8. Doppelganger (2)
“… Damn it!”
Thoma put his arm around Ellie and the demon as he stabbed his blade down into the earth. Runes formed on the ground around them as his spell enveloped their bodies. It was a type of barrier; a magic that concealed the presence of those within the runic circle. It’s only weakness was that it didn’t block any noises they made while hidden.
This was a problem, as Ellie was still pleading loudly. “Brother! Please…! Please don’t kill Ellin!”
“Please quiet down!” Thoma hissed. “I beg of you!”
“Promise me!” she demanded, “that no harm will befall this child!”
Thoma continued looking through the trees at the approaching monks.
“I definitely heard something from this direction!”
They were getting closer. People of their level would be unable to see through his spell, but even the most unaware of them would hear the racket Ellie was making.
Thoma spoke hurriedly. “I understand!”
“It’s a promise!”
“Yes, I promise, so please quiet down…!”
“Promise to God!” Ellie demanded.
‘Damn it…! This nun is too shrewd!’
“Fine! I vow before our Divine Lord, Artarrk! I, the Monk Thoma, shall bring no harm unto this child!”
“…Good,” she said, finally certain of Ellin’s safety.
Ellie hugged the doppelganger tightly. The demon, who had been shaking, calmed down and hugged her in return. It appeared to feel safe in the young nun’s embrace.
“…Huh? There’s no one here?” one of the monks said, as the search party arrived nearby.
The monks looked around the area, many of their gazes passing right over the trio’s hiding spot. To them, there was nothing there. However, one of the monks finally noticed a basket of fruit lying on the ground.
“Could this be..?”
“It may be something that Sister Ellie brought with her?”
Both Thoma and Ellie held their breath. The monks were now standing right in front of them.
“… Let’s try looking somewhere else for now.” With no other clues, the monks decided to move on.
After the search party had finally left, Ellie let out a sigh of relief and pulled Ellin closer as if to shield her. Thoma could feel her staring daggers into him, like he was some evil devil trying to kill her child. He grit his teeth and rubbed his temples in frustration. Because of his promise to God, he was now incapable of harming the demon in any way.
‘Ah… Lord, why have you bestowed such trial upon me?’
For the first time in his life, Thoma resented God.
Ever since that day, Sister Ellie had distanced herself from him. In turn, Thoma found it hard to approach her like he used to. He still had many questions regarding the demon, but he didn’t want to risk asking them in the abbey. There were too many people who could potentially overhear them. If anyone else found out about the demon, it would bring an untold amount of trouble.
He kept his distance for about a week, though he made sure to keep an eye on her as best he could. Finally, Thoma was forced to admit defeat in regard to waiting for her to come to him first. His only option was to approach her directly to ask her questions regarding the demon. However, when he went to see her, the one who spoke first was Ellie.
“… Help me.”
He was relieved that she had broken the silence herself, but he understood, to some extent, what her request implied. It almost certainly had something to do with that demon! As a man of God, the last thing Thoma wanted to do was help a demon. On the other hand, if he refused her now, he might never get another chance to speak to her again.
Taking Thoma’s silence as a sign of displeasure, Ellie looked at him nervously.
“I-I know it’s asking a lot and I know you’re concerned about me, but… I just want to help that child.” Ellie moved in closer to Thoma, her pleading becoming more animated. “She’s pitiful! Unfortunate! I’m begging you!”
Thoma groaned. “What do you want?”
He had to hear her out, at the very least. Nothing would get resolved if he just stayed silent.
Ellie’s expression grew bright as she shouted. “Make me a house!”
A person’s heart was a strange thing. It caused people to take action before they could consider whether such actions were a good idea in the first place. Thoma felt quite childish for having fallen victim to such a thing.
“Hah,” he sighed. ”… Just what am I doing?”
The former Hero found himself sawing wood, hammering nails, and digging up dirt. A devout believer such as he was building a house for a demon. If his intention had been to find the easiest way to earn God’s ire, he had surely been successful.
‘How long has it been since I performed manual labor like this? I can’t remember, though it must have been during my time as a slave…?”
Thoma looked over his shoulder to see Ellie carrying more building supplies. She was putting in a lot of effort to help out. It was difficult to refuse her now, especially with how enthusiastic she was.
‘Hah… I don’t even know anymore…’ Suddenly, an idea came to him. ‘That’s right! I can just build this house to be small enough that her and the demon can’t share it. It’ll be easier to separate them that way!’
After immense effort from Thoma over the better part of the day, the house was finally completed. It had the right shape, although it looked… haphazard at best. On top of that, the house had another glaring issue that Ellie immediately took note of.
“… It’s a bit small, kind of like a dog house. For a person to enter…”
Ellie carefully gauged Thoma’s mood as she brought up the issue. He had put in a lot of effort and, despite the outcome, nobody enjoyed having their work criticized.
Thoma knew that she was right about its size and, as she said, it really didn’t look like much more than a dog house. Sturdy was not a word either of them would’ve used to describe the building either. It honestly looked like a storm would cause the shack to collapse, injuring those inside.
“I tried my best!” Thoma said tersely. “And, for a small doppelganger-”
“She has a name,” Ellie exclaimed, cutting him off, “it’s Ellin!”
“… It’s the perfect size for Ellin.”
Just as he claimed, it was barely tall enough for the doppelganger, Ellin, to enter.
Ellie approached the little house and knocked on it. Seeing that it didn’t budge, she decided to put a little more strength into her test, and kicked the side of the building.
There was a loud thud, but the house stood strong.
“It is sturdy,” she said. “Maybe it’s better than it looks…”
Thoma put some confidence into his voice. “Of course! I might not be the most handy person, but if a hit from you could knock it over…”
Before he could finish bragging, the house began to creak and suddenly collapsed.
Both of them stood in silence, looking at the wreckage. Ellie’s face was pale. She must have been imagining what would’ve happened had it collapsed with Ellin inside.
“M-my goodness…! I-it collapsed!” Ellie exclaimed.
Thoma was also shocked as well.
‘I might not be skilled when it comes to construction, but for it to have fallen from that!’
Thoma coughed, and tried to come up with an excuse. “Why must I build this house anyway? For a monk to build a home for a demon… God will punish us both!”
Ellie glanced at him pitifully, with an expression saying ‘how pathetic…’
Several days past as Thoma built house after house, but all of them would fall apart shortly after he finished. There were even a few times when Ellin was hurt while testing out Thoma’s veritable death-traps. Whenever Ellin was hurt Ellie glared at him which sparked a fire inside the old monk.
Thoma sighed as we walked down one of the many busy streets of Lania. He saw carpenters off to the side working hard to build a new home.
“… Should I really try to learn?”
He had travelled to Lania intending to learn the trade of carpentry from the master carpenters themselves. Now, whenever he visited the city he made sure to save a little time to visit the carpenters and learn something new.
He hauled wooden boards to the space where he’d been building house after house. Sawing and hammering away, his newest house was coming together bit by bit with help from Ellin and Ellie, who carried materials back and forth alongside him. Whenever he stopped to rest or take a nap, the two girls would sometimes nap beside him. It took a few weeks, but Thoma’s dedication paid off.
“… It’s complete.”
In the end, he’d built a home for Ellin despite all his complaints. The house turned out much better than any of his previous attempts, mainly due to Thoma getting fired up after failing countless times. The house still wasn’t much more than a small shed, but it was big enough for the Ellin and Sister Ellie to be inside together.
‘How much time did this take me? No matter! It turned out well, despite my skills!’
Thoma suddenly froze, struck by a dreadful realization. His self-satisfied smile remained plastered on his face, but on the inside he was perturbed.
‘… What am I doing?! I even gave them enough space to play together! Wasn’t the whole point of agreeing to build this house to split them apart?!’
As Thoma groaned and rubbed his forehead in frustration, he felt a small tug on the hem of his clothes. Looking down, he saw the little demon Ellin staring up at him. Despite his obvious frown, Ellin seemed unbothered, wearing her usual blank expression.
“Thanks, mister!” she said, before quickly entering her new house.
Thoma said nothing in return, surprised by Ellin’s gratitude. After a few moments of silence, he turned to the nun beside him.
“Isn’t she thanking you?” she asked him, flashing him a smile before following Ellin into the house..
Thoma was at a loss. That single word, ‘Thanks’. He hadn’t expected that word to crack the barrier around his heart, which kept him from seeing Ellin as anything more than a demon. He no longer wanted to keep Ellie and Ellin apart. Instead, he had Ellie make two promises. First, she would never share this secret with anyone.
“I know that!” Ellie exclaimed, miffed at how patronizing it was to hear that coming from Thoma. “Ellin is my child, I wouldn’t do something that would put her in danger!”
It was obvious that Ellie already saw herself as a parent, and with how Ellin acted around her, she may as well have been the girl’s birth mother.
The second promise was that she would never visit Ellin alone. She’d gotten away with it up until now, but he needed to make sure nothing went wrong in the future. Unfortunately for Thoma, this promise was less well-received.
“Why do I need you around just to visit Ellin…?” Ellie asked.
Thoma could tell she didn’t like what he was insinuating.
“Obviously in case anything dangerous happens!”
“What danger is there?” Ellie scoffed. “Ellin is a good child!”
“She’s still a demon!” Thoma pointed out.
“She’s nothing but a young, delicate child!”
“Fine then, I promise,” Ellie conceded, cutting him off. “Let’s just stop arguing!”
That was how he’d managed to get the two promises out of her. Now, Thoma was quietly watching the two of them playing together. Though he never let it show to everyone else at the abbey, the stress of his work was getting to him as of late. Watching the pair provided some much needed relief to his weary heart. He could no longer see them as anything else other than a pair of innocent sisters.
Suddenly, Thoma began to cough and hastily pulled out his medicine—which he’d started carrying at all times. It took only a few moments after it had passed his lips for the pain to subside, though his mind felt a bit hazy. Whenever signs of his illness reared their ugly heads, he couldn’t help but worry for the future.
What would happen if he were to disappear? What would happen to these two? The worst part was that he had no way of knowing. For now, he was the only person who could protect them. That’s all he was, their guardian.
“…I will continue to live for as long as I can,” he whispered to himself.
Until Ellie and Ellin could live happily on their own, without him… He had resolved himself to endure whatever challenges lay ahead. No, he would force himself to endure even if his resolve one day wavered.
Thoma’s mind was filled with such convictions, like an unending chant. But, even the firmest of resolutions couldn’t change reality. He was dying.
Faron was unable to calm his trembling body. Just trying to lift a cup of tea to his mouth was a herculean task, one which he ended up failing. He placed the teacup back down onto the table in frustration, choosing to ignore his dry lips and throat in favor of avoiding an accident. When he had calmed himself, the person sitting across from him began to speak with a smile.
“What is the matter…? Could it be that the tea is not to your liking?”
Faron froze at his words. How was he supposed to know the flavor of the tea he hadn’t even tasted? Despite the odd question, Faron knew how to read the atmosphere. The person he was speaking with was in a position far above his—not someone he wanted to anger. He quickly waved both of his hands in defense.
“N-no, not at all! How could that be! It is quite delicious! It is just that I-I am a bit nervous. I apologize, Your Holiness.”
The person across from him was, in fact Salem Gottschurenche. The Pope and sovereign of the Holy Kingdom. He was the most influential man in the entire continent, a figure that kings and emperors alike bowed their heads to. And here he was speaking to someone as insignificant as him, a mere monk from some unimportant border region.
‘J-just why does such a man wanted to speak with me…?!’
Many would consider this a great honor, but for Faron it felt overwhelming. It was hard to believe that the person he could hardly catch glimpses of in the past was now seated directly in front of him.
‘This isn’t a dream, right? Ah, I don’t even know what to feel right now!’
He had heard that the Pope had visited the abbey a few months prior to see Thoma, he had been a companion of the former Hero, after all. He had been in Lania at the time which meant that he had missed a once in a lifetime opportunity to meet His Holiness. However, his disappointment had turned into a child-like anticipation upon being invited to personally meet the Pope.
‘What should I do? Someone like me meeting him like this! Just what should I do… I still don’t know why he even requested to meet me of all people?’
A feeling of uneasiness was beginning to dawn on him. As of late, the abbey had become a cold and cheerless place, ever since he had… Could it be that someone had reported his misdeeds during the Pope’s visit?
Faron shook his head. No, had this been true, Holy Knights would have been dispatched to punish him. It made no sense for the Pope himself to be involved in such a mundane task.
While Faron was lost in thought, the Pope spoke. “I’ve called you here to investigate the state of the abbey.”
‘Ah ha! That’s right. Could it be that he was concerned about the old Hero? It makes sense. They were companions for a long time and they’re likely still close friends!’
“It’s good,” he said with a smile. “Thanks to Your Holiness, we are doing quite well!” Faron nodded his head several times.
Salem took another drink of tea while watching the flustered monk. His smile remained fixed as he narrowed his eyes.
“Doing well? Hah! I see. So, being so far behind on your taxes is what you consider ‘doing well’…?”
Faron paused, staring at the Pope in open-mouthed shock.
“Not only that, but upon further investigation, it seems that someone has been stealing donations.”
His eyes shook as he wiped the cold sweat forming on his brow with the back of his hand.
“Ah, Your Holiness.” Faron gulped. “That is…”
“There are also rumors that this is a common occurrence.”
Faron tried to calm his pounding heart. A stuttering response was all he was capable of.
“T-that is not such a common occurrence, and that… is… my…”
“Do you happen to know who the culprit is?”
Faron’s eyes widened at the question, it felt like the world around him was spinning.
“I asked if you knew who the culprit was.”
“Ah, no.” His mind raced to say something, anything. “T-that is my…”
Faron quickly glanced toward the door, seeing a Holy Knight locking the room’s single exit.
“You see, the abbey is…”
Faron looked back toward Salem in fear. The Pope’s smile had vanished in the brief moment he’d glanced away. In its place was a stiff expression and a piercing gaze. Salem’s dark blue eyes were almost hypnotizing. Faron couldn’t turn away, though he wanted to.
“A holy place of God,” Salem continued. “Someone dares to steal donations meant for God from such a place? Such a heinous deed deserves divine punishment!”
“T-That is…” Faron tried to interject, but he was simply ignored.
“I started investigating a while back. The number of abbeys in the Kingdom and the number of orphans staying at each one. It was truly tragic to see how many there were. There were many times when these poor souls starved, some of them to death.” Leaning back in his seat, Salem began to lament. “Back then, it was common for donations to go unpaid, which lead to the monks and nuns who ran the abbeys also starving. Unable to feed themselves nor the children they cared for, many simply abandoned their posts. I shouldn’t have to explain to you what happened to those orphans they left behind…” he said grimly. “Do you know why?”
Salem glared at Faron. A single look into those eyes causes Faron to freeze, unable to say anything. Salem continued, pressuring Faron with his voice.
“Those that didn’t pay their donations in order to fatten themselves, those that didn’t pay their donation because they were poor, those that didn’t work because of their poor health, and those that stole the donations meant for God…”
“They are the fallen! They are parasites that devour others for their own benefit! They must be weeded out and punished. But, how do we? The answer is simple. To purify the hearts of the evil…” Salem let go of the teacup in his hand. The cup fell to the ground and shattered, sending shards of the cup and its content across the floor. “The Court of Heresy is ideal. They quickly realize the error of their ways, screaming things like ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘I repent!’ over and over. Haha, isn’t it foolish of them? How could they truly be sorry when they were only apologizing through pain?”
Faron was all too aware of what the Court of Heresy was, especially in his nightmares after having stolen the donations once before. Thoma had overlooked the incident and forgiven him, but… it would be dangerous to say too much to the Pope. Not only for him, but for Thoma and perhaps even the other monks and nuns of the abbey!
“I am curious.”
Faron gulped hard, worried of what he would ask next. Salem smiled and narrowed his eyes once again.
“Who stole the donations? I must punish them, so please let me know.”
‘Should I lie? Should I tell the truth? Just what should I do? Should I plead ignorance? Or, should I confess to my crimes? But, if I do that, I’ll be punished…! No, I could seriously be tortured or even killed… it might even bring harm to everyone else from the abbey…?!’
Countless thoughts flashed through Faron’s mind. Seeing that he was unable to come to a decision, Salem decided to push him in the right direction.
“Could it be… that the former Hero Thoma committed the act?”
Faron stopped trembling and looked at Salem in surprise.
“As I thought, Brother Thoma is the true culprit of the crime, right? That is the case, is it not? Brother Faron, speak to me. You just have to say those words.”
‘… What is His Holiness saying? Is he really suspecting his old compatriot, the former Hero, of theft? No, that couldn’t be…! I must have heard wrong!’
However, Salem continued to look at Faron expectantly. That was not a simple prank. Those were eyes filled with greed—a yearning for something. Seeing those eyes, Faron resolved himself to set things straight.
“No, that’s not it.” He put on the bravest face he could muster. “I stole them. The donations, that is.”
Salem became silent for a moment.
“You’re not, perhaps, trying to cover for Brother Thoma, are you?” Salem asked, his expression growing sour.
“Why are you trying to frame Brother Thoma for my crimes?” Faron asked accusingly.
Salem went silent once more.
“… This is a bit too much for a joke. I am not sure what it is that Your Holiness wants, but…” Faron, seeing the Pope’s true objective, spoke through gritted teeth. “I can tell you’re trying to cause trouble for Brother Thoma.. Just what are you thinking? Aren’t you a friend and former companion of Brother Thoma? Why would you try to frame him! How could someone of your stature…! Could it be that you’ve fallen as the rumors say?”
“Fallen?” Salem asked coldly.
“That’s right! It’s a rampant rumor among the priests! That Your Holiness has become crazed with selfish desires, that you have turned your back on the people, and that you’re abusing your position for personal gain. They say that you have forgotten the teachings of God, thinking of yourself as one instead!”
“… Your words are too harsh, brother Faron.” Salem leaned back and smiled. “You dare utter such words to the ruler of this world?”
“… Ruler of the world?” Faron was dumbstruck. “What are you…? This is nonsense. You might rule over the Holy Kingdom, but you’re far from ruling the world. All I can say to you is that Brother Thoma is not the criminal you wish he was, he’s a good-hearted man. He’s far kinder than you know! Don’t try and sully his name any further!” Faron stood from his seat. “I will be leaving, then.” Faron approached the door, but he was blocked by the Holy Knight standing guard. “Move aside!”
The Holy Knight stared at him silently for a moment, before turning his attention to Salem. The Pope needed only grin for the Holy Knight to nod in understanding. He immediately struck Faron’s head with his sheathed blade. Salem approached the monk, who had collapsed onto the floor.
“Ah, this… mutt that I’ve been raising is barking at me. I can’t bear to listen to it any longer. When they become this disobedient… they require discipline.”
“U-ugh…” Faron could only glare at Salem in a daze as he groaned in pain.
Salem smiled at him mockingly. “Brother Faron. The good that you speak of, I am interested to see how those sentiments will protect you.”
Faron screamed as the Holy Knight grabbed him by the hair and lifted him up.
— Ω —