Chapter 98: Skeleton Key

Hello, this is Enbos, and I’m currently locked inside a gaol in the middle of Kasseus Village, with Holy Knights swarming outside!

… is what I would have said if the door was locked and I hadn’t walked in here of my own volition. Nonetheless, there is no denying that I am in a precarious position, thanks in part to my shifty appearance, my battle with Tascus and, of course, the elder lich core in my hand. It’s getting late and I hope to dear god that Hachirou found a way to hide my effects.

In the aftermath of this morning’s desperate struggle, the Holy Knights finally came to our rescue, striding in with literal shining armour and enough holy items to purify a lake. With no cultists to slay, they immediately tended to everybody’s health, giving Lili some much-needed respite and Sen some much-needed treatment. Although the battle had already ended, their presence was the final ray of light needed to feel put everybody at ease. Of course, when it came to me…

 


 

“Surrender, you wretched heathen!”

“And here we go…”

“By decree of God and the Order of Holy Knights, you are hereby placed under our custody! Relent and you may repent all your sins before our righteous Lord. Resist and we will deliver swift retribution for all your heinous crimes against God and humanity! Now on your knees and-”

“S-stop! Stop! You got it all wrong! He isn’t a cultist!”

“That’s right! Enbos is a Novuseus mage and one of our companions!”

“Hmph, is that so, sister? You are willing to testify to his innocence?”

“I will, brother. While he may look suspicious, evil and downright terrifying…”

“L-lili, I don’t think you’re-”

“… he’s still a good man to whom we owe all our lives.”

“I will take your words into consideration. Nevertheless, we have sufficient ground to detain this man for investigation.”

“O-on what grounds!?”

“For looking like an accursed cultist in these heretic-infested lands! We would have to be blind to overlook a man as conspicuous as he. Brothers, move in and-!”

“Oh for heaven’s- In the name of God and the Ascleson house, I proclaim Enbos the Black to be just and hereby afforded the protection of my family!”

“Wha-!”

“The Ascleson family? Impossible! How dare you use that name to-”

“No, look brother. T-the emblem in her hand.”

“B-by the spirits, it’s true. But why is one of the Great Saintlines…”

“Saintlines?”

(I-I’ll explain everything later.) “Do you still doubt my heritage, brother?”

“N-not at all, Lady of Ascleson. Please forgive my earlier impertinence. I see now why we received a such an urgent distress signal outside of the Theocracy.”

“Please raise your head, brother. I do not resent your actions.”

“Thank you, milady. However, may I ask of one thing from you?”

“Yes?”

“While I no longer doubt your words, we are under strict instruction to recover the beacon and protect its owner. May you show us the source of the signal?”

“Ah, the beacon is with me. Here.”

“My thanks, masked one. I must apologise for all the- Argbleughugluglug…!”

“Brother Moore!”

“Holy Knight guy!”

 


 

… As it turns out, I’ve been afflicted by an incredibly powerful curse, no doubt due to the elder lich’s core. So powerful in fact that my <Spectral Sense> has been completely smothered by its dense spiritual energies, which is why I didn’t realise sooner. If I hadn’t jumped back in surprise, the holy knight would have died on the spot. Of course, relations instantly soured and it was only thanks to Lili’s continued defence that the holy knights haven’t killed me. Although I’m technically not their prisoner, I’m sure they’re dying to question me. Any hope of slipping away, with the core, is now astronomically harder. While they have no idea about the core’s existence, the villagers’ and adventurers’ testimonies will quickly fill in the blanks and it doesn’t take a genius to put two and two together.

As for the curse itself, it has only grown stronger since returning to town. While I have no idea why its force field deactivated in the first place, I’m worried the core might conjure another millennium-strong barrier, trapping me inside it. For now, the core’s curse can only affect living things, although it has the nasty effect of paralysing all bodily functions, including internal organs, which is why I’ve been quarantined to the gaol house. If I want any hope of leaving, I need to find a way to suppress more than 3000 years of residual spiritual energy.

 

“Well, there is no time like the present.”

 

With my bag left at the inn and nobody else in the room, I quietly take out the core to examine it. I can barely contain my excitement as I meticulously inspect every millimetre. And after a few minutes of study…

 

“… Sublime.”

 

Absolutely masterful. So this is the magic of the Golden Age. While most magical relics would lose their effect under the World Stream’s shifting logic, a fragment of the lich’s soul is maintaining the power of its ancient symbols, hence the monstrous curse. It’s a self-contained enchantment that constantly interfaces with the World Stream. As for the inscriptions themselves, I have never seen such a seamless system of safeguards. So seamless, in fact, that I can’t discern a single thing about its internal structure. The only weakness is a single rune of Maleosis magically branded on its surface.

Hm, that’s strange. The rune looks as if it was forced onto its otherwise perfect array, completely clashing with the symbology of the rest of the core. Why doesn’t the rest of the core bear Maleosis’ mark? Was it implemented after its creation? Did Maleosis or some version of him exist since the Golden Age? What purpose does this mark serve?

I have half a dozen more questions, but regardless of its origins, the rune is the only window – well, pinhole – into the core’s inner workings. With enough time and the right tools, I might be able to widen the breach and lay bare all the secrets of necromancy… but it’s hardly something I can do in a cell with Holy Knights breathing down my neck.

Oh, and let’s not forget Tascus who wants to pry the core from my cold, permanently-dead hands. I’m still uneasy about why he left so easily, but I fear it won’t be the last I see of his ram-headed visage.

 

“… I wish to achieve the state of perfection that is… being an undead…”

“… you’re living vindication of what it means to transcend your humanity…”

 

… Damn it, I can’t get his words out of my head. I can feel my teeth becoming flatter every time I recall. The crack on my mask aches like an open scar. I’ve never felt such hatred to one man in all my lives, but despite all my disdain towards that monster… I’m also grateful. It’s insane, but I finally have an undisputable baseline to build my sense of morality. Where I once hesitated to let the necromancer Terry die, Tascus is a man I can confidently say I would cut down without a shred of guilt. The only question now is… why?

 

“…”

“Who’s there!?”

 

Quickly pocketing the elder lich’s core, I survey my surrounding for the source of my discomfort. However, after a few quick scans, I find there is no one inside the gaol house besides myself.

Weird. I could have sworn I felt somebody’s gaze. Am I being jumpy because my <Spectral Sense> is impaired? Or could it be-

 

Creak…

 

Startled by the sound of the door, I turn to find a surprising visitor come through the front. He’s bracing against his spear to walk, but all in all…

 

“Welcome back to the land of the living, Sen.”

“It’s good to see you too, Enbos. How are you faring? I heard you really took a battering from Tascus.”

“Sure did, and to be honest, I’m still hurting from the one-sided beating. Erm, you might already know this, but don’t get too close, okay? The bars are no indicator of the curse’s range.”

“Yeah, I know, and I have to say that is one sick parting gift. I’ll just stay over here, just to be safe.”

“Of course. Take a seat. I’m surprised Minna let you out in your current state. If I were her, I would have locked you in your room.”

“Yeah, about that…”

“Sen…”

“She forgot to lock the window.”

“…”

“…”

“… Pffft! Hahaha!”

“Hahahaha!”

“Haha… Minna is so going to kill you.”

“Y-yeah, especially once she learns I jumped from the second floor. I might as well make the most of my time before I’m dragged back.”

“Are you sure you don’t want to spend it drinking with the others?”

“Well, as fun as that would be, it’s a bit awkward after leading everybody right into that trap. Also, I didn’t escape Minna’s care just for the fun of it… There is a lot I want to tell you.”

“… Go on.”

“Enbos, I want to thank you saving everybody. You really are a living legend.”

“The kind that makes people look twice over their shoulder?”

“I mean the kind that makes a village boy want to follow your footsteps.”

“I don’t think anybody else agrees, Sen. After all, you didn’t see everything that I did. I completely lost it during the battle and almost killed everyone without knowing it. Now, nobody wants to touch me with a ten-foot stick, with or without this curse. It’s even harder for me to look at them than it is for you.”

“Yeah, I already heard from Minna and Hachirou, but that doesn’t change the fact that if you hadn’t had come, we wouldn’t be here at all. You saved us all from my stupidity and showed the difference between ignorance and valour, and for that I also want to say… I’m sorry.”

“It’s not your fault, Sen. “Mr Kell” played to your fears and manipulated not just you but everyone else into Tascus’ trap.”

“Regardless, I should have shown you more trust than I did, even if it would have forced your hand. You deserved that much, but in the end, my anxiety won out. Even now I have a hard time justifying any other decision.”

“So, you’re sorry but not sorry?”

“I-I don’t know, Enbos. I felt it was the best choice at the time, but looking back, I can’t help but feel I could have acted differently. I wanted to save Eric by any means, but if I had told you, you would have-”

“I would have helped you.”

“… Huh?”

“Yes, I know I’m being hypocritical, but I’ve always been a man of impulse, even if I know better. To be fair Sen, you’re not the only one guilty of hiding the truth. When Lili and I began work on contacting Catorrem, we realised early on that the communication item, the crux of our original plan, was already destroyed. But instead of telling you or anybody else… I kept quiet and asked Lili to do the same.”

“S-so it was true… But why would you-”

 

He cuts his sentence short as I look at him in incredulous silence. Seemingly noticing me raise an imaginary eyebrow, he slumps back into his chair and stares into the air.

 

“Enbos?”

“Yeah?”

“I forgive myself.”

“Heh, thank you, Sen… Do you still think I’m some kind of legend?”

“Better. You’re a dependable friend.”

“Thanks again. I can see how your earnestness keeps catching Minna off guard.”

“Eh, what do you mean?”

“Can’t say, but if she ever hits you for no reason, just look at her and smile…”

“O-okay?”

“By the way, how is everybody else doing?”

“Well, everybody seems much happier with the Holy Knights around. Lili has been uplifted from a Holy Maiden to a Saint. You can tell she’s really embarrassed about the special treatment.”

“Haha, I can imagine…”

 

For a dozen minutes or so, we exchange small talk over a myriad of topics. From previous subjugations to handicrafts, we chat like old friends. Our prior discomfort has completely dissolved as we continue to talk until Sen’s throat is parched.

Taking a sip from his waterskin, he offers me the same pouch, but I refuse with some reservation.

 

“You haven’t had anything to eat or drink, right? Don’t worry about me getting cursed. I’ll just leave it by the bars for you to pick up.”

“Unfortunately Sen, powerful curses have a nasty tendency to linger on nearby objects. While unlikely and usually temporary, I can’t risk paralysing your jaw the next time you take a swig.”

“Really? By the spirits, I don’t envy your position at all. If I didn’t know any better, I would have thought you lost the battle. Moreover, with all these holy knights about, I’m amazed you can keep your calm given that you’re-”

“Hold that thought, Sen… Come on in, sir! It it would be disrespectful of us to allow man of your standing to loiter outside the door.”

“E-eh?”

“…”

“Please, I insist.”

 

After a few moments of tense silence, the door opens to reveal a truly impressive figure. Decked from neck to toe in polished silver of immaculate detail, he strides in with steps like clanking chains and an azure cape blocking all light spilling from the closing entrance. Complementing his grand armour is a face not unlike a young model’s, with short platinum hair, an unblemished, clean-shaven face, and a chiselled, square jaw. But despite his angelic features, or because of it, the most striking thing are his cold, pale eyes. Like a pair of daggers made of arctic ice, he stares at me through narrow slits. Sen swallows back a ball of spit as it dawns on him that he almost exposed me to this imposing visitor.

 

“Impressive, I was sure I had perfectly masked my presence. How did you realise?”

“Just a hunch.”

“A hunch? Hm, so be it. It’s hardly what I came here to ask.”

“I take it you’re the leader of these holy knights?”

“Indeed I am. My name is Maximillian Iudico. Prior of the Cleansing Swords. Inquisitor of the Order of Holy Knights.”

 

Oh shoot.

 

“My name is Enbos Novuseus. A C-rank adventurer and wandering mage.”

“My name is Sen Carris. Likewise, a C-rank adventurer, and Enbos’ comrade.”

“It is an honour for us to meet you, Sir Iudico. So, to what do we owe the pleasure of your company?”

“Need I say? I came to meet the curse bearer who incapacitated one of my most senior men.”

“It was not my intention to harm him, Sir Iudico. The occurrence was completely out of my notice or my control, I assure.”

“Yes, yes, I have heard, and yet where even God’s most devout cannot endure, you are not affected in the slightest…”

 

As he says these words, he reaches towards my cell. Despite Sen’s and my alarm, he walks closer until his foremost digits begin to shudder. He retracts his arm and looks at me with those piercing eyes.

 

“Powerful enough to affect even me. I’m shocked something this dangerous was so readily cast. Tell me Enbos… Do you truly believe this is a curse? Do you know nothing more of your condition?”

“As I have said, sir, it was not intentional.”

“Do not misunderstand me, Enbos. I am not trying to blame you for Brother Moore’s misfortune. From what I’ve heard of your deeds, you should be celebrated for opposing the heretical menace rather than be confined to this miserable cell. I want to help, but to do so, you need to tell me about everything that has happened. Perhaps more…” he says as he glances between the two us, without an ounce of actual compassion in his tone.

 

Damn it, this guy is bad news. Despite masterfully suppressing his magical energies, he cannot disguise his immense strength or holy aura eroding my bones. He would be a match for Tascus in his base form, but the most dangerous thing about him is that he’s an honest-to-god inquisitor. There is no telling what methods, tools or powers are at his disposal. While I’m glad the core’s curse is keeping him at bay, he will never let me out of his sight for as long as this curse is up.

 

“Very well, but before we do, I suggest we let Sen return to rest.”

“Huh, Enbos? What are you-”

“You must be tired after dragging yourself all the way here, right? I think it’s best that you go to Lili for healing before Minna chews you out.”

 

I can’t have Sen stick around. He doesn’t have a great poker face, but more importantly, I need him to go grab Lili while I stall for time. As small as the hope may be, she is my only one who can stop him, for a time.

 

“… Ah, n-now that you mention it, I do feel pretty haggard. Please excuse me, Sir Iudico, but I must leave for treatment. I bid you all good night.”

“I see… <Divine Rejuvenation>.”

 

Without any warning, he casts a high-level healing spell on Sen with barely a delay. Sen jumps out of his seat in surprise, only to discover he is standing taller than when he entered.

 

“T-this is…”

“I’ve healed most of your injuries and reinvigorated your body. I trust you are now healthy enough to remain, yes?

“T-thank you, sir.”

 

Damn it, he really wants to interrogate us here and now! He didn’t even stop to ask Sen before healing him. Critical, powerful, decisive, I couldn’t have asked for a worse person to be gunning for me. How am I going to-

 

“Brother Maximillian, what are you doing here?”

“Huh?”

 

Drawn to her uncharacteristically stern voice, we all turn to find Lili standing at the entrance. The inquisitor stares intently at her face while Sen and I let out a collective but silent sigh of relief.

 

“I believe I have already established that Enbos is under the protection of the Ascleson family. I will not allow you to question him in these conditions, nor in my absence. I implore that you respect the wishes of both Enbos and myself.”

“…”

 

M-my word. The boldness on display right now. I don’t know what kind of clout your family has, but I can’t believe you would use that tone towards an inquisitor of the Order of Holy Knights! Are you sure you want to provoke him so-

 

“Ah, Lili. Thank God. It is so good to see you again.”

 

Eh?

 

“Sigh, it seems you haven’t changed, Brother Maximillian.”

“Please, call me Max, Lady Lili. While I’ve heard everything from my men, I am delighted to see it is really you. After all, there is no one in these lands, nay, the world who could imitate your peerless beauty. Truly, it must be fate for me to arrive in your direst hour.”

 

Wait, they know each other? Also, what the hell happened to the imposing knight from before? His character did a complete one-eighty!

 

“You will address me as Sister Liliana, Brother Maximillian. Moreover, Enbos here already resolved everything by the time your men, not you, arrived. Could you please do something useful instead of inconveniencing my saviour?”

 

You too, Lili!

 

“Hahaha! I see you are still as cold as ever, even after leaving your walled garden.”

 

No, I have a feeling that it’s only towards you.

 

“Very well. We will continue once we are in Catorrem. Will that suffice, milady?”

“I will hold you to it, brother.”

“Perfect. I look forward to escorting you around the city.”

 

With a graceful bow, Maximillian makes his leave as Lili lets out a sigh of undisguised annoyance. She turns around to find Sen and myself staring back with slack jaws and half-a-dozen questions written on our faces.

 

“By the spirits, I think he completely forgot we even existed…”

“Um, Lili? What is your relation with that guy?”

“It’s nothing, really. We first met at a gathering years ago, before I was an adventurer, and he proposed to me on the spot. Of course, I turned him down but it was the first time I met somebody so hopeless. It caused quite a stir and enraged my father, but it seems he still hasn’t learnt.”

“He sure hasn’t. I mean, he was flattering you like some high-class noble lady.”

“Yes, Sen… I suppose he was…”

“Hey, is the Order really okay having him as a knightly prior?

“I know what you are trying to say Enbos, but please don’t underestimate him or the priory he leads. Out of all the divisions of Holy Knights that operate on the fringes of the Lysium Theocracy and within the Reinsol Kingdom, the Priory of the Cleansing Swords is the most worrying. For generations, they have been unofficially known as the bloody hand of the Church, and the Order of Holy Knights has seen fit to appoint Maximillian as their current leader. I-I can tell you the stories, but…”

“No, I get the picture. For an inquisitor, he’s younger than I imagined, but there is no mistaking his prowess.”

“Yeah, before you came in, he looked ready to gut me and Enbos for all our worth.”

“Come to think of it, what brought you here in the first place, Lili?”

“Hachirou couldn’t find an opportunity to visit you unwatched, so he handed me your bag. Unfortunately, I sensed Maximillian’s magic so I threw your effects into a barrel off to the side. Lord knows what necromantic items you’ve collected during your travels.”

“Thanks, Lili.”

“However, I did manage to bring this…”

 

From within her bag she produces my second mask, the one I crafted out of wood. I immediately become conscious of the crack on my current mask as she gently slides the replacement towards my cell. Sen falls silent as he realises he implicitly realises how much it has devastated me.

 

“Please don’t worry, Enbos. Your mask can still be fixed.”

“Once we get back to Catorrem, we’ll search the whole city for a craftsman. Heck, I will even foot the bill.”

“Thank you, Sen. Thank you, Lili… Would you mind stepping outside for a bit?”

“Of course.”

“We’ll, errr, fetch up your bag while we’re at it. It’d be bad if a villager found it and decided to burn it with the cultists’ belongings.”

 

I give a weak nod as Sen and Lili prepare to leave the building. Once they are safely outside, I walk over to the wooden spare and promptly exchange it with the one on my head. For the first time since the battle, I look at my clay mask from the outside, noting every scratch, fracture and wear on its once smooth surface. I trace my finger along the noticeable chasm running down the left socket.

What will it become in another year? How much more can it take? If I keep mending every piece lost… will it be the same one she left?

 

Knock, knock.

 


 

“Enter, Kory.”

 

By the light of a dwindling candle, an aged man is busy writing on an oaken desk. There are no windows or alternate sources of light, and yet he is working as if he were outside in the day. Although the lighting is poor, it cannot hide the lustre of his golden hair lined with silver, the cool of his grey eyes, or his magnificent ram-head mask resting on the side of his desk. Hand still at work, he directs his eyes towards his loyal attendant entering the room.

 

“Y-your Holiness, I have come to report the aftermath.”

“Proceed, my son.”

“Yes, Your Holiness. We have evacuated all our outposts in the vicinity of the Tiel Woods. We’ve lost half our brothers and sisters and abandoned most of our inventory in Liem Village. The assailants have been confirmed to be the Priory of the Cleansing Swords, led by the fearsome Maximilliam Iudico. Dark Acolyte Richard, the overseer of Liem, was cut down by him during the evacuation.”

“I see. How regrettable…”

“Shall I arrange time for an Uplifting Ritual?”

“Indeed. Gather some candidates from the outer circle for tomorrow afternoon. We must reconnect with our severed adherents in this crucial time.”

“Understood, Your Holiness.”

“… Is there anything more to report?”

“Y-yes Your Holiness. Several of our senior adherents involved in the retrieval operation and the defence of Liem have expressed their desire to face reproach.”

“Hm? Whatever for?”

“They appear to be ashamed they could not hold back the Holy Knights for longer, or that they allowed the core to fall into heathen hands. They are even offering their lives in penance, and while it is an importune time to lose more members, today’s failure has spread a malaise across the Order. T-there may be some merit in permitting their deliverance, if only a few.”

“*Chuckle* Tell them to banish such thoughts immediately if they still wish to be a part of His grand designs. Failure? On the contrary, my son, fate has only aligned closer to my favour than ever before. ”

“I-it has?”

 

Rising from his chair, Tascus walks over to a large tapestry draped across the back wall, staring deep into the twelve lines sewn onto its fabric. Kory watches on with obvious confusion until at last his hierarch begins to speak.

 

The forlorn opens the forbidden pass
Bearing a soul with pure intent.

I have constantly pondered what the final part of the prophecy could mean, but today, I believe I have finally found him.”

“W-wait, you can’t mean… Enbos is the forlorn soul!?”

“I will have to confirm, but I am sure in my belief. Although the lich’s core is not in our possession, it has been freed from its enclosure and the time is ripe. Is Colligo and his team available?”

“They are always at your beck and call.”

“Good. Deliver these instructions to them and inform our spies, then return to me in an hour. I will have prepared more instructions by then.”

“By your will, Your Holiness.”

 

With a wave of his hand, he levitates the parchment straight from his desk to Kory’s outstretched palms. Tascus returns to his desk as his fervent attendant leaves the room. However…

 

“Hm!?”

 

Stumbling on his step, he immediately braces against his chair as weakness suddenly assails him. He quickly glances at the door, but after a moment of silence, he takes his seat with resumed calm. His quill faintly stirs in his grip.

 

Sigh, so this is the limit of my mortal form. It has been many years since I last used my blessing and the repercussions are more pronounced than ever. Soon I will be free from such fetters, but until then, I must conserve my strength. Ah, how I envy Enbos’ vigour and resilience.

… Hm, now I recall, Enbos was remarkably light for his size. For someone with so little bulk, he was as stalwart as the mightiest oak. It is clear he used his Pact to reinforce his body, but when I touched his mana flow in that last attack, his circulation of power almost resembled…

 

“… You mean a living hell! Between ceaseless emptiness and teetering on the brink of insanity, you have no idea what it’s really like.”

“And you do, Enbos?”

“More than you know, Tascus…”

 

… No, that is impossible. Enbos has his own destiny, and I have mine. Only I can deliver this world from falsehood and give humanity a true guiding light. For that is my reason for being.

Maleosis watch over me…

 

Stirring from his daze, he resumes his careful machinations, weaving the threads of fate into a single strand.

 


 

3 thoughts on “Chapter 98: Skeleton Key

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s