The Pure-breed Vampires worshipping Hihiryushukaka, the Evil God of Joyful Life, had gathered in a room illuminated by the beautiful moonlight streaming in through the windows.
However, one of the three chairs was empty.
“Good grief, things have been far too noisy as of late. Don’t you think so, Gubamon?”
“The most disagreeable thing for me is being called out here by you, however, Birkyne.”
At a table that should have seated three people, Birkyne, who resembled a young nobleman, faced Gubamon, who resembled an evil, elderly mage.
“Please don’t be in such a foul mood,” said Birkyne. “The collection you love so much won’t mind you leaving for a little while. More importantly, it would be best to deal with the matter that we have been discussing. If we are not careful, we will lose our balance.”
The matter that Birkyne was referring to was the information leak by the Guild Master of Nineland’s Mages’ Guild, Kinarp, and his subordinates.
Thanks to their information, damage had of course been done to Ternecia’s faction who had been making deals with Kinarp, but the damage suffered by Birkyne and Gubamon’s subordinates and those cooperating with them couldn’t be ignored, either.
The Vampires had placed their roots deep in the Amid Empire, but their venomous fangs had been planted just as deep in the Orbaume Kingdom.
The Pure-breed Vampires had existed since a hundred thousand years ago. They knew from experience that if all of their influence was gathered in one country, they would be burned if that country was to fall to ruin. In an era where two great nations existed, they would extend their reach into both nations.
That was why it was painful that those who had infiltrated the Orbaume Kingdom were being hunted down.
“Lose our balance?” Gubamon repeated, and then his wrinkled face twisted as he let out a cackle. “When did you grown so fainthearted, Birkyne? No matter how many of our subordinates and those working with them are hunted down, it is impossible for us to be at risk,” he said. “If we leave them to be hunted down, those humans will eventually be satisfied. There will be none who can reach us, and even if there are, we simply need to kill them.”
There was some truth to his words. No matter how many of their subordinates were exterminated, the darkness enshrouding the Vampires was deep. If blessed with incredible fortune, the humans might be able to play with the Vampire society’s tail. It was absolutely impossible for them to reach the Pure-breed Vampires at the head of the society.
And even if there were some heroes among heroes who managed to reach them, the Pure-breed Vampires would simply turn on them and kill them.
If the Pure-breed Vampires were on their own, it was possible that they could be defeated by an A-class adventurer party, an S-class adventurer or an S-class adventurer backed up by several A-class adventurers.
But they were not on their own.
The Pure-breed Vampires normally competed against each other pointlessly, but they had made a pledge that they would work together to stand against mutual enemies attacking from the outside.
Thanks to that, they had even managed to escape when they were attacked ninety thousand years ago by heroes with the divine blessings of Bellwood and Nineroad, who had become heroic gods. Five thousand years after that, they had emerged victorious in a battle against Pure-breed Vampires who worshipped a different evil god. They had been able to overcome many other dangers after that as well.
The fact that the faction that worshipped the Evil God of Joyful Life hadn’t fallen apart, and the fact that it was now managed in a parliamentary system by the three Pure-breed Vampires, were all because of those experiences.
… No mutual enemies had appeared during the past fifty thousand years, however.
That was why Gubamon’s words were correct. If the three Pure-breed Vampires worked together, it was likely that they would even be able to defeat the Orbaume Kingdom’s entire army. If the Five-colored Blades were included, things would be a little more difficult, but the result wouldn’t change.
Their subordinates would likely perish, but they would simply need to make more afterwards. Even the Noble-born Vampires were nothing more than easily-replaced pawns.
They would simply need to survive and rebuild their influence in a new darkness. As long as the three Pure-breed Vampires survived, they could rebuild their society.
“That is indeed true,” Birkyne said in agreement. “No matter how bad things become, there will never be any danger to us. But it is problematic for us to lose too many subordinates and those working with them, isn’t it? We live long lives, so daily enrichment is essential for us. Isn’t that right, Gubamon?”
Now that Birkyne was saying this to him, even Gubamon had to think about making a move. It was true that he was a powerful being, but in order to perfect his collection of Undead made from the corpses of heroes, his efforts alone were not enough.
He needed many eyes and ears to gain information and many hands and feet to work on his behalf.
“But what do you specifically have in mind?” Gubamon asked. “The information has already been leaked, and it is too late to erase those who know of it. Even if you wanted to have our subordinates disappear… That’s right, that Chipiras fellow under Ternecia was defeated as well. Are you planning to make it appear as if all of this was his doing? And Birkyne, when will Ternecia be here?”
“Ah, Ternecia won’t be coming,” Birkyne told him.
“What?! That little girl, she has stood us up after I have made the effort of coming out here?!”
“No, Gubamon. I never invited Ternecia here. The only one I called here is you.”
“What? What are you playing at, Birkyne? It couldn’t be…”
Birkyne gave Gubamon a gentle expression as he spoke his next words. “This incident was caused by Ternecia’s failure.”
Was Birkyne going to proposing to Gubamon that they should feed Ternecia to the humans? Their sworn ally of a hundred thousand years?
Gubamon’s eyes opened so wide in surprise that it looked as if they would fall from their sockets… but he quickly saw Birkyne’s real intentions and twisted his mouth in a smile as he laughed. “I see. You intend to weaken Ternecia by throwing her to the humans, and then ‘Judge’ her?”
In terms of pure strength in battle, Ternecia’s was the greatest. However, Birkyne had a trump card that he held in reserve. It was a trump card that forced others to obey him.
It was powerful but risky; despite having lived for a mind-boggling number of years, he had only used it a few times in the past. Even if not using it would place his life at risk, he had to be careful in using it.
That was the kind of trump card it was.
But if there was someone equally powerful to him but weakened to the point of being unable to resist… That would be a time to take a great risk but use this trump card to gain a tremendous return.
“Ternecia is responsible for this incident,” said Birkyne. “Isn’t it only natural for her to take responsibility?”
“I suppose that is one way of thinking about it,” said Gubamon. “It was the human that Ternecia was using as a subordinate who leaked the information, after all.”
“Yes, and she did something to the tunnel connecting Talosheim to the Hartner Duchy,” Birkyne added.
“What? That is the first time I am hearing of this; what are you talking about?” asked Gubamon.
The Pure-breed Vampires who worshipped an evil god had sent numerous subordinates to the Hartner Duchy, which was adjacent to the new national border of the Amid Empire. Ternecia had put a considerable amount of her strength into this, but Birkyne and Gubamon had dispatched several of their subordinates there as well.
“Actually, the adventurers called the Five-colored Blades, the ones who are mainly responsible for hunting down Ternecia’s subordinates, are doing something interesting,” said Birkyne. “It seems that they are looking for Eleanora.”
Through those subordinates, Birkyne had heard of the movements of Heinz and his party.
“Eleanora, you say? That cannot be; how are they, people who are in the Orbaume Kingdom, searching for a traitor who should be on the other side of the mountain range? Could it be… she was there? When the castle sank and the Demon King’s seal was removed! Then the fragment of the Demon King is in that little girl’s hands?!” Gubamon was visibly agitated.
“No, that is not the case,” said Birkyne, flatly denying that possibility. “I am her former owner, after all. I know the limits of her strength. No matter how much more powerful she has grown over the past year, she would be immediately consumed by the Demon King’s fragment. If she was the one who removed the Demon King’s seal, then she would have been seen rampaging like a beast in Nineland. The one who removed the seal was… Eleanora’s current master.”
“Her current master… That Dhampir. To think that he has already emerged… so was he behind the incident with Kinarp as well?” asked Gubamon.
“Most probably,” Birkyne replied. “Eleanora’s Charming Demon Eyes only work when eye contact is maintained, so he likely used some other method, however.”
There were also the incident of a Dungeon appearing in the city of Niarki and the incident where the slave-run mine had turned into a den of Skeletons and the mine itself had become an empty plot of land. Birkyne and Gubamon suspected that Vandalieu had been involved in these incidents as well.
They couldn’t imagine what his intentions had been in doing these, however.
People measure others by their own standards. In that regard, Birkyne and Gubamon were very much like people.
They would never have been able to imagine that Vandalieu had wanted to register as an adventurer, that he had investigated the relatives of the Undead that they treated as pieces of their collection, or that he had caused this series of events as a result of that investigation.
The Pure-breed Vampires had concluded that Vandalieu had been after the Demon King’s fragment, and that this series of events had been for that purpose.
He had undoubtedly released the Demon King’s fragments in the southern region of the continent or sought out evil gods other than Hihiryushukaka in order to gain information. It could even be that there had been a sealed fragment of the Demon King near the slave-run mine that Birkyne and Gubamon didn’t know about.
And hadn’t Ternecia actually known about all of this? Birkyne suspected that she was already communicating with Vandalieu. Her subordinates had suffered the greatest losses, but it seemed likely that this was all part of the masquerade.
Birkyne felt this distrust because he had his own plans to make a deal with Vandalieu and turn him into an ally. Perhaps if the Pure-breed Vampires had spent a hundred thousand years building bonds like a blood-related family, then things would be different, but they were currently bound only by their common interests; the trust between them was brittle. If one crack formed in that trust, there would be no preventing it from falling into pieces.
“I see… The one who destroyed the tunnel was Ternecia, wasn’t it? If they are plotting something, it makes sense to make Ternecia take the blame,” said Gubamon.
“That’s how it is… now then, let us get to the main topic of discussion, Gubamon,” said Birkyne.
The Hartner Duchy was suffering from the economic recession caused by the Sauron Duchy being occupied by the Amid Empire, but with the recent ‘accident’ that had caused the castle to sink, the people had been worried that taxes would increase to pay for the castle’s repair or the construction of a new castle.
Of course, the repair or rebuilding of the castle would be a public project, so there would be opportunities for business as well. However, those who planted crops and ran dairy farms as their main occupations would not receive the benefits of this.
A married couple who had barely been able to make a living working a small field were having a discussion late at night while their only son was asleep.
“If the taxes go any higher, we won’t have any choice but to sell Tom…”
“Please wait, dear. He’s only five years old; if we sell him, he’ll be sent to the mines.”
It was incredibly common for boys too young to be used for physical labor to be sent to places where they would be worked to death, such as the mines.
The wife was trying to stop her husband from sentencing their son to such a fate after she had gone through the pain of giving birth to him, but it wasn’t as if the husband was willing to sell his own child, either.
His face crumpled as he spoke again. “But at this rate, even if we feed ourselves on seeds and strangle every single one of our goats, we won’t make it through the winter… Rather than have our whole family starve to death, we have to gamble on the choice that gives us at least a little more hope… You know, Tom is quite smart for his age. I’m sure there will be a master who will buy him and use him as a servant.”
The man’s wife sobbed. “If only the rice plants hadn’t become sick…”
The poor farming couple who hadn’t been able to harvest a sufficient amount of rice seemed to have decided that they had no choice but to sell their son. But then a miracle happened.
“Wait… Azan… You must not sell that child.”
A voice that the couple had heard before reached their ears. However, the voice was one that they had thought they would never hear again.
“It can’t be, Ma?!” Azan, the husband, opened his eyes wide in shock. Standing before his eyes was his mother, whose corpse had been found in this year’s summer, the day after she left to pick some wild plants.
Her form was undefined and transparent; the wall behind her could be seen through her body.
Azan screamed in terror. “Please, rest in peace!”
“You must not sell Tom… More importantly, you must tie the family’s goats to the outside of the barn’s door. And until the morning sun rises, you must keep all the windows closed and not step foot outside the house,” the Ghost of Azan’s dead mother said to the couple who were trembling in fear.
“The goats?” Azan repeated.
“Azan, listen to what your mother tells you,” said the Ghost. “Listen to me. Leave your seeds outside the barn’s door. Wait inside the house and do not leave until the morning sun rises. If you do that, then something good… The goddess Vida’s blessings will be upon you.”
“V-Vida, you say… Ma, didn’t you convert to believe in Alda-sama?” Azan asked his mother.
Without answering her son’s question, Azan’s mother’s spirit quietly vanished without a trace. The couple stared blankly at the place where the spirit had appeared for a while before looking at each other and nodding.
“Mother-in-law did love Tom, didn’t she?” said Azan’s wife.
“That’s right… Those goats are soon going to be too old to squeeze any milk out of them anyway. Let’s try believing in Ma,” said Azan.
Azan and his wife tied the goats to the barn’s door and waited for morning as they had been instructed.
When the sun rose, something astonishing had happened.
There was a person-sized doll made of clay standing on the spot where the sack of seeds had been. If Azan and his wife had any knowledge of Japanese history, they would wonder what an earthen figure was doing here, but there was something that Azan was even more concerned about.
At the earthen figure’s feet, there was a wooden club that he had never seen before. Thinking that he was meant to break the earthen figure open with it, he picked up the club and struck the earthen figure.
The earthen figure easily split open, and boxes and bags filled with food and treasure fell out from inside, one after another.
“Salt, there’s so much salt…! There’s enough for a year! And this one is wheat! These bottles are… There’s even oil and vinegar!”
“Honey, aren’t these silver coins?! There are even some gold coins mixed in with them! And this shiny thing here, could it be a gemstone…?!”
The value of the food and treasures inside the earthen figure were dozens of times more than the pitiful amount that they would have gained by selling their only son. Not only would they not have to sell Tom, but they would easily survive the winter and have more than enough left over to buy new, young goats.
“Ah, thank you, Mother! Goddess Vida-sama, thank you very much!” Azan cried.
Vandalieu, who was surrounded by earthen-figure-shaped Golems in a plain covered thickly in tall grass a little distance away from the village, was pleased with himself as he looked at the results of his actions.
“Goats, rabbits, seeds for southern rice, multiple kinds of beans that we don’t have in Talosheim, seeds and seedlings of fruits that aren’t sold in the cities because they spoil easily… this is superb,” he said to himself.
Seeing how happy the farming families were, including Azan and his wife, Vandalieu did think that he could have taken a little more, but it wasn’t a big problem.
The Ghosts of Hannah and the others who had been killed by Kanata had told him the locations of several poor farming villages in the Hartner Duchy, flew to them and gathered the spirits in order to secure the people he needed to negotiate. And through these spirits, which he had used Visualization on to make them visible to normal people, he had offered his trades.
There were several families who ignored the offers, but many villagers of the deeply religious farming villages had believed the spirits and accepted Vandalieu’s trades.
As a result, Vandalieu had gained a lot.
There hadn’t been any farming horses or cows that could help with work on the farms, but he had acquired several animals like goats and rabbits that could be raised just by feeding them grass, whose manure could be used as fertilizer. He had acquired the oldest animals in the trades, but there would be no problem if he used Youth Transformation on them.
The items he had given in return had been things that he had acquired in Dungeons or from bandits that he had encountered and exterminated along the way, so he didn’t feel any loss from giving them away.
“I’m not in a social position where I can buy livestock and seeds normally.”
Vandalieu wasn’t the owner of a farm or a pasture, so he would stand out considerably if he tried to buy living livestock and seeds. That was why he was acquiring these through a method like this.
“Pete, you mustn’t eat those yet,” said Vandalieu, stopping Pete, who had extended half of his body from Vandalieu’s head towards one of the rabbits.
“We have to breed them properly first… Tomato stew with rabbit meat… garnished with goat-milk cheese…”
It was the rabbits rather than Pete who had frozen in fear of Vandalieu’s unconcealed hunger as the earthen figure Golems stored them inside their hollow bodies.
“Now then, let’s move to the Dungeon I created yesterday. I want a few more goats.”
Vandalieu left the plain behind, followed by the earthen figure Golems that were useful for transporting things.
And then he repeated the same thing in several villages. With this, all kinds of livestock were introduced to Talosheim.
In addition, the goddess Vida’s religion became more active in the Hartner Duchy’s farming villages. A custom spread where the believers offered the crops harvested that year to dolls made of clay during harvest festivals, and then everyone would break the dolls the next day and take the broken pieces home with them as good luck charms.
The members of the Five-colored Blades sighed in frustration that their investigation was not going well.
“It’s not going well after all,” said Heinz.
“You’re right about that,” said Edgar. “Just where did she disappear to… The rumor that Vampires can turn into fog is just a superstition, right?”
“It’s mostly just a superstition,” said Diana. “However, it is said that there were once Vampires who possessed a unique skill to do so.”
Heinz and his companions had been chasing after Eleanora, defeating Vampires who would probably have information on her and questioning them, but no results were to be had.
After she was seen in Nineland, there wasn’t a single trace of Eleanora anywhere. The Vampires that Heinz’s party had defeated with Kinarp’s information had known that Eleanora was a traitor, but hadn’t known where she currently was or what she was doing.
In fact, they had been surprised, wondering why Heinz and his party were looking for Eleanora.
And since taking Chipiras alive would have been an impossible task even for Heinz’s party, they had only been able to question his underlings. They had tried finding someone with the Spiritualist Job to try and question Chipiras, but no Spiritualist had been able to communicate with the spirits of powerful Vampires.
From the limited information available, Heinz had concluded that the Vampires had been instructed to report any sightings of Eleanora rather than having been instructed to look for her, and that Eleanora’s master was considered to be an individual of far greater importance than Eleanora herself.
This was because Ternecia and the other Pure-breed Vampires had limited the information they provided to their underlings. As a result, rather than gaining information regarding Eleanora from the Vampires, Heinz and his party had inadvertently informed Birkyne that Eleanora had appeared in the Hartner Duchy.
Unaware of this, they had continued searching, but they couldn’t find any leads at all.
“Good grief, it really is strange. Even if Noble-born Vampires can fly, it’s not like they can stay in the sky all day. So why can’t we find any leads?” Jennifer wondered.
But both Eleanora and Vandalieu were now outside the party’s search area of Niarki and the duchy’s capital, so it was only natural that they couldn’t find any leads.
If Heinz’s party had visited the cultivation villages to the south, they might have been able to learn of Vandalieu and make the connection between him and Eleanora, but when the incident had occurred at the slave-run mine, they had been near Nineland so they hadn’t had the opportunity to visit the cultivation villages.
“Well, we were unable to find the criminal who undid the champion’s seal and released the Demon King’s fragment, but our actions were not in vain,” said Diana. “Not vain for us as adventurers, or vain in the fact that we are protecting Selen.”
The Five-colored Blades had defeated well over a hundred Vampires, if including the Subordinate Vampires. They had even been acknowledged as saints by the Church of Alda.
Their pockets were quite warm with the rewards they had received for defeating the Vampires as well as the spoils of war taken from the Vampires themselves. Heinz’s promotion to S-class was becoming a reality.
The more the Vampires’ numbers were reduced by Heinz and his party, the safer the Dhampir girl Selen was.
That was why their efforts hadn’t been entirely pointless, but…
“We should change the way we’re conducting our search,” said Heinz. “I think the fact that we have no leads whatsoever means that we’ve overlooked something.”
The party was now sitting in the Adventurers’ Guild, discussing how they should conduct their search. There had been a suggestion to see the ruins of the slave-run mine with their own eyes despite having already seen the search report, and another suggestion to investigate other known locations of champions’ seals.
However, they were completely oblivious to the conversation that was going on behind them. But even if they did notice it and were interested in its contents, they would have thought that it had nothing to do with their search.
“Did you hear? They apparently appeared in Youda Village as well, the goddess’s clay-doll-samas.”
“By clay-doll-samas, do you mean those rumors? Where the spirits of dead parents or siblings appear and tell you to offer your aged livestock and seeds outside in the middle of the night? And then when morning comes, there’s a clay doll standing in their place with food and money inside?”
“Yeah, those rumors. Jeez, I wish I could get some of that luck. Can’t they visit our house?”
“… But your parents and brothers?”
“Yeah, they’re alive. Grandpa and Grandma are still going strong, too.”
“Then there’s no way that the clay dolls will come, is there? And you’re a shoemaker, aren’t you? What are you planning to offer?”
“Suppose you’re right.”
“Haah, I went out and got nothing again. I went to exterminate some bandits to find that they’d all been killed by monsters, and all of their treasure was gone as well.”
“Maybe they had a fight amongst themselves or someone took revenge on them; all of their throats were slit. That was the work of a real pro.”
“You as well? We didn’t have any luck, either. Well, our prey was Ghouls rather than bandits, though.”
“The venom on their fangs can be used for medicine, and the manes of the males are selling for more these days because they make for good materials, but… for some reason, I haven’t seen them around recently.”
“I wonder if the slave traders hired someone to do it? I’ve heard the females sell for quite a lot when trained.”
“Really? Those guys would have killed the males and taken their Magic Stones. But there weren’t any male corpses left in the remains of the village.”
“… Hey, don’t you smell something? I smell a conspiracy? I’m sure the many events that have been occurring recently are somehow connected in secret. I know this for sure.”
“Roger, have you already had something to drink? Keep your drunk conspiracies under control.”
In truth, as the adventurer named Roger had said, these things were all connected; they were all the doing of Vandalieu and his companions.
The goddess’s clay dolls were obviously Vandalieu’s work, but he had also conducted the extermination of the numerous bandit groups in passing, using them to gain Baum coins as bargaining tools, improving his Unarmed Fighting Technique skill and using them as prey to earn experience for Pete and the others.
Listening to the spirits, he had frequently encountered evil bandits who had committed murder many times, so he had ended up annihilating the bandit groups one after another despite the fact that the Adventurers’ Guild would normally send extermination requests for them.
And the fact that Ghouls had been disappearing from the Devil’s Nests of the Hartner Duchy was because Vandalieu had gone around inviting them to live in his nation after learning the locations of Devil’s Nests where Ghouls lived from the Guild receptionist who had been killed by Kanata and from Luciliano who had previously worked as an adventurer.
He had started doing this because it annoyed him that that the Ghouls were being hunted by the adventurers of the Hartner Duchy, but the Ghouls had fallen to their knees and bowed before him at the mere sight of him.
It seemed that when Ghouls saw Vandalieu, they felt as if a god had descended upon them.
His leveled-up Death-Attribute Charm skill as well as his Ghoul King and Holy Son of Vida Titles appeared to be doing their work.
After that, all there was left to do was creating tiny-scale Dungeons inside the Devil's Nests and using underhanded tricks to take them back to Talosheim. The Ghouls’ leaders would have fistfights with Vigaro or compare their magic against Zadiris’s. Once they decided who was superior, they would obey Vigaro and Zadiris as well, so there were no problems after the Ghouls’ migration.
But many of the Ghouls had been unaware that their race had been created by Vida, and were very surprised to learn this truth.
It seemed that living in isolated, individual Devil’s Nests was a problem for the Ghouls.
Incidentally, it seemed that there were no villages of Vida’s other races in the Hartner Duchy. There were apparently some in the former Sauron Duchy, but the security around the national border was strict at the moment, so Vandalieu planned to sneak into the Sauron Duchy to obtain rice seeds later when the security was more relaxed.
And so, Vandalieu acquired some “essentials,” livestock and farming crops, and visited his “mother’s distant relatives,” the Ghouls who were created by the goddess Vida, just as he had told Kasim and his friends he would.
Incidentally, while Heinz and his party were having their discussion, they learned that there were strange, small Dungeons that were difficult to even call E-class recently appearing one after another in the Hartner Duchy and decided to follow this trail.
All of them were Dungeons that Vandalieu had created with the Labyrinth Construction skill to use as a method of transport, abandoned after he was done using them. Heinz’s party wasn’t entirely off the mark, but they didn’t gain anything from this, either.
Nobody but Vandalieu could teleport from Dungeon to Dungeon, after all.
And around the start of winter, Vandalieu headed for the cultivation villages to make sure that they would get through the winter just fine.
“The equipment is packed, right?”
“Everything is organized!”
“Alright, let’s go!”
Karcan, who was mounted on horseback, left the city of Niarki with the unit under his command, Froto and two carriages of equipment.
They initially headed north before leaving the highway to take a side road south.
All in order to conceal their true destination and goal, which was to disguise themselves as bandits and attack the cultivation villages to the south.