96. Forces (9)
The torturers smiled cruelly and lowered their heads.
“Your words are too much.”
The gazes of the prisoners, after having eaten the food, turned toward the pouches. Upon opening them, they found that they were filled with glittering gold coins. The prisoners grew wide-eyed and turned to Pope Salem. His lips curled up as though he was satisfied by their response.
“There is something I need you all to do for me.”
A fiery brand was seared onto the foreheads of the prisoners. The prisoners, having received the black cross brand, clumsily put on the black priestly robes made of rough fabric. Metallic clubs were placed into their hands, which they tucked away.
Helpharon, who saw all this, said nothing.
‘Could it be that he’s genuinely thinking of turning these prisoners into his army?’
However, that was a futile deed. What would change by utilizing these all-but-dead prisoners? It would instead make the priests retaliate. The men enlisted by the Cardinals and the Archbishops were enough to suppress them.
“Are you thinking of using them as an army?”
“An army? Yes, that’s correct. However, it’s a bit different.”
Salem also had some common sense left, however little. He wouldn’t be able to remove an Archbishop or a Cardinal by using an army of rabble.
“The Archbishops and Cardinals could easily suppress such an army normally. However, would they be able to stop an army made up of citizens and priests? A portion of them are Heresy Interrogators. It will be their job to lead these criminals. No one has been given the power to stop these men, who are moving with the goal of eradicating heresy.”
It meant that he would let loose these criminals onto the streets. Pope Salem was willing to release thousands of deviants, madmen raised like cattle, to wander around the capital.
“…You’re thinking of releasing the criminals? Just who are these people!? They are sinners!”
When Helpharon began to shout, Salem looked surprised, as it was rare for him to raise his voice.
“Hah! What do you mean, these people? They are no longer criminals. They are innocent citizens that have received pardon and been reborn as priests!”
“Innocent…? There are many within here that have committed all manner of heinous crimes! To call them innocent citizens…!?”
“Haven’t they undergone the Purification Ceremony? They have just received the baptism through Holy Water and are titled as priests. Since they are authorized by me, before my authorities were revoked, there are no legal issues.”
Helpharon was at a loss for words. Definitely, those with authorities beyond Cardinals could promote others to the priesthood as they wanted, but this kind of promotion was nonsensical.
“Just what are you trying to do with these people?”
“Isn’t it obvious? As they mocked the “Son of God”… they must receive their just retribution.”
“Are you saying that you believe in them?”
“At the very least, they are more trustworthy than you.”
“Why did Cardinal Farron of the past come to my side? It is simple: I whipped him, and then handed him a carrot… It is similar to how one trains dogs and pigs.” Salem licked his lips. “And it’s so fun… Every time I was bored or angry, I experimented. However, 100 out of 100 times, I was successful. Haha! It was a joyful experiment. To see how low the dignity of a person could go… It was pleasing and delightful.”
“Humans only become reliable sources of light once they have something they believe in and trust; that is what we call faith. However, those that have experienced endless despair can no longer find their faith.”
Harsh punishment was placed upon prisoners as they were starved and tortured, without any hope. Amid endless pain, grief, and agony… a small bit of grace fell upon them.
“After giving them never-ending torment, do you know what they do when you show them a ve~ry small bit of mercy?”
“They forget all their sufferings and swear loyalty to their liberators. They begin to form faith that is similar to—no, exceeds religious faith.”
“…By faith, you mean…?”
Salem smiled and pointed to himself.
“To them, I will appear to be a god, and they will worship me!”
Salem turned to the prisoners, who got on their knees and lowered their heads toward him. They had ended up as domesticated beasts after the pain and mercy. They were infected with Salem’s madness, turning into religious fanatics after receiving freedom. Shedding their past selves, they had been reborn as Heresy Interrogators—The Black Priesthood.
“They shall grant me strength like the 2nd Army of the Golden Cross. Yes, they shall be the whip I use to purify those that wish to interfere with my plans!” Salem’s eyes were filled with joy. “And so… after eliminating the biggest thorn in my side, the Archbishops, they shall be tasked to eliminate the Cardinals!”
The streets of the capital of the Holy Kingdom were filled with energy. The throng of people was unending, and both the most wealthy and the most destitute of the capital’s citizens used these roads every day. For those with money, there was no better place to live than in the Holy Kingdom’s capital. On the surface, it was devoid of crime and illegal trade, but, for the right price, most anyone turned a blind eye to anything and everything.
Drugs, slavery, and whatever else one could think of; the Holy Kingdom’s capital was the perfect place for the wealthy to abuse their privilege without reprise. However, there were cracks in this utopian facade. Tucked away out of sight, the poor and the downtrodden struggled to survive.
Shantytowns squeezed into musty alleyways were packed with the sick and hungry. They begged, sold their bodies, stole drugs, or even kidnapped one another to sell off. In other words, it was a completely different world; one which was filled with despair. In one such alleyway… the Black Priesthood made their first appearance.
They swaggered in violently, then, against all expectations, distributed food and money. All they asked for in return was to remember their message: bear the black cross upon your head and join us. And so, their numbers increased. They used the excuse of ‘saving the pitiful’ to form more regular ‘members’ that served their god.
“Ey, did you hear?”
A man drunk on the alcohol of a particular pub whispered into the ear of another.
“They say the Pope might be deposed!”
“E-ey! That’s dangerous! Lower your volume!”
Another man tried to block his mouth, but he shook him off and shouted again.
“Heng! Fuck it…! Who do you think it was that ruined the glorious Holy Kingdom? It’s that bastard who ruined thousands of years of history of this great nation!”
“Ey! Your voice is too loud!”
“I can speak loudly! I heard he lost his power anyway? He’s probably trembling now, muttering, ‘Ah, I’m being deposed now?’ and such! Hahaha!”
“This guy is going to get into trouble! What are you planning on doing if the Holy Knights hear—”
It was at that moment. A dull sound emitted from the man’s head as blood splattered. His head slammed right onto the table, flipping it over and taking their drinks with it.
Bewildered, the man looked at his dead drinking buddy as he moved his gaze past his body. Priests with black crosses etched onto their foreheads were staring at the man. One of them grabbed his hair and dragged him outside the bar amid his futile struggles.
“W-wait! W-what did I do wrong…!?”
The priests muttered something toward the man and poured something on his head. The thick and slippery liquid soaked his entire body. As soon as he realized what the liquid was, the man’s face turned pale.
When the man looked forward in shock, the priests were already holding torches.
“From this point on, we shall begin the heresy interrogation.”
“H-heresy!? What do you…!”
“To see if you are a heretic, a man who mocks His Holiness and the Son of God, Pope Salem Gattschuranche…”
The man who appeared to be the leader of the priests brought out a copy of the holy scripture and began to recite a passage.
“W-wait…! I-I did nothing wrong! T-the one that mocked the Pope was my friend, not me…!”
The man crawled along the floor and stuck to the priest, begging for his life. However, what was given to him was not mercy but clubs of steel. His chest and face was beaten with metal rods, causing blood to spill out of his crushed nose and the side of his mouth.
“To Lord Arrtark, who resides in the sky…”
The priests read from the holy scripture in unison. The residents roaming the streets of the capital turned toward them in surprise and watched the scene from a distance.
“E-ey! What are you guys!?”
One of the capital’s guards, along with a Holy Knight, rushed over in a panic. They had received the report that an unknown group had gathered and were assaulting residents. The Holy Knight frowned upon seeing this strange group in black priest robes beside the bleeding fallen resident.
“Just who are you thugs?! You dare cause a scene in the capital of the Holy Empire, Fritalokk…!”
“What are you doing! Arrest them…?”
At that moment, they pulled out a holy scripture and a cross bearing the insignia of the priesthood in front of them.
They were all priests, but they were not higher than priests. It meant that they weren’t of a high enough class to cause such a ruckus, but it still left the Holy Knight dumbstruck. The one who appeared to be the leader of the black priests held the identification bearing the mark of the Heresy Interrogator. It was a symbol with much higher authority than the Holy Knights. They were the ones that judged heresy in all who defied the will of God. It was a symbol given only by the Pope himself!
Although the Pope’s influence had weakened, it did not make the authorities of those already titled disappear. The Holy Knight turned mute, feeling dumbstruck upon seeing his superior.
The Heresy Interrogator turned to the guard and the Holy Knight and explained himself.
“We are working hard to capture heretics. Are you attempting to interfere with our work?”
“Could you be one of the heretics?”
The Holy Knight’s grew pale and retreated.
“W-wait! T-I apologize for interfering with your work. However, was this man’s crime truly proven? Follow the procedure and state his cr—”
“Are you trying to protect the heretic? What is your name? I think I wish to start the procedure of interrogating you for heresy?”
“A Heresy Interrogator has the authority to decide heresy immediately on the spot. Do you believe that you can evade this as a Holy Knight?”
The black priests had suddenly surrounded them. It wasn’t clear where they came from, but they were numerous. As every single one of them glared at the guard and the Holy Knight with eyes filled with madness. Neither the guard nor the Holy Knight could move, even if they had wanted to.
‘J-just what is happening…!?’
As they remained frozen within the oppressive atmosphere, the Heresy Interrogator pulled out the holy scripture once again and continued to read.
“H-help! Help me! I have committed no crimes! Please…! I am a devout follower of Lord Arrtark!”
The man desperately called out to the surrounding people, but none of them met his gaze, turning away as though they had seen nothing. They quickly cleared the streets and closed their windows. Despair filled his eyes as the man looked at the Holy Knight and the guard, but even they turned a blind eye. They had no authority to stop a Heretic Interrogation.
“Purify the heretic.”
And then they threw a torch toward the man.
“What are you talking about!?”
Hearing the Holy Knight’s report, Archbishop Tehron jumped out of his office chair. He had been observing Pope Salem’s movements carefully to see if he made any unusual actions. However, the only thing strange about him was that he had spent several days in his room before entering the basement prison and releasing prisoners a few times.
There were a great number of them, mostly prisoners that had finished their sentences through the purification process. As there were no legal issues, he left it alone. He believed it was a vain attempt to raise his ‘approval rating’ among the citizens by liberating them.
In the end, he had deemed that it was an attempt to raise his image among the people as a gracious and merciful Pope by releasing the prisoners that had finished their sentences. Tehron assumed that Pope Salem thought this would lead to a portion of the citizens rejecting his dethronement in this way. ‘What an incompetent Pope…’ he thought.
What could he do by releasing prisoners? Obviously, setting thousands of prisoners free was more likely to receive the ire of the citizens rather than approval. However…
‘He wasn’t just releasing the prisoners? They were all promoted to priests?’
It would take a significant amount of time to determine whether he did it immediately or over a long period, but until he figured that out, they would continue their rampage.
“A-also, there are citizens proclaiming to be a part of the Heresy Interrogation, making the chaos worse.”
“They are posing as interrogators?”
“T-that is… they are the ones proclaiming themselves as ‘the Black Priesthood’. They are mostly made up of the disenfranchised from the alleyways or the shantytowns… They are proclaiming themselves as priests without being titled….”
A great chaos was brewing.
They labeled themselves as Heresy Interrogators as they indiscriminately grabbed innocent residents, killing them, extorting them, or robbing them. Not only that, but they also fabricated evidence and made it especially challenging to find the root of the matter.
“Pope Salem, you crazy bastard! You are stirring up trouble! I knew you weren’t of sound mind, but to cause such chaos of your own volition? You no longer have control over the military, so you dare use the citizenry?”
Tehron grit his teeth.
“Immediately call a draft! Suppress all the thugs in the capital!”
“B-but the only one that can punish the Heresy Interrogators is the Pope…”
“He’s already a Pope without power! Besides, we can depose him right now with the evidence…! Contact the other cardinals and archbishops—”
A scream interrupted his rage-filled commands.
“…What’s that sound?”
When Tehron asked the Holy Knight with a concerned face, he replied with a clueless shake of his head.
“I-I’ll check it out.”
The Holy Knight hurriedly opened the office door, but his head flew off. His headless neck sprouted blood like a fountain as his body fell limply onto the floor. Archbishop Tehron stared forward stiffly.
“Hahaha! Finally, the order for us to gather has arrived!”
“It’s time for the Evilesse Holy Knights to step up!”
The Evilesse Holy Knights strode into the office. All of them wore sinister smiles, and they carried the heads of dead Holy Knights in their hands.
“This guy, was he planning to do something after the gathering?”
“It was probably a warning to the other Cardinals.”
The Evilesse Holy Knights turned to Archbishop Tehron.
“I’m going to need you to die quietly, Lord Archbishop.”
“…W-who are you bastards? D-did the Pope send you!? No, he moved the Holy Knights before that? No one reported…!?”
Archbishop Tehron’s face turned pale. Was he developing soldiers in secret!?
“Y-you bastards think you’ll be safe after this!? After you kill me, Pope Salem Gattschuranche, and of course, you all as well will die!”
“Well… that would be after I kill you, right?”
The Order of the Evilesse Holy Knights roared in laughter. One of the Evilesse continued.
“Archbishop Tehron, you’ll have to defy God’s teachings by getting addicted to the Petrification Herb for us.”
“What does that…?”
“Also, you’ve conspired with Cardinal Mikael to incite a rebellion, seeking the great office of the Pope. But you feared God’s retribution and killed yourself due to guilt.”
Tehron did not understand what these men were saying and retreated in fear.
“Ey, prepare it.”
The Evilesse Holy Knights moved quickly. They laid a pen and ink onto the table and prepared a chair with a rope hanging from the ceiling above it.
“W-wait… you bastards… could you be…?”
The Evilesse Holy Knights held out the ink and pen.
“Leave a will and testament.”
“…W-what nonsense are you spouting! You dare tell an Archbishop to take his own life?! You bastards…!”
“We discovered a child in your residence.”
Tehron shut his mouth. Between his helmet, the Evilesse Holy Knight smiled with his eyes.
“That child, isn’t he your only grandson? Ah, truly… truly pitiful. At such a young age… To have it end without knowing anything.”
“If you write down a few words… that child will be sent off to a distant island and live the life of an average and ordinary priest… He will not have to sacrifice himself for this filthy nation and will live a happy life. How about it?”
Tehron’s body trembled. He couldn’t perform any actions of his own volition. Toward the frozen Tehron, the Evilesse Holy Knight approached and whispered in his ear as he placed the pen into Tehron’s hand.
“Now, write it. ‘I killed myself. And… I conspired in a rebellion…’”
— Ω —