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Duke Alcrem had chosen a villa in the suburbs as the venue for the informal tea party.
It was quite the splendid-looking mansion, but it was surrounded by a countryside with no signs of other human presence, and the members of the duke’s house rarely used it. The only ones who normally went there were a small number of security guards and some servants who commuted there to maintain the mansion.
However, it was actually used for secret meetings that the duke didn’t want to make public. The servants entering and leaving the mansion were employees of the duke’s intelligence network. The inside of the mansion was filled with secret passages and hidden rooms, and there were hatches outside the mansion grounds through which one could enter or exit unseen… and these secrets were revealed by Kimberley, who had been a reconnaissance soldier of the Amid Empire before his death.
“Unfortunately, we couldn’t confirm that. Even though we can become invisible and pass through walls, we can’t break them, after all. But, well, we confirmed that there’s air flowing through, so it’s certain that they exist,” Kimberley said.
While Vandalieu was meeting with Arthur, Kimberley had led the less important Ghosts to investigate the Alcrem house and the fake Face-tearing Demon.
As a former reconnaissance soldier, he was skilled at doing the work of a spy, and as a Ghost of lightning – which was a part of the wind attribute – he was sensitive to the movement of air.
“With that said, it seems that the tea party will be held in the courtyard. With the mansion and the large rose garden, nobody can see into it unless they can fly, so it is quite a suitable place for a tea party,” said Kimberley.
“… Hmm, have I made them too cautious? But then again, I haven’t actually really done anything,” said Vandalieu, feeling a little disheartened as he continued making breakfast – miso soup with white radish and deep-fried tofu.
He didn’t have any intention of sucking up to Duke Alcrem. If the duke ended up being hostile, Vandalieu was even considering the possibility of killing him, then encouraging Earl Morksi to declare independence and take over, turning the Alcrem Duchy into the Morksi Duchy.
On the other hand, he also didn’t intend to press Duke Alcrem further than necessary, and as long as nothing catastrophic occurred, things would end peacefully… with an agreement of non-interference between them.
But despite this, the location that Duke Alcrem had chosen for the tea party was a villa that had likely been used more often as a stage for dirty conspiracies than for peaceful talks.
“The only thing I did was spare the ‘Knight of Keen Insight,’ Ralmeya. Well, they’re probably being cautious because of the information he gave them, so I suppose it really can’t be helped,” said Vandalieu.
Ralmeya was the man whose mind had suffered to the point of acquiring the ‘Mental Corruption’ Skill after seeing Vandalieu’s Status with his ‘Demon Eyes of Appraisal.’ There was no doubt that the duke was on guard due to the information that Ralmeya had relayed.
“Perhaps the courtyard of a villa has been chosen as the location because I will be present? My body will not fit inside a mansion built for humans,” said Gizania, whose spider-like lower body was the size of a three-horse carriage.
“Ah, I suppose that’s true, too,” said Vandalieu, reconsidering his thoughts on the situation.
“It wouldn’t be strange to think that he wants to hold the tea party at the villa rather than his main residence because it’s an informal event in the first place,” said Darcia.
“… He’s a timid man, so I suspect he believed that hosting it at the villa would allow him to minimize any damage in the event that unwanted trouble occurs, compared to hosting it at his residence,” added Juliana.
“That is a harsh statement… no, an accurate one,” said Myuze.
The truth was that Takkard had chosen the villa courtyard for both reasons – the size of Gizania’s body and the reason that Juliana had described.
“Normally, a tamer’s familiars like us wouldn’t even be let into the mansion grounds, so we wouldn’t be able to attend, and neither would Juliana,” Kachia pointed out. “If it’s just ordinary pleasantries being exchanged, that would be fine, but –”
“I’m sure he’s worried that Vandalieu suspects that he separated himself from Juliana and is plotting something,” said Darcia.
If it were an official tea party, Vandalieu would have no right to oppose anything the duke said. The duke’s house had such power that opposing his will would be considered a crime, and that would be fine for the duke if Vandalieu had any desire to avoid such a situation.
But this tea party was an informal one… an event that officially didn’t exist. Even so, it would be possible to try and force matters through the power of the duke’s house, but Takkard likely wanted to avoid doing so. If he had gained any information on the Statuses of Vandalieu and his companions from Ralmeya, then this was all but certain.
“Perhaps the conversation itself will conclude very quickly? I do not know how accurate the information this Ralmeya person acquired regarding Bocchan and the others is, but if the duke understands that we possess strength equivalent to at least A-class adventurers, I am sure his strange suspicion towards us will disappear,” said Sam.
Vandalieu nodded, but at the same time, he clenched his fist in anger. “If that’s the case, then it will have been worth sparing Ralmeya, but… it makes me ashamed to think that he might have passed on everyone’s private information like their bust, waist and hip measurements, and their body weights, to the duke and his intelligence network. Even though it might have been overdoing it to dispose of him, it might have been better to capture him temporarily and make sure that the information he passed on to the duke was limited.”
“Vandalieu, we don’t really mind that, okay? Let’s let go of the ladle,” said Darcia, gently taking the ladle whose handle Vandalieu had crushed with his hand.
“I am not defending them, but I think it is unlikely that the duke and the other Knights are spreading the body size measurements and weights of Darcia-sama and the others in their current situation… and I don’t want to imagine that they are,” said Juliana, looking away into the distance.
Even if Ralmeya had seen the body measurements and weights of Darcia and the others with his ‘Demon Eyes of Appraisal,’ Juliana didn’t want to imagine that the duke and the other Knights had considered it important enough to question him about it and make records of it. After all, she was the duke’s half-sister, and had served the duke’s house as a knight in her previous life.
“… Then I suppose it should be sufficient to silence Ralmeya properly later. So, do you have any information about the villa’s security today?” Vandalieu asked.
“Well, about that, it is certain that they are hiding something, but there is a place that we cannot enter. It has a barrier that prevents spirits from entering,” said Kimberley.
Walls of wood, stone and metal meant nothing to Ghosts like Kimberley. However, Ghosts could be obstructed by things that repelled Undead, such as holy water, sacred ashes, and light-attribute magic.
Still, Kimberley was a Ghost with a high Rank. Holy water and sacred ashes would cause fatal damage to ordinary Ghosts, as it was equivalent to pouring molten metal on a human, but a Ghost as powerful as Kimberley would only receive as much damage as someone inadvertently stepping into a shower that was slightly too hot.
Thus, it was not impossible for him to break through the barrier.
“Of course, if I went all-out, I could easily break through, but… I would leave very visible evidence that the barrier was broken,” said Kimberley.
The problem was, his lightning would leave scorch marks that would alert the people at the villa that an intruder was present.
“We attempted to enter and investigate by crossing through space, but… our abilities were insufficient…” said one of the space-attribute Ghosts.
“Please forgive us… Please spare us punishment…” said another.
The space-attribute Ghosts were those who had lost their lives in the ‘Trial of Zakkart.’ Trapped by Gufadgarn for countless years, they were bathed in space-attribute Mana and they had become Ghosts after their Ranks increased. Ghosts of the space attribute were relatively rare.
They had lost their memories from when they were alive, and they had not fully developed new personalities yet, so they struggled with conversations, though not as much as Berkert did.
“As for the security, one of the Five Knights named Bravatiyu hired a man who seems to be a ‘Spiritualist,’ so we couldn’t go near. We know that all of the Five Knights that are still capable of action will be at the villa, as well as several dozen of their elite subordinates, but we couldn’t learn anything more,” said Kimberley.
“… I think we have learned enough,” said Vandalieu.
“I have heard that Bravatiyu-sama always speaks in a loud voice, after all. But I don’t think that he would suspect that there is an invisible spy in the room,” said Juliana.
“Well, that is convenient,” said Myuze.
It was convenient because Vandalieu and his companions had learned that the fake Face-tearing Demon or someone cooperating with him was likely among the top brass of the Alcrem Duchy, such as Duke Alcrem and the Five Knights.
“The skins left behind by the faker, the one that we brought back, did you make use of it?!” asked Braga.
The previous day, Braga had stolen the skins left behind by the fake Face-tearing Demon, which had been stored at the city guards’ office, and switched them with fake face skins that Vandalieu had created with the Demon King’s skin.
Upon close examination, there had been faint traces of holy water on the skins. And unlike Braga and the other Black Goblins, the victims of the fake Face-tearing Demon had been killed before the skins were peeled off.
Braga and the Black Goblins were the real Face-tearing Demon and Vandalieu was the mastermind of the original crimes, and they had left no bodies behind. As they and everyone else believed, no parts of the victims had been found except for the skins of their faces. In other words, no bodies had been found for any of the victims.
The fake Face-tearing Demon was likely disposing of the victims’ spirits and their corpses after killing them, but he was likely using abnormal methods.
Including the ones that the city guards had not publicly announced, the Face-tearing Demon had committed close to a hundred murders. In order to solve these crimes, the Five Knights of Alcrem had become involved despite not normally being involved in such investigations, and equally unusually, a ‘Spiritualist’ had been hired.
The duke was putting everything he could into the investigation. If it weren’t for the highly abnormal methods used for the murders, which was only made possible by the combination of high-Rank monsters in the Black Goblins and the teleportation abilities of Legion and Gufadgarn, the crimes would likely have been solved already.
As the fake Face-tearing Demon hadn’t been apprehended, it meant that their methods were as abnormal as the Black Goblins that were the real Face-tearing Demon.
The fact that the corpses had to be disposed of through some method was a particularly difficult requirement for the fake Face-tearing Demon, whom Vandalieu suspected to have killed more than ten victims.
The fake Face-tearing Demon would have likely been caught if they had been disposing of the corpses by burying them, burning them or using spells
There had apparently been criminals in the past who had used space-attribute magic to transport the corpses of the victims outside the capital of Alcrem or fed them to their familiars including the bones, but such criminals had eventually been caught. Thus, if the fake Face-tearing Demon had been using methods like that, they would have been caught long ago.
And the fact that they had applied holy water was intriguing as well. They had likely done so to prevent the victims from leaving spirits behind, but holy water was considerably expensive… and more importantly, could only be purchased from a limited number of places.
One could receive holy water from any Church by donating a certain sum of money.
Thus, one would draw attention to themselves if they made frequent purchases of holy water unless they were a clergyman who specialized in exterminating Undead. Some questioning at the Churches would quickly reveal such a trail.
Even if the duke’s investigators had not caught that trail, if their search was indeed wide enough, they would catch a suspicious person buying large amounts of holy water anyway.
But if the fake Face-tearing Demon was using holy water to prevent the spirits of their victims from making contact with a ‘Spiritualist’ or Vandalieu, then something was fishy. Even if they poured holy water over the victims before killing them, it was unnatural for the spirits to be erased completely.
If the spirit’s lingering regret and hatred were strong enough, they would remain for a while rather than immediately disappearing even if holy water had been poured over them, just like Darcia had done in the past. It was reasonable to assume that the hatred held by murder victims would overcome the effects of holy water.
These spirits only lingered for a few days, but the fake Face-tearing Demon’s crimes had continued even after Vandalieu had begun looking for their victims’ spirits. Thus, it was strange that he hadn’t found even a single spirit.
Therefore, the spirits were in a place where they could not reach Vandalieu even if they did remain in this world. Perhaps the victims were being killed inside a barrier or holy grounds that spirits could not escape from?
Having deduced all of that, Vandalieu and his companions suspected that the fake Face-tearing Demon was in a high enough position in society that the investigation could not reach them, and in a position where they could freely use such a barrier or holy grounds… Perhaps one of the Five Knights of Alcrem, the duke himself, or his wife, or one of his sons.
As the Five Knights of Alcrem were involved with the investigation, even nobles, church leaders and high priests could not decline being investigated.
Thus, Vandalieu and his companions suspected that the investigators themselves were either the Face-tearing Demon or cooperating with them.
“The skins of the victims’ faces were of use, but… even though I’m the one who came up with it, it’s an irrational conclusion. The basis for suspecting them is because it’s possible for them to be behind it, not because there’s evidence that they are,” said Vandalieu.
“Well, we are not denouncing them or spreading rumors, so there is no problem with that,” said Myuze.
“Master, perhaps it’s wrong after all?” said Simon, looking puzzled. “Even if these important people are behind it, I can’t think of a single motive they could have for imitating the Face-tearing Demon.”
Vandalieu had no confidence in the reasoning that had led them to their conclusion, and Simon sounded unsure as well.
“You’re right. Important people like them shouldn’t need to do something like this to bring justice upon those who can’t be punished by the law,” said Natania.
“It is as Natania-san says. If they wanted to punish criminals, they should subdue any political opponents and voices of objection in order to carry out justice, without resorting to something as pathetic as copycat crimes. Ah, how truly pathetic and deplorable,” Juliana said in a disgusted tone.
“J-Juliana-san, it’s speculation! We’re just speculating!” said Natania.
“… Well, even if it’s pathetic, if that’s their motive, we can just leave them be. The reason I got Braga and the others to kidnap the criminals in the first place was because it would be too much trouble to get the authorities to arrest them. It doesn’t make sense to be fighting each other when we’re both doing the same thing. Still, some of the victims hadn’t committed such terrible crimes that they deserved to die, so I suppose we should continue our investigation,” said Vandalieu, dividing the finished miso soup into bowls.
Arthur, Kalinia and Borzofoy stared at the miso soup in wonder and fascination.
“So, this is ‘miso soup’… and what is this thing that is called an ‘abura-age?’ It is the skin of something… no, entrails. Intestines?” said Arthur.
“This white substance that you call ‘tofu,’ is it the brain of some monster? I think it looks a little too white for that to be the case…” murmured Borzofoy.
“Nii-san, Borzofoy, considering that there are so many things that we cannot identify, perhaps this white radish is not really the white radish that we know?” said Kalinia. “Perhaps ‘daikon’ is actually some kind of nickname or slang, and in reality, it is something entirely different –”
TLN: Abura-age is thinly sliced, deep-fried tofu. White radish is 大根/daikon.
“Please stop! I’m going to lose my appetite!” said Miriam, desperately stopping the other three from going on.
“Yeah! I know what’s in it, and even I’m getting scared!” said Kachia, looking pale.
Following Vandalieu’s meeting with them, Arthur and his companions had immediately come to join Vandalieu and his companions at the building they had rented. Naturally, they had been filled in on the truth of everything yesterday – about Kimberley and the other Ghosts, about monsters such as Braga, and about the Face-tearing Demon.
Arthur and his companions had been surprised upon hearing about the Undead, but they had quickly accepted the truth, realizing that it might be possible for Undead to be tamed by a tamer great enough to speak face-to-face with the gods.
They already thought of Vandalieu favorably, and the Undead they had met – Sam, Princess Levia, and Orbia – were normally rational and capable of reason. It was fortunate that they had not yet been introduced to the ones like Berkert, who did not normally behave rationally.
On top of that, Arthur, Kalinia and Borzofoy were from a remote village, and even among the people there, had lived a particularly isolated life. They did not have much in the way of the common sense of ordinary societies.
Miriam had been considerably bewildered by Vandalieu’s revelation of the truth, but perhaps she had become too used to abnormal situations because of her time with Arthur and the others. Seemingly giving up on understanding the situation, she had simply accepted it.
In fact, it had been more difficult getting the four of them to accept the truth about the fake Face-tearing Demon than the Undead.
Punishing villains was a good thing, but Arthur had argued that they should be caught and judged through proper methods, out of consideration for the victims and their families.
Vandalieu, Darcia, and Chipuras had explained how difficult it was to get the investigating authorities to act using those proper methods, and how long it took, and that it was important to prevent even more people falling victim to the criminals while the authorities acted slowly.
In the end, Juliana, who had been a member of the Alcrem house in her previous life, apologized for the negligence and corruption of the duchy’s investigating authorities. This had prompted Arthur and his companions to see the point of view of Vandalieu and the others.
“We have lived in peace until we received divine protection from the gods and heard their Divine Messages. We have no right to receive an apology from a child such as yourself,” Arthur had said.
Incidentally, Arthur and his companions had not been bothered by the fates of the villains whose faces had been torn off. They were the kind of criminals who would, if they were captured by the authorities, be tortured for information and then hanged, be forced to kill themselves, or be forced into slavery.
The compassion of Arthur and his companions didn’t quite extend to such people.
“What shall we do during the tea party?” Arthur asked.
“In the worst-case scenario, the tea party might come to an abrupt end and we might be forced to leave the capital, so I suppose we should all go together. Although, you are free to go on ahead to Talosheim,” said Vandalieu.
While Vandalieu and his companions enjoyed their peaceful breakfast of miso soup and salt-grilled Kraken, the Alcrem house was also busy with preparations for the tea party.
They prepared their security precautions (which had already been leaked by Kimberley and the other Ghosts), and all of Duke Alcrem’s family members, with the exception of his eldest son, had been sent out of the capital under the pretense that they were going on hunting trips or visiting neighboring regions.
And arrangements had been made so that in the worst-case scenario, the Five Knights would buy time while the duke’s eldest son and the knights’ order evacuated the capital’s populace.
One might think that this was an excessive measure to deal with a group of less than ten people led by a single individual, but… these arrangements had been made because, through the information provided by the ‘Knight of Keen Insight’ Ralmeya, it had become clear that Vandalieu possessed strength equivalent to that of an S-class adventurer.
If an A-class adventurer exerted his or her full strength, they would be capable of splitting a mountain that was several hundred meters tall with a single swing of their sword. On the battlefield, they would be able to sweep through a platoon of elite knights like a sickle harvesting wheat, or breach a sturdy fortress by kicking down its walls as if they were made of plywood.
If one wanted to fight a group of A-class adventurers, they would need a force of fighters that possessed B-class-worthy strength and outnumbered the enemy by a factor of three to five, or an equivalent number of fighters that possessed A-class-worthy strength.
A-class adventurers varied wildly in their Jobs, roles, and the Skills and equipment they possessed, so their exact strength differed from individual to individual. Even so, the above information was considered true for any A-class adventurer.
There was actually a tale of a renowned strategist who, with a group of fighters that were all equivalent to C-class or below, had cornered and defeated an enemy general leading a group of A-class-level fighters through masterful strategy.
But those with strength equivalent to S-class adventurers were superhumans among superhumans. They were monsters who could create fissures in the earth or split the seas without even exerting their full strength; they were essentially natural disasters rather than people who could be considered as enemies on the battlefield.
That was only natural; those with the strength of an S-class adventurer would have been capable of standing even on the battlefields of the age of the gods, where their enemies would have been Elder Dragons and true Colossi that were taller than castles, or resurrected evil gods.
In a hidden room of Duke Alcrem’s villa, there was a man who was lamenting these facts.
If Vandalieu was equivalent to an A-class adventurer, the duke would probably have been satisfied with assigning two… or maybe three of the Five Knights here, excluding Ralmeya. But the duke has unfortunately learned that he’s as strong as an S-class adventurer…
A great noble who detested Randolf ‘the True’ had once hired a band of ten powerful mercenaries of A-class-level strength to kill him, and Randolf effortlessly slew them all.
Even the ‘Blue-flamed Sword’ Heinz, who was far younger and less experienced than Randolf, would be capable of laying waste to the capital of Alcrem if he were to go on a mad, indiscriminate rampage.
It didn’t matter how many knights, city guards, adventurers, or mercenaries one had at their disposal. They would simply add to the corpses of the victims being blown away along with the rubble and debris.
Thus, although the duke had assigned all of the Five Knights of Alcrem to the villa that would become the stage for the tea party, given the information that he already knew, it was little more than a small peace of mind.
But I am not in a position where it is easy for me to point that out… If it were possible, I would have liked to be absent, with my ordinary duty as an excuse, but… it cannot be helped, the man thought, sighing and giving up on thinking about this matter any further.
He had already given his commands, so his partner would begin things. He could simply pretend that he knew nothing, and let the other Five Knights chase his companion.
I wanted to begin things in another hundred or two hundred years… after Randolf died, and there were no more S-class adventurers in the Orbaume Kingdom. But given the current situation, there probably won’t be any better opportunities after tomorrow.
The gods were conserving their strength and were capable of using the Five Knights as a meat shield and Alcrem’s people as hostages in the battle against Vandalieu. On top of that, there had been numerous people with divine protections from the gods of Alda’s forces in the capital until recently, but almost none of them were still there now.
Given that it would be necessary to fight against Vandalieu, it was difficult to say that this was a good opportunity, but… given that he had come to the Alcrem Duchy, it was certain that he would set his eyes on the ‘evil god’ that legends spoke of, the one who was sealed within the mountain range to the north of Alcrem.
Doing things now would be better than being taken by surprise by Vandalieu and his forces, who had nothing holding them back, and being forced to rush into battle.
If it had been possible, the man would have liked to dispose of Ralmeya before he blurted out anything else, but… Serjio and the men under Serjio’s direct command were constantly monitoring him, so there hadn’t been an opportunity to do so.
But the tea party would begin soon. Once things began, the information that Ralmeya possessed would make no difference.
As the man comforted himself with this thought, the door to the hidden room suddenly opened, and a tied-up man dressed completely in black fell in through it. The man immediately realized that it was his partner and his heart stopped for a moment, but he managed to not voice his shock out loud.
Standing in the doorway was Baldiria, the ‘Knight of a Thousand Blades.’
“… Is this a suspicious intruder that you’ve apprehended?” the man asked.
“Suspicious intruder? What a cruel thing to say about your own partner, ‘Knight of the Collapsed Mountains’ Goldie,” said Baldiria.
She glared at Goldie, the man who had been in the room, who grimaced at this completely unexpected development.
“It seems that you are misunderstanding something,” Goldie said.
In response, Baldiria produced a ring from her pocket, a furious expression on her face.
Goldie’s grimace deepened… the ring was a cheap Item Box that he had given to his partner.
A corpse, which was missing the skin of its face, emerged from within the cheap Item Box and fell onto the floor with a heavy thud, filling the hidden room with a putrid stench.
“Are you going to try and explain this away, too?” Baldiria asked.
“… Damn it. I told him, to swallow it if anything happened, the fool,” Goldie muttered.
With that, he unsheathed the treasured sword that had been gifted to one of his ancestors by the duke’s house.