect for you since the effects are even more pronounced in an ill user. The monk will probably continue taking the medication once he realizes it alleviates his chronic pain. His body’s already in such a poor state, it won’t be much longer until he dies. Until then, he shouldn’t notice anything’s off because of the ‘medicine’.”
“And the sister’s…?”
“It’s a less potent version. I mixed in some other drugs to make sure a healthy person won’t suffer any obvious side effects after extended use. Her body won’t grow stiff, and she won’t won’t suffer from any of the hallucinations! However, on a woman with a weak constitution like her… As time passes…”
Kelvin’s face grew pale as he was struck by the magnitude of what he had done.
“You’ve done well.” The Holy Knight congratulated him. “What was your name again?”
“It is K-kelvin.”
“That’s right. Well then Kelvin, this is for the cost of treatment.”
The Holy Knight threw a leather pouch onto the floor. A large number of gold coins spilled out of the pouch, sliding all over the floor. Kelvin quickly began crawling around to gather his reward.
“Ah! The money! Money…!” he exclaimed, zealously grabbing at every coin he could find until he had retrieved every single one. Kelvin stared at the pile of coins he held in a daze.“Hahaha! Now… I won’t have to starve! I’ll be able to eat my fill and live in leisure! My struggles are over!”
The Holy Knight shook his head in disgust as he watched Kelvin laugh hysterically. The pharmacist had already been investigated once before. He was an old man who had outlived any family he once had. More importantly, they had learned that Thoma was like a son to him, he was the last person that this old man thought of as family.
Thoma was once regarded as the Hero who had protected humanity. He was someone who belonged in the history books for his victory against the Demon Lord. Reality, however, was not so kind to the former Hero. Rather than receiving the fame and praise he deserved, he was being used and thrown away by the very people he had risked his life for. Even this lowly pharmacist had abandoned him.
Twenty years. From a historical point of view it was neither a long nor short period of time but, for those living in the present, it was more than long enough for Thoma to have been mostly forgotten.
‘Rotten bastard… Well, who am I to judge him.’
Like many people, the Holy Knight had also grown up to tales of the Hero’s adventures. As someone of common birth who had risen to become such a prominent figure in the Kingdom, Thoma had been one of the more popular Heroes during his hayday. And now, under orders from the Pope, he had taken part in a plot to assassinate the man he once admired. Although, his life might have been in jeopardy had he refused this mission.
“Keep your lips sealed,” the Holy Knight growled. “If you speak of this to anyone…” His words jolted Kelvin from his trance-like state. “You will be handed over to the Court of Heresy and tortured to death.”
Kelvin dropped his coins, sending them scattering across the floor once more. He trembled in fear, having been reminded of just who the man in front of him was. It wouldn’t even be considered a crime if the Holy Knight cut down the old pharmacist where he stood, had he been so inclined. All he needed to do was claim that he had been eliminating a heretic to be absolved of any wrongdoing.
“I understand,” Kelvin said while nodding vigorously.
Ellie looked around the market of Lania, the capital of the Holy Kingdom, with bright eyes. Countless people were present, talking and laughing with one another. Merchants were busy at work in their stalls, yelling into the ever-present crowd to attract customers.
Speaking of customers, they were everywhere, carrying baskets both empty and full, haggling prices, and going through the various wares of whichever stall caught their eye. It reminded Ellie of a fast-flowing river, but one of people rather than water.
She could see mercenaries passing by here and there, wearing whatever armor they were able to afford. There was also the occasional group of Holy Knights on patrol, adorned in white-gold plate armor and wearing their iconic cylindrical helmets.
Turning her gaze away from the market, Ellie focused her attention on the buildings around her. There were clean multi-story houses lining the long, well-paved brick road. This road was one of the main throughways of the city. Looking down it, Ellie could see a massive and awe-inspiring palace in the distance. It was the most beautiful structure she had ever laid eyes on.
A massive wall surrounded the palace and a white flag bearing a golden cross—placed at the very peak of the building—was waving in the wind. Lania, a city of smiles and laughter! Ellie’s imagination had been filled with such expectations but now that she was here… her eyes saw differently. On the surface everyone appeared happy, but their happiness was superficial—a facade. If one took the effort to pay attention while looking around, they’d see innumerable poor, unfortunate people scattered about.
Looking down a nearby alleyway, a violent hellscape unfolded before her eyes. Slave merchants cracking their whips, slaves locked away in cages, vagrants begging for food, whores—men and women alike—selling their bodies, groups of addicts indulging in drugs, and even acts of violence and brawls, all happening in places visible from the market area. Everything she had seen was supposed to be outlawed, yet the patrolling Holy Knights didn’t even glance in that direction, simply ignoring such blatant violations of the law.
A covered wagon came rumbling by, catching her attention. She glanced at it quickly, but her gaze lingered. The wagon was carrying a cage and within it were demi-human slaves. Their necks and arms were bound by chains and they were all clothed in rags which barely covered their bodies. The demi-humans’ eyes were full of fear and despair. The wagon came to a stop right beside her as the slave merchant driving it stretched his back and drank some water. The slaves, parched after their long journey, could only watch in anguish.
Ellie hurriedly pulled her waterskin and offered it to one of the slaves nearest to her. “…Do you want to drink this?”
The demi-human watched her hesitantly. Green skin and a wrinkled face, a muscular build, a long nose and a pair of canine-like teeth popping out from his lower jaw, he was an orc. It’s monstrous appearance horrified most people. The orc took a step back, wary of her offer. He kept looking at Ellie cautiously before carefully reaching through the iron bars of the cage to grab the waterskin. With trembling hands, he took his first drink of water in a long time, finally quenching his thirst. Once he had his fill, he passed it on to the next slave. This continued until every slave had received some of the water. When the waterskin was finally empty, the orc reached through the bars once more to return it to Ellie. As she grabbed the waterskin, the orc spoke at long last.
“T… T-thank you, human. I am grateful.”
Ellie’s face gradually grew brighter as she nodded her head with all of her might.
“Yep, no problem!”
His break over, the slave merchant boarded the wagon and left, leaving Ellie to watch as the orc and the rest of the slaves were carted away. She couldn’t help but feel depressed.
“…How pitiful,” she muttered to herself.
She jumped in surprise as an unexpected question came from behind her. Thoma, who had promised her earlier that he would ‘be right back’, had finally returned.
“Where have you been all this time?”
“I bought some medicine.”
His answer alarmed her. She knew he was getting older, but she hadn’t thought he had any serious health issues.
“Are you sick or something?”
He shook his head. “No, I’m fine.”
In an attempt to change the topic, Thoma quickly offered her the second bag of medicine.
“This is…?” Ellie accepted the bag and looked at Thoma questioningly.
“It’s medicine for you; I was told it’s good for anemics. It’s expensive, so make sure you use it.”
“E-expensive? Did this cost a lot?”
“No, the pharmacist gave it to me as a favor. He’s an old friend and he said he was closing up his shop.”
“I see,” Ellie muttered thoughtfully.
Her eyes turned toward the other bag that Thoma held.
“So what’s your medicine for then?”
“It’s just a supplement,” Thoma said. “I need to start watching my health.”
— Ω —