Chapter 23 - The Hero's Dream Of Despair 1
「Oy, listen to this. It turns out that the Hero-sama, or rather, that Hero fellow had underhanded connections with the Demonkin. He killed the previous Demon Lord and became the Demon Lord himself. There are outrageous rumors circulating everywhere right now, but it's turned into a big deal behind the scenes.」
「Riiight, I've heard, I've heard. That revolt in the slums from before as well, it was actually Hero-sama, no, would that be Demon Lord right now? Whatever, it's a pain, Hero will do. Turns out that rebellion was a result of the Hero going "Since the residents of the slums are like garbage, make them all slaves already." and unreasonably pushing for it. I feel sorry for the King since the person who defeated the Demon Lord is said to be that Hero, there is probably no one in the kingdom strong enough that can be dispatched after him.」
「That Hero who became a Demon Lord and the King who bitterly issued that edict as well, they don't seem like they'll compensate those guys for falling into slavery. And it's not like those enslaved guys committed any crimes in particular, they were just a bunch of commoners simply unable to afford food with the sudden price inflation. Truly the scum of the earth.」
「Yeah, having to address a guy like that respectfully just makes me want to throw up.」
The Royal Capital at night, in a bar not far from the main street.
The rain that poured from the dull sky was as if a god tripped over a bucket of water above the clouds.
(Fuckers, talking shit as they please...)
Hidden under a hood deep enough to obscure the eyes I observed the surroundings, while slowly sipping away at the remains of the low alcoholic drink made from a lemon-like fruit juice diluted with water.
What could be heard around me were complaints about the rain making hunting impossible and the wives unwilling to raise men's allowances. I didn't consume enough alcohol to get drunk so my thoughts turned introspective instead.
That night in a bar was half a year after the very day I killed the Demon Lord with these hands. During that period wherever I went, I could only hear the rumors about the Hero, me, change into the absolute worst kind, their contents deteriorating by the day.
In this different world, the capital, a place that I had probably stayed in the longest, was already completely hostile territory. The day when I began my journey making a big deal about being the Hero had almost become like a dream.
I changed my appearance to look like the opposite gender with [Mirror Sword of the Heavenly Evil Spirit]. If I didn't make it so no one could tell it was me, then I wouldn't be able to walk in public. Actually, if there was no one who could become an ally, then I probably wouldn't be able to get inside the city in the first place.
By this point, I suffered uncountable of attacks by those who were once allies.
And I couldn't even make sense of the reasons behind all those assaults.
The warrior of great moral integrity that who said his dream of becoming the number one Hero couldn't be fulfilled while I was around.
The dancer that was like a reliable sister during the journey who said it was both for the dream of the warrior, her husband, and for the huge bounty that was on my head.
The awkward magician that was concerned about his surroundings during the journey who said that he needed my body as a research specimen in order to leave a mark in history.
The merchant whom I had helped to develop merchandise with modern knowledge who aimed for my life due to being troubled by the possibility of me collapsing their monopoly by imparting that very modern knowledge to other merchants.
The unsociable but animal-loving martial artist on a journey of self-improvement who tried to kill me to raise his level.
The former assassin sent by the royal family saved from numerous crises by his spying ability who spat out without any hesitation that they were to kill me by royal decree while looking at me with cold eyes.
The villagers that were saved along the way who looked at me with eyes clouded by greed as they asked for forgiveness for selling me out for a reward.
And finally, the kind-hearted Saintess that was always there to encourage and cheering someone up who branded me as an "Enemy of God" and "Someone that became the Demon Lord" never divulging the reason for her betrayal even when asked directly.
The Kingdom, the Empire, the Beastdom, and the Republic, the countries that I supposedly protected all became hostile.
A great number of people accepted the government proclamations without any doubt and whenever they found out I was the Hero, they drove me away with curses and stones like a leper.
But even now, I didn't want to believe that I was betrayed and I wanted to bawl my eyes out.
Hiding myself as a criminal would, after great pains, I made it to the Royal Capital while surrounded by the sea of hostility. All the pain and sadness almost made me give up numerous times.
Even so what kept my breaking heart in one piece was her, the Demon Lord's, promise.
[I'm sure you'll return to your home, to your family.]
...... That was the promise I had with the girl that had me purposefully kill her.
She was a girl with many things of note.
A timid liar, a coward full of bluster, an obstinate person.
Even when laughing heartily, she was a crybaby.
Even when arrogant and selfish, she was sensitive to how I felt.
A girl that added color to this monochrome world with her overbearing hatred.
I touched the small hemp bag that hung from my neck.
Inside it was her magic core containing enormous, Demon Lord-befitting, amount of mana. The core was to the Demonkin what a heart would be for humans.
The Hero summoning magic required a vast amount of mana.
My summoning consumed the antique treasures passed down within the royal family. Despite gathering many of them together, they had their mana completely consumed and seemed to become absolute junk.
To make up for all that required mana she exchanged her life and handed that magic core over to me. It was something I had always pursued so that I could return to my own world.
It belonged to that girl who, while saying there would be no hard feelings whether it was her win or loss, allowed herself to be killed on purpose at the very end.
[It's a shame, it doesn't seem that I will be going with you to your world. Well, still, it's fine. I had always been getting things from Kaito, with this, as far as my debt goes, we'll be all even. I've said before that I am a woman that properly returns what's borrowed, haven't I.]
「Eh you... You're always overdoing it.」
[I'm sure you'll return to the previous world, to your home, to the place where your family is. However, I'd be offended by being forgotten immediately, so for a while live whilst you cry. Make an ultra splendid grave for me and choke on tears while thinking of me. Kaito, because you're always thinking about your family in your own world I'm going to monopolize on you for the time being! Kukuku, ah, like this even death is unexpectedly something to look forward to.]
「Looking forward to? Even when you're a coward? You're doing a very bad job lying right now.」
[Right, there's one more thing I wish from you afterward. Live whilst thinking you can die at any moment and finish any and all unfinished business without leaving any unresolved matters behind. I'm giving you my life, if you say goodbye to a life that looks like you randomly threw it away midway through, I absolutely won't forgive you. So prepare yourself since I'll properly watch over you. If you show me a display of a fool, then I'll either be reborn and give you a right smacking or start haunting you as a ghost!]
「It's fine whether you're born again or haunting me, just show yourself, ok?」
The voice of the girl was scorching the inside of my ear and it was losing strength each time she replied.
Several lines of our final conversation passed through my mind.
She was a selfish girl to the end. And I, who had allowed that, was the worst of men.
More so, looking at how I was now the target of the people whose request of "Defeating the Demon Lord" I fulfilled like that.
Coming this far I had absolutely no way of refuting the words "Great Fool" that the girl called me with. Truly, I was an idiotic, foolish, crappy piece of shit. By the time I noticed, it was all too late and I could only regret my choices.
Precisely because of that, I had to protect the promise made at the end no matter what happened. To fulfill my vow to the Demon Lord and achieve the reunion with my family. That was my only support right now.
Before I noticed, the liquor in my glass was gone.
「Hey, missy, you look pretty grim there. Why not drink with us? We'll make it our treat if you agree.」
「...... No thanks. Oy, I'll leave the money owed here.」
「Ah, OY!! Tch-, what's with that, that's no fun at all.」
Brusquely rejecting the invitation of the generous drunkard I left the bar with money for my glass of liquor on the table.
Once I went outside, the robe was struck by large, bursting waterdrops and started to have a hard time keeping the rain out.
This sort of weather was predicted in advance so the pedestrians were scarce.
For now, having sobered up with the use of the [Herb Insect Wing Sword], I headed to the nearest entrance to the slums. The people I had saved from the monsters when the wall collapsed during the Wall Eaters attack lived there. They guided me into the royal capital and had provided a hiding place to return the favor from that time.
I had originally intended to return to the royal capital for a couple of days and infiltrate the royal castle on the following night. My aim was the room I was summoned to by the ritual.
The King, Queen, and the knight corps seemed to be absent from the city.
I kind of wanted to ask them why did the Kingdom betray me and whether they really believed the talk about me becoming the next Demon Lord after defeating the previous one. However, in the end, I had prioritized returning to my own world more.
「...It was a good call to sober up fully, huh?」
Without having it look unnatural I left the route leading straight to the hideout and entered a nearby alley instead.
Of course, I was cautious not to expose my original path beforehand.
「Wha-, do you have any business with me? I don't really recall giving anyone reasons to pursue me.」
For an instant, I forgot I was disguised as a woman and almost ended up speaking as myself.
I asked my question after leading them all the way to a street deserted of people. It was directed at the individuals that shadowed me ever since I left the bar without ever getting too close or falling behind too much.
After that silence fell upon the alleyway.
Just as I was thinking of confronting due to their refusal to reply, a pair of men dressed completely in black from head to toe showed themselves.
「Madam, might you be Hero-sama? If you are, -!!」
Combining [Godspeed], the most advanced skill in Haste, and [Ground Shrink], the most advanced skill in Sky Walk, I moved behind the man before he managed to blink and pressed [Twin-Edged Blade of Light and Shadow] against his neck.
「Who told you this? There shouldn't be a single person in this city able to tie the Hero to this appearance.」
「P-please wait! We're under orders from the Princess!! We're here only to confirm the truth behind the rumors of a girl that looked like the Hero!!」
Looking from that angle, I certainly did have a memorable face. And also if my memory didn't fail me, those guys should be the ones attending the Princess as bodyguards.
「Alesia, the Princess of the Kingdom that betrayed me, eh? What use would she have for me after so long?」
「T-the Princess has not betrayed you!! We are your allies that know your wish!! We were sent to brave danger so you can return to your world as per the original accord!!」
「His and her majesties used the fact that the Theocracy proclaimed you the next Demon Lord to deflect the unrest provoked by their tyrannical rule onto you. The Princess has been stricken with grief over this! Also, the summoning ritual is the royal family's secret. Anyone can prepare the offerings for the ceremonial magic, however, the ritual itself has only been passed down through oral tradition!! The Princess' assistance will surely be something of use to you!!」
That certainly struck where it hurt.
I wasn't well-versed in magic itself. I couldn't actually use magic on my own, all the magic spells and skills I had access to were fully tied to the Soul Sword.
Therefore, if the things didn't end up like this, then it would have been fine to ask the royal family directly for the magic to send me home.
Right then my plan was to sneak into the library of the royal castle to search for information. However, if I was to believe what this man had said, then any such attempt was meaningless.
「...So, what did you intend to do with me once you found me?」
「If-, if you would like, I'd like to bring you to see the Princess, even right now if required and... before that, to our safehouse. Don't worry, we are your friends.」
Could I trust them?
I hadn't met directly with the Princess ever since we parted as I left for the final battle with the Demon Lord.
Due to her standing it was likely that she couldn't openly go against the decisions of the King and Queen.
So it might just be possible for me to escape this life on the run I've been leading until now that made me feel like I had been trapped in a bog.
「Please, believe me, the Princess was really anxious for the Hero-sama's life. It's exactly because of this that we were able to make contact with Hero-sama so swiftly. The Princess has said that she would like to help Hero-sama.」
Those words unintentionally made me struggle for breath.
Please believe me, the vision of myself pleading that same thing uncountable number of times overlapped with this man before me.
「...... I get it. Take me with you.」
Seeing the Soul Sword removed from his neck and dissipated, the man became visibly dumbfounded and relaxed.
「Th-then, this way. From here on, we will head towards the building within the royal castle where Hero-sama was summoned. From there we planned to jump to the safehouse with a teleport stone and have you wait until the preparation for the Return Hero ceremonial magic is done. Since we don't really know who might be watching, I'd like to avoid actions that would expose our movements.」
Normally, teleporting in or out of a settlement was impossible anywhere bigger than a village. It's because numerous magic tools were usually buried within its boundaries as a security measure.
Without them, enemies would have easy time launching surprise attacks and raids during a war.
However, there was a place in the royal capital without such protection. That was the building in the royal castle that I was summoned in. After all having those magical tools there would interfere with Hero Summoning. That's why in the effective sphere of the building, the method of burying magic tools that disrupt with teleportation was abandoned in favor of procedures that allowed them to be set up and dismantled quickly when a need arose.
「If that is the case, I agree.」
I wanted to leave my thanks to the people that guided me into the city but in the end, I gave up on that. As long as I was treated as the world's biggest evil, just having connections with me was a dangerous thing in itself. That being the case, it would be better if this matter ended without them being linked to me.
I followed behind the men dressed in black and soon we reached the grove of mixed trees in the royal capital suburbs.
「Oy, aren't we going to the royal castle?」
「We are. Deep in this glade, there is an entrance to a secret passage that leads directly into the summoning area of the royal castle.」
Having heard that I followed them deep into the trees, soon the two of them began investigating the ground. They found the entrance to the passage in less than ten seconds and raised the square-shaped stone slab.
We were welcomed by a gust of old, stale, damp air and a thick carpet of dust.
The stairway paved with stone and the atmosphere created a spectacle truly suiting the very concept of a secret underground tunnel.
「This way. Please, watch your step.」
The men lit the candle lamps that they took out from their bags and slowly descended down the stairs.
From there we continued down a level path for a while. Only noise carried by the stagnant air were the footsteps of the three of us.
After a while, we finally arrived at a dead end. We pushed the ceiling from the inside and I found myself in a nostalgic place, the room that I was summoned into.
「Aah, Hero-sama, you're safe!!」
And in front of me, just like when I was summoned, I saw Princess Alesia with a smile like a flower.
Swaying, silver hair that extended to her shoulders gave her looks a fragile impression that hadn't changed much from the time we first met.
She was two years younger than me, but in these three years we have been apart she had grown taller and her body had matured noticeably. However, the impression she gave off hadn't changed much through all this time.
「Hero-sama, are you injured anywhere?」
「A-, ah, I'm fine. You did well to know it was me with just one look......」
「Your new appearance? I have heard before of the power that the [Mirror Sword of the Heavenly Evil Spirit] holds.」
Saying that she laughed with a familiar smile.
That was a smile that didn't differ one bit from the one I knew. It made me exhale with relief.
Even though I had faith following all the way to here, I had still thought that perhaps the Alesia in front of my eyes, having pride in her magic skills, was the same as the other light magic users and was aiming for my life.
「Though there are various explanations that I would like to offer you, we don't have time for that right now. Please use the teleport stone. This is the only room in the royal capital it will work in when provided mana.」
Saying that she handed me a semi-transparent, yellow crystal.
It was something that I had personally used many times.
「Let's talk after teleporting. I'll teach you the procedure for the ceremonial magic required to return at the destination.」
I started pouring mana into the teleport stone that I had received and it started to shine in response.
As mana flowed into the magical array, the teleport formation covered the ground as if to swallow the whole room.
In that instant,
「Fufu, truly, an altruistic fool.」
An ominous sneer reached my ears.
Before I could respond as the light was completely obscuring my vision I could for one last time see the Princess' face, this time free of the mask.
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