“Annabelle, did you get the knight order involved this time because of this boy?” Dilmond asked Anya.
Anya hesitated for a little, but soon nodded her head.
“To be honest, most of the opposition to your decision was from me. Not only because Sir Ras’ condition hasn’t been good, but also because the Church’s attention is focused on us due to the commotion in the southern area.”
“Sir Dilmond, I…”
“I don’t completely trust your decision or this boy just yet. But I can guess the reason why you decided to bet on this boy.”
Anya was still confused.
Meanwhile, neither she nor Juan seemed to want to explain themselves to Dilmond.
“Sir Ras is asleep at the moment. It would be better to meet him tomorrow as you won’t be able to talk to him today even if you paid him a visit. We will be staying above ground to keep our eyes on the White Crows,” Dilmond said.
Anya nodded and led Juan and Heretia to the underground hideout.
As Dilmond stared at their backs until they disappeared from his sight, the knight next to him suddenly asked a question.
“Sir, do you know that kid?”
“No, I’ve never met him before,” Dilmond answered.
“Because he reminded me of His Majesty for a second; His Majesty also had black hair and used a flaming sword. Although it's been a long time and I might be misremembering, I think the way His Majesty used to talk was also quite similar to that kid’s. His Majesty didn’t care for formalities when he was with his comrades.”
“Pardon? I have only ever heard His Majesty being described as having blonde hair as bright as the sun?” one of the knights asked out of curiosity.
“That’s because the dogs of the Church tried to depict and fabricate His Majesty’s image to have a holy halo behind him. It’s just a misinterpretation, but they continue to describe him like that because they think it’s holier. Besides, black haired people only come from beyond the border, so there’s also the issue of maintaining their propaganda about those beyond the borders not receiving His Majesty’s blessings. In reality, His Majesty had black hair,” Dilmond said with a frown as if he remembered something unpleasant.
“Then that kid’s identity…”
“Yeah, I don’t know,” Dilmond said in confusion. “I’m not sure if it’s going to be the arrival of misfortune or of hope, but it seems like a new wind will soon be blowing through the empire.”
“If you don’t mind, can you tell us what the conversation you had with Sir Dilmond earlier was all about?” Anya hesitantly asked as she followed Juan.
As Juan turned around, he noticed that Heretia was also looking at him with a curious look.
Juan tried to give a vague answer, but then he remembered Sina Solvane’s face out of nowhere. Juan recalled how Sina said that while she was convinced that Juan was the Emperor, she couldn’t admit such a fact, since such a truth would only trample on the dreams and hopes of countless people who yearned and awaited the return of the Emperor. Juan didn’t want his vague and ambiguous answers to make more people start thinking like Sina.
“It’s nothing. I was just happy to see someone I happened to know,” Juan answered.
Although Juan had only met Dilmond once, it was still nice to see someone from his memory. Juan might have met Dilmond while he had been giving a speech, or when he was conferring knighthood, but it was not clear in Juan’s memory.
Juan made it clear to Anya that he didn’t want to talk about the topic anymore.
Anya looked as if she had more questions, but didn’t ask further.
“Anyway. Ras’ condition isn’t good?”
“No. He has been in bad condition ever since a few years ago. That was why we tried to assassinate Barth Baltic even though we knew that we were rushing. And so, we failed. As an aftermath of the incident, we have been hiding in Laus Mountain for years.”
“And you filled Ras’ void?”
“Yes, but I’m not good enough. Sir Ras taught me many lessons. To be honest, there are many others that are much better suited to fill his role than me, such as Sir Dilmond or Sir Piette. But everyone wanted the person succeeding Sir Ras to be someone young…”
“And by the looks of it, you can’t handle it.”
“I can’t help the fact that I’m not skilled enough. We need to protect the knight order in Sir Ras’ absence, and at the same time contemplate everything in order to protect him. Everyone is struggling, since Sir Ras had been leading us for the past few decades,” Anya said as she gave Juan a furtive gaze, as if hoping for Juan to fill Ras’ void.
Juan ignored Anya’s gaze and pointed at the Indeterminate Polyhedron she was holding in her hand.
“Is that gem to prepare for the trouble approaching Ras?”
“Yes. If the golem of the Ash Tower was a way to destroy the empire during Sir Ras’ absence, this Indeterminate polyhedron is one of the ways to improve his current condition.”
Juan stared at the Indeterminate Polyhedron with a suspicious look. The gem was quite unusual, even for Juan, and gave off an uncomfortable atmosphere due its energy and ability. Its description of being able to absorb dark energy seemed to be correct. The gem had properties quite similar to a deadly poison, and it was bound to do massive damage once its energy was released—although it was unknown as to how much energy it had previously absorbed.
‘It’s like a bomb of unholy energy.’
The most disturbing thing about the gem was that it was impossible to guess its origin. It was like nothing Juan had seen before, and its composition was extraordinary. As Juan strongly pursued intelligence just as much as he pursued strength, he could understand why others felt a vague anxiety due to this gem.
“How is this gem supposed to help improve Ras’ condition? Is he addicted to something?” Juan asked.
Anya had a bitter expression, and along with signs of guilt on her face.
“You’ll find out once you meet him tomorrow. We are planning to start using the Indeterminate Polyhedron from today,” Anya ended the conversation there.
Walking in the dark, Anya suddenly stopped in the middle of the long waterway and turned around, looking back and forth between Juan and Heretia with wavering eyes.
Juan wondered why Anya suddenly stopped when there was nothing around them, when he noticed Anya’s actions.
Juan opened his mouth before Anya could.
“Heretia, it’d be best if you return now.”
“Huh? Why?” Heretia protested.
“From here should be the Order of the Huginn’s hideout for real. You have no relations to them, not to mention the fact you hadn’t even known where they were in the first place.”
Heretia flinched. Juan had already noticed that she’d been lying all along. Heretia was a good liar, but not good enough to completely hide the truth.
Nevertheless, Juan didn’t mind considering the debt he owed to Harmon Helwin. Letting Heretia get away with her lies was enough to pay off the debt.
“My family has a lot of sources of information, so I had been planning to investigate it. In fact I’ve already given instructions and it would have only been a matter of time until I found out about them,” Heretia said, almost as if she was giving excuses.
“It doesn’t matter anymore. Go back.”
Heretia read the strong insistence in Juan’s tone and bit her lips.
Anya’s expression was not much different than Juan’s.
Heretia wanted to protest, but it was only thanks to Juan that she had been able to come this far with her plan.
Anya approached Heretia and led her away.
“I will get someone to escort you back. You won’t get in trouble even if the Order of the White Crow finds you, since you have nothing to do with our knight order,” Anya said.
“...I need the Indeterminate Polyhedron,” Heretia protested before she was taken away by Anya. “It was an item that I could’ve had in my possession if you hadn’t stolen it… I really need it. I can’t just go back like this.”
“You couldn’t even compensate me for cooperating with your plan, and you’re still telling me that you want the Indeterminate Polyhedron?”
“At least my plan was a better alternative than you wandering around the streets without a plan. I know I sound unreasonable, but I really need the Indeterminate Polyhedron. I’ve already sacrificed too much to give up on it.”
“Sir Ras’ condition will get worse without it,” Anya retorted with knitted eyebrows.
Hearing that, Heretia could no longer protest, and Juan read the subtle expression on her face. Heretia didn’t want Hiveden to fall, and she didn’t want to harm the Order of Huginn either. But given the circumstances, no matter what choice she made, she was bound to lose at least one of the two.
Juan decided to lift her concerns.
“Go back for now.”
“I said go back. If you really need the Indeterminate Polyhedron, I’m sure you wouldn’t mind waiting a few days. I’ll come up with a satisfactory alternative if you wait.”
Juan spent a day in the underground hideout of Hiveden. The hideout was rough, but it was big and stable as if it had been built right at the time of the city’s construction. There were also features such as complicated corridors and traps to slow down the external enemies in case of infiltration.
As soon as Juan woke up from his sleep, he was taken to Ras’ residence by Anya.
Anya’s drowsy eyes and the dark circles below them allowed a person to know that she had been busy the whole night.
Anya turned around the corners of the complicated corridor several times, and moved through a special device.
Walking beside Anya, Juan felt that these paths were made to trap Ras rather than to protect him.
Anya’s footsteps were heavy, and she didn’t say a word while moving. All she did was murmur something faintly as she looked at the morning sunlight leaking in through the ventilation hole.
“Sir Ras finds peace when there’s sun,” Anya murmured.
Juan recalled his memories of Ras last night. Ras was the youngest of the four sons Juan had adopted. Compared to his brothers, Ras didn’t spend a lot of time with Juan. He was a child who loved the warm sunlight more than anyone. Juan couldn’t believe that such a child resided in this darkness.
“Juan, this is where sir Ras Raud is,” Anya said to Juan from behind his back.
Juan quietly stared at the door slowly opening in front of his eyes. There was a faint ray of sunlight leaking through the ceiling in the middle of the darkness. The ray of sunlight leaking through at an angle was thin, just like a thread. And inside the room, someone was crouching down, reflecting the faint sunlight on the back of his hand.
The crouched man slowly lifted his head. He was wearing a thick reddish brown robe with a white mask. The sword hanging from his waist rattled as he moved, and there was a strange smell similar to that of ill patients coming from him. In one of his hands, he held the Indeterminate Polyhedron.
“Leave us alone for some time,” Juan said to Anya as he looked back.
Anya looked surprised for a moment at Juan's plea, since Juan seemed to be far from someone who knew how to say ‘please.’ Anya looked back and forth between Juan and Ras. When she saw Ras slowly nodding his head, she backed away.
Juan opened his mouth first once they were alone.
“I remember when I first met you.”
The man behind the white mask stared at Juan. His eyes were filled with darkness, completely soulless and lifeless.
“It was at the thirteenth temple of Nigrato, the God of Death. At the time, Nigrato had committed suicide to once more to strengthen his power. There were frequent incidents of his followers abducting young children and offering them as sacrificial gifts to revive him.”
Talter enjoyed a feast of vivid madness. But Nigrato was a god who indulged in slow death, decomposition of the body, and even skeletons. It was only natural that the dry desert was his home.
“You were a sacrificial offering who had been abducted. And you were buried alive in Nigrato’s underground temple. I don’t know what was going on in your mind in that place where not a single ray of light reached. Instead of being a prey to Nigrato, you chose life—by eating the other corpses and drinking the sewer water.”
Ras dropped the Indeterminate Polyhedron from his hand. His bony, white finger were trembling.
“I destroyed the temple and brought you with me. However, I never once thought that I saved you. You were the one who saved yourself. After all, your heart was too strong for someone like Nigrato to engulf,” Juan continued.
Ras was half standing.
As he stood, Juan noticed his thin, white bones through his old and tattered robe. Juan’s throat tightened upon seeing the rotting black spots on the bones.
“You had a reserved personality. Compared to your brothers, you were younger and had poor eyesight, probably because you spent a long time in the darkness in Nigrato’s temple. Your brothers enjoyed swordsmanship, but you preferred reading in the library. Although your brothers used to make fun of your gloomy personality, more than anything you liked to sit by the window where the sun shone the brightest in the library.
Before he knew it, Ras was slowly approaching Juan. Ras was tall with a height of over two meter, but his footsteps were quiet and light for someone his size.
“You were more intelligent than anyone, especially with your exquisite understanding of magic. Although you might’ve thought I didn’t know much about you, and that I didn’t spend a lot of time with you, there were things I certainly couldn’t forget about you. I could never forget the face you made when you concentrated on learning the new magic spells I taught you, and the face you made when you realized how to make a sphere of light in the dark, Ras.”
Ras knelt down in front of Juan. Being a tall man, he was still one head size taller than Juan even on his knees. Ras crouched his body as if he couldn’t even understand such height difference, and trembled. He slowly raised his hand to feel Juan’s face, and Juan let him do whatever he wanted.
Ras’ hand was hard and cold. Juan slowly reached his hand to place on Ras’ mask.
“Ras, my son.”
Ras’ movement froze. However, he couldn’t reject Juan’s touch. Juan slowly unmasked him. Behind the mask, a white human skull was revealed. Juan’s youngest son had become a dead man.
Ras began to sob as he knelt down at Juan’s feet. His face without any skin could not shed a single teardrop.