༺ Maleus (1) ༻
The ravages of time were evident on the old silver castle. Though constructed with vibrant stones, an air of melancholy surrounded it. The group halted before its gates, their path blocked by a sole Death Knight guarding the entrance.
Despite the fact that he was meticulously covered in pitch-black armor and could pass for an ordinary human at first glance, nobody in this place could fail to sense that he was a Death Knight.
The aura of death emanating from him was so gloomy and somber that it was unmistakable.
The moment they approached the Death Knight, Jenny, who had been holding Renee’s hand the entire way, ran towards him without even looking back. Then, she hid behind him.
Renee momentarily felt a sense of sadness in her suddenly empty hand, and soon put on a tense face.
The realization that the source of this deathly aura was Vera’s opponent had sprung to her mind.
Vera couldn’t respond to the call.
From the moment he faced the Death Knight, he was paralyzed with shock.
Inwardly, he was cursing at the Dullahan and Valak, who had spoken about the Death Knight.
‘Similar level, my ass…’
Cold sweat ran down his back. His hand instinctively gripped the hilt of his sword, driven by his survival instincts that signified imminent danger.
Vera was certain.
‘I can’t win.’
He could never defeat that Death Knight. Even just looking at him made him feel an overwhelming gap.
It was a sense of oppression that Vera had felt only twice in his life, excluding the time with Vargo.
[Young lady, did you wander off alone again?]
A gloomy resonance seemed to swallow the space.
The young lady that the Death Knight referred to was none other than Jenny.
Jenny hesitated for a moment, then nodded uncomfortably.
[It is troublesome if you leave without a word. What about the soldiers? You have even brought along guests.]
[You have to be scolded.]
As if the group wasn’t in his interest, the Death Knight was having a casual conversation with Jenny, then belatedly turned his head towards them to speak.
[Did you come to meet His Majesty?]
The one who answered the question was Renee.
“Oh, yes! Hello, we are…”
[You came from the Holy Kingdom.]
The whole group, including Renee, froze. Even the twins, who were second to none in their cluelessness, did the same.
It was natural. Even though they displayed nothing that could identify them as personnel from the Holy Kingdom, they were afraid that their true identities had been discovered.
[No need to be surprised. I simply made a prediction because I felt a strong divinity. It seems that I was correct.]
The Death Knight moved aside after saying that to the stiffened group.
[Enter. My brothers inside will guide you.]
He showed a compliant attitude.
It was a relief indeed, but amid this, Vera threw in a remark with a grimace.
“…Do I not need the proof?”
Suppressing his constant instinct to flee, he forced out a question.
The sight of himself gripped by fear was too foreign, and his actions were driven by defiance born of wounded pride.
The Death Knight glanced at Vera for a moment, then reached into his armor, pulled out a bone necklace, and threw it to him, saying,
[Take this. Just tell His Majesty that we fought roughly. He will likely turn a blind eye.]
At that moment, the feeling that overcame Vera as he caught the flying bone necklace was nothing short of humiliation.
Despite knowing what the proof he mentioned meant, the Death Knight’s indifference made him angry. It felt as though he was being told, ‘You are worthless.’
A momentary surge of anger arose. Rather than retaliating with words, he felt a desire to pick up his sword and fight.
Renee held Vera back.
Vera’s gaze turned toward Renee. At the sight of Renee’s worried face, Vera bit his lip hard and suppressed the emotions that came to him.
“…I’m glad things didn’t get complicated.”
He delivered his response, doing his utmost to erase any trace of the emotions that had just surfaced.
However, it was a meaningless attempt to Renee. Renee could tell exactly what kind of emotions Vera was feeling right now. That’s why she apologized.
Vera had a strong sense of pride. He also had great confidence in his power and desire to win. It was certain that if Renee didn’t hold him back, Vera would challenge the Death Knight.
However, she knew just from Vera’s expression.
‘Vera can’t win against that opponent.’
Vera wasn’t his usual self currently. The source of his tension was anxiety about losing.
Renee didn’t want Vera to face an opponent he couldn’t possibly defeat.
She had already had enough of that kind of experience in the Federation of Kingdoms.
“Please hold back a little if we can just get through this without having to fight.”
It could be called a selfish desire, but even logically, her judgment was correct this time.
Realizing that all of his inner thoughts had been exposed, Vera trembled, then nodded his head with a pained expression.
[If the conversation is finished, then proceed inside. I have something to discuss with the young lady.]
Jenny flinched. Her mouth opened slightly, and her eyes started shaking.
She was scared, thinking that she was in trouble.
“Ugh… This is so brutal.”
In the long, echoing hallway of the old castle, while walking through the interior guided by the waiting Specter, Miller said.
“How can the Death Knight be like that? As far as I know, a death aura of that level can’t come from a Death Knight…”
[Sir Hodrick is special.]
At the topic thrown to lighten the tense atmosphere, the Specter responded.
The Specter, who appeared as a young woman, started chatting and nodded in agreement with Miller’s assessment of the awkward atmosphere.
[Actually, he wasn’t supposed to stay as an undead like this, but he’s guarding the castle gate because he has a promise with His Majesty. I don’t know what it’s about though…]
Listening to the Specter’s lively tone, Vera looked at his still trembling hand and scowled.
‘He wasn’t visible.’
When he encountered the Death Knight, referred to as Sir Hodrick by the Specter, he had strained all his thoughts and concentration to draw an imaginary sword, but he didn’t believe any move would be effective.
It felt like staring at an insurmountable wall.
According to the Specter, he was certainly not just an ordinary Death Knight. If he was that powerful, his name should surely be in the continent’s history.
‘…There’s no one named Hodrick among the famous swordsmen in history.’
A name he himself did not know, despite his knowledge that went beyond common sense in the realm of swordsmanship.
‘Did he use a pseudonym?’
He contemplated this possibility, but he soon shook his head. There was no reason to hide his real name in a place only for the dead.
Vera continued thinking, soon making an effort to hide his agitated feelings and erase the rising thoughts.
‘…It’s not important.’
He erased that thought because he was aware that it was ultimately motivated by a very personal emotion.
In the first place, the purpose for visiting wasn’t the Death Knight named Hodrick. There was something more important in front of him.
Maleus, the King of Rotten Flesh.
They came here to meet him.
They came to receive the ‘crown’ that Renee from the first round told them about. Moreover, they also had to find out why the Apostle of Death was growing up here.
He was about to meet an ancient species, so disturbing his mind with unnecessary thoughts was absolutely not allowed.
Vera began to recall details about Maleus.
‘This is the first time I’m having a conversation with an ancient species.’
He had met only three ancient species so far. No, considering Alaysia, whom he confronted, it should be four in total.
When he encountered Terdan, he was unable to engage in conversation as he was fleeing from Terdan’s rage; speaking with Aedrin was impossible since Aedrin was a tree. Even considering Orgus, it was inappropriate to call counting numbers a conversation, so it was correct to deem this as his first real conversation with an ancient species.
‘I don’t know his disposition yet, so I can’t let my guard down.’
Maleus didn’t seem to have a cruel nature, based on the atmosphere in the Cradle of the Dead, but he still needed to be prepared for the worst.
If Maleus attacked, he would have to buy time to send the group outside, even if it meant sacrificing himself.
While thinking about this,
[You have arrived. Have a good time.]
The Specter said that as they stood in front of the giant gate that appeared as the entrance to the King’s Palace and vanished.
The group’s tension, which had eased through the conversation between the Specter and Miller, increased once again.
“Then, let’s go,” Renee spoke stiffly.
The twins moved forward and opened the gate to the King’s Palace with a thud.
At the end of the straight red carpet in the center of the King’s Palace, the giant seated upon a grand throne said,
[Species of Parent.]
Truly bizarre—that was the only way one could describe the giant.
It was essentially animated white bones. However, it couldn’t be described as entirely skeletal, because the muscle fibers hanging precariously here and there contracted and relaxed, moving the bones. Therefore, it was more accurate to describe it as a ‘corpse.’
The vibrant jewels covering the outer decor were worthy of being called timeless treasures.
Diamonds densely embedded in a golden crown, five necklaces draped over the collarbones, colorful and brilliant rings adorning all ten bony fingers, and a cloak obscured by the jewels embedded on top.
These were items whose value was difficult to estimate at a glance.
The convergence of these elements created an eerie atmosphere, as well as an absurdity in the sight of a rotting corpse adorned with gold and silver treasures.
[For what reason have you come here?]
The cold echo vibrating throughout the room prickled their skin. Each time the being spoke, the vocal cords attached to the neck bone vibrated, instilling fear.
Aisha, the only child among the group, trembled, lowering her eyes at the sight. Norn and Hela felt no differently. Even for the knights, who were familiar with corpses, this bizarre sight was something they were unaccustomed to.
What weighed down upon them was primal fear.
Only five of them were able to keep their composure: Renee, who was blind; Vera, who was able to suppress his fear; the courageous twins; and Miller, who was accustomed to dissected corpses.
Renee leaned on her cane and bravely moved forward in the face of the intimidating pressure that made her feel like she was going to throw up.
For Renee, not knowing what Maleus looked like at the moment was an unmatched fortune.
She just had to deal with the oppressive feeling. She was free from the visual shock.
Thus, it somewhat alleviated the pressure of stepping forward.
[Yes. I am Maleus, the King of this Cradle. Speak your purpose, Daughter of Parent.]
It was a gentle tone.
Renee couldn’t see, but the muscle fibers attached above Maleus’s eye sockets were fully relaxed and drooping.
Renee swallowed her saliva and made a decision.
‘He asked for our purpose.’
It would be better to be straightforward rather than unnecessarily adding pretense.
Renee’s head slightly tilted forward.
Her tone carried the etiquette that she heard until her ears bled when she was in the Holy Kingdom.
“I came to ask about something. Do you know about an object called the ‘Crown’?”
It was a hint given by her previous self; the first clue to a truth unbeknownst even to Vera.
The time had come for her to find out, and Renee did not hesitate.