As sunlight spills between the bars of the overhead window, I stir from my night-long still to the clamour of activity outside the gaol walls. Joy and relief can be heard in their collective excitement, but I ignore such distractions to resume my research. Although it appears I’ve done nothing but stare at the elder lich’s core, the pale gem is actually abuzz with activity as I prod and poke every millimetre with my spiritual energy. Crude as it may be, my approach has yielded some reaction from the enigmatic relic. For one, I’ve managed to restrict the range of the curse to contact. While by no means weaker, I should be able to wander town as long as nobody approaches me (then again, it’s not like anybody will go near me in the first place). My tinkering has vastly expanded my understanding of magical and spiritual shielding, and with a bit more time, I’m confident I can completely insulate the core.
As for its internal mechanisms that hold the key to life and death… I’ve got nothing. Zilch. Nought. Trial-and-error is not the most eloquent of methods and I’m already stretching the limits of my spiritual control. Worse, the only way I can explore more of its hidden enchantments… is by strengthening my connection to Maleosis. I didn’t notice at first, but it seems the core has made a faint connection to my soul via my <Pact of Power>, and I have been exploiting that link to investigate the core. I’m now convinced that it deactivated its barrier in response to my, or perhaps Tascus’, unholy blessing, and if I want more access, I will have to cultivate “His” influence on my soul. I’d spent most of my skill points during my fight against Tascus, and now, the “blessing” has swelled into a small tumour on my soul. It’s as if some invisible force is doing everything in its power to tempt me, and while I loathe the thought of nurturing this cancer, I have yet to experience any adverse effects. Well, not materially, that is.
… Nothing. For the tenth time in as many hours, I find myself looking over the dark corners of the building. What I had first attributed to paranoia is now a firm suspicion. There is a presence here… somewhere, although I cannot pin it by any physical or magical means. I swear I can hear a whisper at times. A voice of indeterminate gender and distance tingling the back of my imaginary ear. The same voice that led to my possession of the lich’s core. It has to be the fault of this accursed gem… but it could also be due to my overuse of the <Pact of Power>. All I know is that I’m being watched, either by the ghost of a country-crushing undead or this world’s equivalent of the devil.
Knock, knock, knock.
“Come in, Sir- Oh, good morning, Lili.”
“Good morning, Enbos. How are you faring with the curse?”
“Much better. As long as nobody touches me, it should be safe to leave the gaol.”
“Thank God. And your condition?”
“Sigh, you already know what I mean. I couldn’t ask yesterday because Sen was with us, but I worry for your form. After all, you can’t recover by conventional means.”
“true, and to be perfectly honest, I’m a few pieces short of a full set. While I can mend my fractures and reconnect joints, Tascus completely pulverised my sternum and scattered bits of me to the wind. I’ve had to shift some of my bones just to disguise the damage but I can completely open up my ribcage. Want to look?”
“Please don’t. You’ll only make me worry more. How do you plan on restoring your body?”
“I’ve said it before but most of my bones are entirely replaceable. The problem is I will need a fresh skeleton of similar size, and the thought of casting <Decay> on a human corpse to steal their bones is a bit…”
“I-I get the picture, although it’s nice to see you still have an impeccable conscience.”
“Thanks. By the way, what is going on outside? Are the villagers throwing a party?”
“No, they’re packing. Everybody is preparing to seek refuge in Catorrem.”
“I see. I’m surprised we’re taking such a lengthy trip to the city, but I guess most of the villagers will resettle in the communities along the way.”
Lili’s confused reaction sparks similar confusion in myself. With a finger on her chin, she lifts her head for a moment before exclaiming with a small “Ah”.
“Now that I think about it, I never told you how we will be arriving in Catorrem. Maximillian and his knights created a teleportation array which connects directly to the Office of Passage. I assisted in its construction and a connection was established just this morning.”
“Wow, really!? How on Garea did they manage that? Even if they brought high-quality magic cores, it would take a staggering amount of power to establish a link all the way to Catorrem, especially in a place without a life w-
Wait a minute. Did you…”
“P-please forgive me Enbos. I showed them the communication array we used and they implemented your magic extender into their portal. However, given our circumstances, I think it would be best to minimise the amount of time the Holy Knights will have to supervise you.”
“Yeah. The only problem is we will be jumping straight to my execution, and your date in the city.”
“I swear to God I won’t let that happen. Neither of them.”
“Don’t worry, Enbos. Until we can clear you of suspicion, I will stay by your side and spare you from the worst of their “methods”. Our greatest boon is that we are in the Reinsol Kingdom, where you are afforded the protections of an official mage. The Kingdom’s mages are very protective of their knowledge since their most powerful and influential spells are kept within their lineage, especially from foreign agents.”
“By law, the apprentice of an official mage cannot be questioned without explicit approval from their master, even if the master is complicit. They haven’t even asked him for his account.”
“I see. Thank goodness.”
“I’ll share as much as I know that could help, but my knowledge is limited and time is scarce. I don’t think we’ll have another chance to discuss.”
“Do you know when they will take me?”
“I’m not sure, but they have already taken most of the villagers and adventurers. I suspect they are saving you for last.”
“I see. Well, I suppose that is for the best…”
“It’s nothing. Please go on, Lili.”
“Yes, of course. Now let’s see…
There are three things you must remember before you go.
One: the Novuseus house is one of the most prominent mage families in the Reinsol Kingdom. They even hold sway in the Lysium Theocracy, where they deal in construction and commerce on the east side. Since you’re using their name, be sure to wield their influence as much as possible.
Second: please try to oblige their requests and answer their questions as much as possible. While they cannot force a confession in this case, they will record every detail and interpret your silence or non-compliance in anyway they see fit. However, as long as you are under my protection, I can speak on your behalf and review their reports. This will shift final judgement from Maximillian to the headquarters of the Holy Knights, where they will decide based on our submitted accounts. Even if they reject my comments, it will buy precious time.
And finally, but most important of all: the questioning must not take place in St Telis Cathedral. Maximillian will not judge you by the Kingdom’s or even the Theocracy’s laws, but as a representative of God Himself. Any holy place is deemed His territory, and therefore, you will be vulnerable to whatever methods Maximillian decides. Not even I can save you then.”
“I’ll take your words to heart. Thank you, Lili. I’m well aware you’re risking a lot for my sake. Not only is your family’s reputation on the line, you may even be convicted if things turn sour. If they do, please pretend-”
“Don’t say it. We’re no longer strangers. We have each laid bare our dearest secrets and stood together in the face of overwhelming despair. Even if everything goes down the serpent’s maw, I will stand by you before my Lord.”
“I can manage, Enbos, so please don’t think about if you fail… Think about how you can cheat God’s eyes.”
“… Good grief, are you sure a cleric should be saying that? Looks like we have no choice but to trick that disappointing inquisitor. Anyway, it seems outside has gotten really quiet. It won’t be long before they come fetch me.”
“It appears so. We best spend the rest of our time aligning our accounts before… we go… to the…”
Huh, that’s strange. Why is Lili’s face turning pale?
“O-oh my God, how could I forget? I was so worried about your interrogation that…”
“What’s wrong, Lili?”
“This is terrible, Enbos! If you go-”
“Pardon our intrusion.”
Barging into the gaol house with nary a pause, Maximillian walks in with a white-robed woman following close behind. She has short, straight hair of deep brown, and a pair of spectacles over her seemingly impassive face. While I am curious of her identity, I’m far more focused on Maximillian who is staring me down.
“Ah, Lili! How are you this fair morning?”
That is, until, Lili enters his field of view and he instantly degrades to his flowery self. The woman behind him lets out a subdued but exasperated sigh, a gesture I’m almost tempted to repeat.
“A-ah, Brother Maximillian. I’m sorry for asking this of you, but would you mind stepping outside for a moment?”
“Why, of course! Anything for a lady as lovely as…”
“… is what I would like to say, but regrettably, we are on a tight schedule. It is time for us to go to Catorrem. Are you well, Enbos the Black?”
“I am, Sir Iudico. Thank you for your concern. Although the curse is still in place, its boundary is much smaller than before.”
“Hm, how convenient… Then, seeing that your condition has improved, there should be no qualm in escorting you to the city.”
“Not at all, Sir. I will be in your care. Once we are in a secure place, I will cooperate to the best of my ability.”
“Hoh. I am glad you are so eager. Very well. I hope we can hear your account by the end of the day”
Although it will cut my preparation short, I have to seize the initiative and venture into the tiger’s den. The sooner I get this over with, the less time they will have to build a strong case against me. My greatest concern is that they will contact the Novuseus house to confirm my identity, which would instantly put me on death row. However, it seems Lili disagrees with my strategy.
“Um, Brother Maximillian?”
“While I’m thankful you are willing to use divine artefacts and powerful magic to create a direct passage to Catorrem, I must implore we take a terrestrial route to Catorrem.”
“Hm? Whatever for? Travelling on horse would expend days of supplies and pointless effort compared to safely teleporting to within city walls.”
“Yes, I’m aware it’s a far-fetched request, but Enbos is still cursed. The dark magic assailing him might affect the integrity of the spell as well. We can also quickly find homes for some of the refugees en route instead of leaving them to the city to process.”
“While that is a noble suggestion, Milady, most of the villagers and adventurers have already arrived in Catorrem. Also, while Enbos’ curse is powerful, there is no sign it affects anything other than living flesh. Would you like to add anything else?”
“T-then… Wouldn’t it nice if we could spend a few more days travelling together?”
“… Lieutenant Gregoria.”
“… Tell our knights to disable the portal and stock three-days’ worth of supplies. It would be an honour to escort Lady Liliana through the countryside! Of course, prepare a larger saddle for my-”
“I-I’m joking. I was only joking. Sorry Lili…”
Although he says it’s a joke, the hopeless inquisitor looks genuinely disheartened. On the other hand, his lieutenant clearly has her act together and she is looking at Lili with narrow eyes. I have no idea why Lili is so distressed, but I can’t have them (the lieutenant) suspecting her.
“Well, then,” I say, “now that is sorted, shall we depart for Catorrem?”
“Yes Enbos. Please forgive our disorderly display.”
“By the way, you are…?”
“My apologies for not introducing myself. I am Agnes Gregoria, knight lieutenant and future prior of the Cleansing Swords.”
“W-wait Nessa, did you just say…”
“It was only a jest, Brother Maximillian. Anyway, time is precious so let us depart immediately.”
As they turn their backs to leave the building, Lili looks at me with undisguised concern. I wave it off and leave my cell with measured steps, completely hiding my inner anxiety. However, I almost take a step back upon seeing the people waiting outside the door.
“Hachirou, Sen, Minna, Norf!”
“Enbos! You’re al-”
“Wait, wait, wait! Don’t get too close! I’m still cursed!”
“Yikes…! T-thank you, Norf. I almost ended up like that one holy knight you mentioned,” exclaims Sen.
“It’s fine as long as you don’t get within a metre, you guys. The curse has greatly shrunk so hopefully it will subside soon,” I explain.
“Are you feeling better, Enbos?”
“I am, Hachirou, and I can see the rest of you are fine as well. Anyway, what are you all still doing here?”
“We asked the knights if we could leave alongside you. It was just Hachirou at first, but we all shared the same sentiment by the end.”
“Still you guys, you could have easily waited at the Office of Passage instead of hanging back.”
“While I admit it took some convincing, especially with that stubborn stick-in-the-“
“… strict lady over there… Not happening, Enbos. We came as a party, so we’ll leave as one too. While I can’t speak for all adventurers, that’s the way we treat our own. Of course, that includes Lili as well.”
“What’s wrong, Lili?”
“No, it’s nothing. Thank you…”
“Honestly Sen, you always find the right words to say. But really, thanks. To everyone. It means a lot that you’ve got my back.”
“What are friends for? Besides, with that inquisitor breathing down your neck, I worry it might be the last time we see each other again.”
“Don’t say something that ominous, Sen. I’m sure Enbos will be treated fairly and be back with us by sunset for a drink.”
“The fair lady is correct. Please do not worry for your friend Enbos.”
Casually joining our conversation, Maximillian walks up to our group wearing an angelic smile. He gives a deep bow towards us – well, Minna to be precise – before introducing himself. Likewise, everybody unacquainted with him offers their names, with Sen speaking on behalf of Norf. I notice his friendliness drop a notch towards the Norf, but his eyes relax not an instant later.
“Thank you for obliging Sen’s request, Sir Iudico. We were eager to know the welfare of our close companion.”
“Think nothing of it, Miss (Minna) Lockswald. I’m aware our reputation precedes us, but I swear Enbos will be treated in a hospitable manner. I hope you will find our image more pleasing.”
“I will take your word for it, Sir Iudico. Thank you once more.”
“Please, anything to clear the shadow on your fair visage.”
Finishing his flattery, he takes Minna’s hand and lightly kisses the back of it. Lili and Agnes are looking at him like he’s a sad case while Minna is glancing towards Sen, hoping for some reaction. Hopelessly, Sen slightly tilts his head to one side while raising an eyebrow.
(Oh for Pete’s sake. For all the good things you can say…) “*Ahem* Shall we go, Sir Iudico?”
“Of course. Please, follow me.”
(You seem confident, Enbos. A-are you sure you are prepared?)
(Relax, Hachirou. Everything will be fine…)
(I see. Thank goodness.)
(… While I don’t know what will happen once we are in Catorrem, I’m sure Lili can pull me through.)
(H-huh!? But Enbos, what are going to do about-)
Before Hachirou can finish, I immediately gesture to him to stop. He instantly obliges despite having no idea why I am so alarmed. I silently point to Agnes who breaks pace from our own before matching Maximillian who is leading the way.
Damn it, that was close. Agnes was secretly listening in on us for far too long. Anyone else would have thrown a curious glance, but the fact she didn’t means she understood every word, no doubt from a skill like <Gift of Tongues>. She might be far more dangerous than that inquisitor.
Biting our tongues, we follow the two towards a large barn. Lili is growing more and more anxious while Hachirou is looking at me in deadpan silence. I can’t help but think I’m overlooking something very important, but it’s too late to turn back now. Nevertheless, with everybody by my side, I’m ready for whatever Maximillian has in store. Have at me!
Letting out a gasp of awe, I enter the barn and gaze over the massive magic circle that has been etched into the floorboards. Several staffs with high quality magic cores are floating at equidistant intervals around the array, while five mages bearing the Path of Eden’s symbol are maintaining the spell. Sure enough, I can see my magic extender has masterfully implemented in this complex web of runes and inscriptions. However, reading the symbols, I-I immediately realise one, sma~ll problem.
“Is the mana stream within range?”
“Good. Activate the portal to Catorrem.”
“By your command! Heaven empower us!”
Line upon line, the five mages begin chanting in an almost Gregorian manner as they carefully distribute an immense amount of mana across the array.
Holy mana that is making my HP roll off like cold sweat from the back of my neck.
“Erm, o-on second thought Sir Iudico, I think Lili was right after all. A road trip sounds like a magnificent idea.”
“Hm? What’s wrong Enbos? Suddenly getting cold feet?”
“N-not exactly. I-I mean, do we really have to go to Catorrem to hear my story? Can’t we just do it here and now I can be on my merry way?”
“The portal is open and a safe venue has been prepared. There is no reason to continue investigations here, especially when the rest of the witnesses are on the other side. So please don’t exhaust my brothers and just step in the circle.”
“I-I’m terribly sorry, but I must insist we take an overland route. I don’t mind if you lock me in a cage for three days straight. Heck, I’ll even pay you to do it, because I really can’t use this portal.”
“What in God’s name are you saying, Enbos? The portal is ready and my brothers are straining their bodies just to take you to safety. While I promised to be hospitable, I will not stand for such-”
“U-um, please forgive my master b-but he has a crippling of long-distance teleportation! I-I know it sounds unusual but it is so egregious in fact that it affects his wellbeing. I-isn’t that right, Lili?”
“Y-yes Hachirou. He’s one of those mages who unreasonably fears teleportation magic. You know, stories of missing limbs, deficient memories and indeterminate matter. In fact, I’ve seen him break out into hives at the mere thought and fall into unconsciousness for three days straight. I-isn’t that right Enbos?”
“I-indeed Lili. Man, we wouldn’t save any time at all if that were to happen. Besides, not all your knights are going through the portal. I-I can always just accompany them to Catorrem, isn’t that right Maximillian?”
“I see, I see…
Well, obviously not with lies as bad as ours. His stern reply still echoes throughout the barn as he looks at me with sceptical fascination. Looking between the nimbus of death and my remaining HP, I agonise over my chances of survival. I know Hachirou is watching with a morbid expression while Lili is offering a silent player. Meanwhile, Sen, Minna and Norf are completely baffled by the atmosphere, as if they’ve accidentally attended a wake. With a heavy sigh, I delude myself into thinking I have a chance and inch my way towards the circle.
Damn it, don’t admit it!
“May I cast protection magic?”
“If you do that, you may really interfere with the circle. Since you’re so worried, we’ll send you off right now when my mages can spare the most energy. Agreed?”
“Sigh, I see…
Hachirou, if I don’t make it, please bury my remains in the Dellmore Forest. I’m sure you will enjoy the scenery.”
“Sen, I hope you reunite with your friend. Minna, I know you will find the courage one day. The same goes for you too, Norf. And Lili… I’m glad I told you.”
“Godspeed? Catorrem is literally a step away.”
“Told you what? What on Garea is going on?”
“Did the holy knights do something to the portal? Is that why you’re so reluctant?”
“I swear to our Lord the portal is perfectly functional. Please do not waste our efforts with all your drama.”
“Well, at least you know how we feel about you sometimes…”
“What do you mean by that, Nessa!?”
“… It’s been fun, everyone. H-here goes nothing.”
Standing at the edge of the portal, I take time to restock as much of HP as possible. I even try to absorb the energy from the curse, but it proves fruitless as it’s tightly bound to the core. Not a moment later, I leap onto the array with seeming abandon, startling everybody in the room. The floating staffs let off a blinding burst of light, and as I’m enveloped by the searing energies… I imagine a gentle woman welcoming me home…
… Or maybe not.
As the lights fade and the magic subsides, I find myself in a building of venerable stone atop a different array, with a different set of mages watching over me. For a few moments, I stand in a daze and stare blankly at the back of the large room before one of the men in white start shouting at me to move. Ushering me off the platform, I slump onto a nearby bench while staring at my hands in jubilant disbelief.
I-I’m alive… Alive! God, I feel even better than when I survived against Tascus. B-but how could I have survived such powerful light-based magic? Is this the promised miracle Lili keeps talking about, or was I displaced so quickly that it couldn’t erode my bones? Just how much HP do I have left?
Alarmed by the thought that I may actually be on my last legs, I hastily activate <Life Tap> and inspect my status. However, upon gazing at the floating bar, I’m greeted with a massive surprise: my HP has barely dropped. Contrary to expectation, the teleportation did almost nothing to body despite drowning me in enough mana to irradiate my bones.
Puzzled, I look closely at my hands and realise that I have been irradiated by holy magic… but there is a layer of energy sandwiched between. No, it’s not just my hands. A paper-thin barrier is covering every inch of my body. After flexing my bones a few more times, the magical film quickly disperses and I am greeted with the familiar pain I dread so well.
H-how did this activate? I had no idea the core could conjure such a thing. Is it a defence system that reacts automatically to strong holy magic?
… or did it respond according to my will?
“You see, Enbos? I hope you put more faith in our magic from on…”
After a brilliant flash of light, I look up to find Maximillian and company emerge one-by-one from the teleportation circle. Lili and Hachirou are looking at me with teary eyes while the rest of the party is smiling awkwardly, having no idea of what I endured. Looking up from my seat, I greet him with a exasperated tone.
“No, I suppose not, but still don’t want to do that ever again.”
“Good Lord. I sincerely hope you don’t raise another ruckus before your questioning.”
“No, I’m fine. Now let’s…”
My voice trails and my eye sockets widen as I stare at the foreboding piece overhead. Lili turns pale as she follows my gaze to the object of my concern. I was so overjoyed when I got here that I didn’t bother looking around, but it finally makes sense why Maximillian saved me for last.
A shadowy smile creeps on the inquisitor’s face as coloured lights shine against his back through a majestic stained-glass window. A window showing a hero holding a sword and a bouquet.