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18. Fallen Monarch (1)
'I'll take my revenge! I shall surely get revenge!'
He descended down the dark, subterranean stairway. Beyond the skeletons numbering in the thousands, he walked toward the gargantuan mummy they kneeled to before; their wors.h.i.+p was unending, even after death.
He placed Ellie down over the ancient text etched into the floor and looked upon the mummified devil.
"Devil-! I have sought you out as you've desired! I have come to this place as you've desired! I have come here to fall into depravity as you've desired! What do you seek? My flesh? Soul? Speak to me!"
There was no response from the devil. Instead, the words etched into the earth began to glow red as the blood flowing out of Ellie's body began to seep into their grooves. And then… the devil moved.
The unrotten corpse stirred. No, it was 'reborn'. Its stiffened bones were forced into action, causing an eerie, grinding sound to echo throughout the cavern. Flesh began to form and grow over the lion's skull that served as its head, and the twin deer antlers upon its head grew longer and sharper. The various carpaces and scales covering its body hardened and tightened, while the fur along its b.e.s.t.i.a.l arms and bovine legs gleamed as it flowed along its newly-formed musculature. Its snake-headed tail swung around before slithering around on the floor. Finally, the devil let out a thundering roar before moving to stand over Thoma. He opened his mouth and spoke in a gravelly voice while looking down at the monk he towered over.
[… You have beckoned me, and so here I am.] After being fully revived, the devil took a deep breath and then continued to speak. [What is your wish?]
"Did you really just ask 'What is your wish?'…!" Thoma asked with yearning.
Despite this grotesque creature being so near, he wasn't repulsed by the ancient devil's jarring and unnatural movements. Perhaps the chaotic and sudden nature of its transformation had left him no time to fully process what was going on, but for now, Thoma's attention was wholly fixated on one thing. With trembling eyes he shouted.
"Ellie… save sister Ellie! If you save her, I'll do anything! I'll even offer you my soul! I'll become your slave! So… please!"
The devil knelt down to look at Ellie before narrowing his feline eyes.
[I cannot grant that wish.] Thoma's face froze in shock. [This woman is already dead. Even G.o.ds cannot raise the dead. That is the law of this world, part of its fundamental order, and an immutable rule.]
"You're a devil!" Thoma screamed. "Don't you dare speak of laws, orders, and rules as if they mean anything to you! Save her! Save her now-!"
The devil held out his hand in response to Thoma's protests.
[I cannot save her. However, as she was a being with a soul… she can be reborn.]
The devil's large, beast-like hand gently nudged Ellie's head. Soon, light fluttered out of her body, collecting into a ball and floating upwards. It looked just like the souls Thoma could see with his power, except manifested into reality.
For a single moment, Thoma could see Ellie smiling down at him from above. He reached out toward her, in vain; her soul scattered and disappeared. He looked back at the devil with a dumb look on his face.
"What… have you done?"
[I have given her another chance at a new life. She shall be reborn.]
'He gave her a new life? Being reborn? Does that mean…?'
"Re…incarnation?" Thoma muttered.
[… What is your next wish?]
Rather than replying, the devil prodded Thoma to continue.
[What do you wish to do with a fallen heart such as yours?]
Thoma fell silent at the devil's words. All the events he had experienced up until now came rus.h.i.+ng into his mind. The faces of the many people he had trusted who betrayed him, Salem's evil deeds, even his current self which had fallen into endless despair.
"I-I wish to destroy this world!" he shouted, his expression that of a madman. "I wish to destroy this world! Completely obliterate-!"
[Is that truly your heart's desire?]
His wish was abruptly cut short at the devil's question.
[I asked if that was truly your heart's desire, fallen one.]
Thoma looked down at Ellie.
"Do you know what my wish is?"
"I wish all the people in the world were happy."
"Even if it wasn't a world where everyone was happy, I wish the world was a little better than now. A world that is a bit more comfortable, a bit more peaceful, a bit more free, with less hunger, and with less worries…!"
"It's my wish to see that world come to pa.s.s."
He recalled Ellie's smile. Thoma rubbed his face with trembling hands. His eyes no longer shook. There was no more hesitation. With an expression that put aside all of the complicated emotions dwelling within him, he looked back at the devil.
He did not speak. However, the devil answered, as though he had read Thoma's mind.
[I will allow your wish, one walking along the fallen path, to come to pa.s.s!]
The devil's body gradually melted, and the dark, viscous liquid that cascaded down gradually engulfed Thoma's body.
[My name is Artarrk.]
The dark liquid continued to stick to him while Artarrk spoke, his voice seemingly emanating from nowhere.
[I am the creator of all things, and as the father and mother of life itself, I shall grant you the power to achieve your wis.h.!.+]
One the liquid covered him entirely, it began to harden and take a new shape. The dark liquid covered not only Thoma, but the rest of the skeletons within the cave as well. Black lumps wriggled out from the liquid, slowly forming into crows. They shook off their wet feathers and began to fly around the cavern, crying out.
[You who have inherited my name! Your power shall sway this world!]
The liquid around Thoma that had become armor. His arms and legs were covered with metal boots and gauntlets which began to sprout b.e.s.t.i.a.l fur. From his chest and back, various scales and carpaces sprouted and formed. A metal helm shaped like a lion's skull covered his face, on his shoulders and neck were a lion's mane, and deer antlers sprouted from both sides of his head. Dark smoke rose from the liquid to form a black, formless cape at Thoma's back. Finally, a pitch black tail with the head of a snake grew out from his lower back.
Thoma slowly rose. He could see a blue vapor pouring out through his helmet. Looking around the room, he saw skeletal soldiers kneeling before him. Their eyes now held a glimmer of life.
The dead raised their heads.
[You that are marked with resentment!]
With their mouths open, the soldiers without vocal cords let out a piercing cry.
[The apocalyptic army of G.o.d! Arise!]
They drew their weapons and began to move.
They loudly struck the ground as they knelt again. Hundreds and thousands of the undead lowered their heads before Thoma's feet and greeted their new master. The formless cape made of dark smoke began to flutter.
When he raised his hand, cracks formed on the ground. Crimson blood bubbled up out of the ground before a white spear made of bone shot up. He grabbed it and struck the ground, the sound of which reverberated throughout the cavern.
[I am a fallen one, one that has been contaminated, and sullied…]
Thoma's eyes gleamed with a golden light as he spoke.
[The Fallen Monarch!]
"Um… can't you open this door for me?"
A woman who appeared to be a traveler had arrived at the capital of the Holy Kingdom, Lania. Countless travelers had sought out Lania to find rest, only to discover that the outer gates of the city were sealed. Currently, the Pope had left to join up with the Golden Army that had been recently deployed. Something like crime control could be easily handled by the remaining soldiers. There were enough of them that they were even confident in repelling an attack from the demons, but currently, they had forbidden entry to anyone just in case. Due to this, wandering travelers were constantly making a ruckus at the gates.
"Huh? Nope. Can't do!"
The woman pointed to the travelers entering through a door in response.
"B-but why are those people entering?"
"Hah? Isn't it obvious? They paid a fee!"
"Why don't you pay too?"
The soldier's lips curled up underneath his helmet as he spoke.
"T-then is this enough?"
When she tried to hand him a single coin, the soldier burst out in laughter.
"You're crazy! Who's going to take that kind of change? Ey, get out of here! If not…" The soldier's eyes looked the woman up and down. "Pay with your body."
The woman shook her head and walked away. She wanted to enter the capital, but not badly enough to sell herself to some guard. It dawned on her that she had no choice but to stay somewhere nearby.
Her eyes turned to a hill off in the distance.
'Isn't there an abbey deep in the forest that way? If I ask there, they might listen…!'
After the woman left, the soldier licked his lips.
"Che, thought I might be able to enjoy myself."
"Haha! I know, right? She had a good body."
As the soldiers were talking about lewd things, the woman came running back. She ran straight into the soldier's embrace.
"Oof! What's wrong? It couldn't be that you came back to feel my touch? Hah! Fine! This brother will treat you well!"
"… Please open the gate!" she wailed.
The woman was trembling. She was shouting out of desperation as her body quaked with fear, as though she had seen something she wasn't meant to have seen.
“Open the gates! I beg of you! Please! Open up! Hurry!”
The woman tightened her embrace and tried to make her way toward the entrance while holding onto him. Sensing something was off, the soldier took a few tentative steps back away.
"W-what's up? Why's this b.i.t.c.h acting like this? Is she hysterical?"
The soldier finally looked up and over at his companions, but instead of looking at him and the woman, they were staring slack-jawed into the distance. They, like the woman, were now pale and trembling. That was when he noticed something.
"What? Why's everything…?"
As the soldier turned away from the city, he saw two things: a crimson moon and an approaching darkness.
The change in the moon was simple enough.
'The moon… is red?'
The moon was now blood red, and that alone was enough to cause fear and panic among even the soldiers. However, this change was overshadowed by the second thing the soldier had noticed. Innumerable silhouettes of varying sizes were exiting the forest, and along with them came a murder of crows that covered the entire sky. The soldiers could now hear the metallic sound of plate armor clanking together as the earth rumbled from heavy footsteps of the countless number of something that was heading toward them.
"Hoooo…" An inhuman moan emanated from the approaching creatures, one which was easily recognizable.
They were skeletons, but they were very different from normal skeletons. They weren't trash mobs with already cracked bones wielding frail bone clubs. Their entire bodies were covered from head to toe in pitch-black plate armor and they carried lengthy swords and large tower s.h.i.+elds, which were as tall as they were. Some others instead wore simple leather clothes and tattered rags, carrying daggers as their weapons of choice. Skeleton warriors, skeleton spearmen, and skeleton a.s.sa.s.sins, the more the soldiers looked the greater variety of skeletons they could see. However, that wasn't all. Transparent female spirits with bows and arrows: Banshees. Headless horses ridden by headless knights: Dullahan. A five meter tall creature of bone covered in heavy plate armor: A Bone Golem. Liches wielding chained scythes and wearing long, dark robes. Even Death Knights wearing seamless armor, each wielding a ma.s.sive sword and s.h.i.+eld. It was an undead army filled with resentment and loathing for the living; an army which brought forth nothing but death. This army was now advancing toward the capital of the Holy Kingdom.
"… Dear G.o.d."
The soldier took a step back.
"Ring the bell!"
"D-demons are invading!"
Instantly, Lania became noisy. Gates were shut and soldiers were organized upon the city's large outer walls. Their swift movements reflected their excellent training, but even the best training couldn't stop the soldiers from feeling tense and on edge, especially after they saw their enemies.
"D-don't let those b-b.a.s.t.a.r.ds approach!"
The Holy Knights gulped as they heard the cries of the soldiers, looking toward the undead outside the walls.
"No, it's fine," one of them yelled. "Let them approach! They have no siege units. It would be one thing if they had catapults or trebuchets, but it looks like they don't even have ladders! We just need to do something to delay that Bone Golem!"
The Holy Knights began to direct the soldiers in preparation for the battle to come. The soldiers of the Holy Kingdom looked at the undead army with pale faces. They could feel the earth rumble from their heavy footfalls and watched as the dead they tread over rotted and withered. The soldiers were restless, standing beneath the crimson moon which shone bright like the sun. Without warning, the army of the dead split apart, revealing a single figure. It was a creature covered from head to toe in armor, with antlers, a lion-like helm, a fluttering mane, and a dark, shadowy cape. In one hand it held a long, reddish-black bone spear while its other hand was reaching out into empty air. Suddenly, bones and blood erupted from the ground in front of the creature, gathering to form something.
"Is… that a bow?"
As the Holy Knights stood frozen, staring dumbly at him, the master of undead nocked the long spear onto the bow and aimed it toward the city gate. Then… he fired.
Simply releasing the arrow produced an unbelievable shockwave, causing the air around the bow to tremble and s.h.i.+mmer. As it rocketed away, the tip of the spear expanded into a spiral before exploding. The arrow-like tip was propelled to even greater speeds as it cut through the air—leaving a black trail of smoke in its wake—before finally slamming into the gate. Fragments of wood and metal were sent flying in every direction. The center of the outer gate had been blown apart in an instant. Soldiers standing in the vicinity were launched back, many of them pierced and pulverized by the shrapnel. If that wasn't enough, the arrow continued to fly unabated, carving a path of destruction straight through the city.
"What was that?!"
"An arrow! Did he shoot an arrow?!!"
"Ar… row…? Did you say an arrow? That was just an…?"
While the Holy Knights muttered among themselves, sh.e.l.lshocked by what they'd just witnessed, the master of the undead spat out a single word.
With a thunderous cry, the countless undead began to pour forth. With every step they took, the ground shook like an earthquake.
"Archers to the front!"
Arrows filled the sky. However, they weren't arrows fired by the human side, but from the undead army. Their black, formless arrows tore through the air at incredible speeds and struck the archers standing on the outer wall with inhuman accuracy. The archers' layers of armor were cleanly pierced, leaving a hole the size of a head straight through their bodies. One of the Holy Knights grimaced at the banshees in the distance. The feminine-looking ghosts were nocking their magic-imbued arrows on their composite bows.
"Ey, it's no joke! It's not like they're a siege weapon. How can they put out that much strength with arrows fired from that distance!?"
A crow flew in the air gauging the surrounding situation. All the information it gathered was relayed to the undead, allowing them to rush toward the most vulnerable areas of the city's defense.
The soldiers began to fire arrows and throw spears down on the enemy, from atop the wall. Unfortunately for them, the undead simply blocked their projectiles with their s.h.i.+elds and continued to run toward the gate. Soldiers deployed in front of the breach tried to fend off the undead, but were quickly overwhelmed.
"W-what the! These things… their strength is incredible for some piles of bone!!"
One soldier blocked the a skeleton's blade with his s.h.i.+eld, but it only delayed the inevitable. His s.h.i.+eld began to rot away, followed by his arm, which turned a sickly black and melted—the flesh slopping off his arm.
In the face of this indomitable aura of death, they were easily pushed back. Hearts were pierced, organs were torn out, and necks were severed; the corpses of those that were slain by the undead were imbued with magic, ultimately rising to fight again as an undead. Rather than decreasing the number of enemies, their defense of the breach had an opposite effect.
"…Hah. For mere undead to dare to attack the capital of the Holy Kingdom!"
Holy Knights had been deployed behind the lines of common soldiers outside the walls. They each wore a confident smile as they raised their weapons, pointing them toward the advancing wave of undead. These Holy Knights were the ones who weren't chosen to partic.i.p.ate in the honorable Golden Cross Army this time around, but they were still among the strongest knights on the continent.
"Yes, their numbers are large, but mere undead…!" Their weapons s.h.i.+ned brightly. "Will be purified by Holy Power! Holy Knights, followers of Lord Artarrk! Let them meet G.o.d's mace…!"
The Holy Knights advanced toward the undead, finally engaging them in combat. They easily cut down the soldiers-turned-zombies, scattering them like ash. Seeing these paragons of strength join the battle, the faces of the soldiers lit up.
"It's the Holy Knights!!"
"We can win!"
One of the Holy Knights wore a large grin underneath his helmet as he swung his sword toward a skeleton soldier. It cut through both its body and the pitch black armor it wore.
"Fallen dead! Be purified and exterminated!"
As if heeding his confident voice, a bright light formed around him, before swallowing the skeleton. Its body began to burn and melt away, but then, suddenly, it… stopped.
The Holy Knight looked at his sword piercing the undead with disbelief. Without a doubt, his blade had accurately pierced the monster's chest.
"It… can't be."
The skeleton's pitch black armor was turning white right before his eyes. The blindingly bright white color gradually expanded across its armor until the skeleton's appearance itself was changed. Its entire body exuded a white aura, and its eyes were ablaze with a white light, eyes which were glaring dangerously at the Holy Knight.
The Holy Knight retreated a step, his confidence shattered.
"H-how…" Terror took over as he let out a yell that sounded more like a scream. "How does a mere undead carry Holy Power-?!"
With those final words, the skeleton's blade fell upon his neck.
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