Chapter 515: The Place Where it Ends
A Few Days Before the Annihilation of Dard Mountain. Goldonia – Palace Conference Room.
「We will now commence the 16th war conference.」
Others take their seats following the declaration of the chairperson.
There are many people to say the least.
Four long desks are lined up in the largest meeting room in the palace with all chairs occupied and each person sitting close enough to touch shoulders.
Meanwhile, the luxurious chair positioned on a higher level than the others……the king’s chair is the only seat vacant.
Inevitably, everyone’s eyes focused on the person with the next highest authority, Kenneth.
「First of all――Count, can you give us your opinion from a financial standpoint?」
That man who Kenneth points to wearing a red-based formal uniform with gold and silver threads woven in nods.
「This war has seen losses of a magnitude greater than the likes of any in the past! Expenses too! Not to mention, the national treasury that should have been abundant is running out.」
As the man gave his impa.s.sioned speech, those around him cried out in agreement or nodded quietly to show support.
「Next,――Marquess. I would like to hear your opinion as the Vice Minister of Justice.」
The man stands up as he strokes his splendid beard.
「The biggest problem is the harm done to the n.o.bles’ independence under the name of war. To put it simply, I am afraid that authority is too concentrated on Marquess Radhalde who is merely the head of military! Although he possesses a high status, he is still a rising n.o.ble family! As n.o.bles who were conferred peerage first, we should be the respected ones……ahem. Of course, our loyalty to His Majesty is unwavering.」
The man, fearing that his words were too critical of leaders.h.i.+p, concludes with praise for the king and Goldonia.
Among the cheers, admiration and shouts of agreement, Kenneth sighs as he applauds.
「This will be the 16th complaint contest, huh?」
A mutter came from the man standing beside Kenneth and was soft enough that only the two of them could hear.
「Please refrain, Talger. This is a venerable court where n.o.bles gather. It is not a place where a servant like you with no rank can voice any concerns.」
After being chided, the man hangs his head.
He has a small stature less than 165 cm, and because he is thin, he looks even smaller.
Yet his sunken cheeks, dark bags under his eyes and unflinching gaze despite being reprimanded by his lord emphasized the man’s eeriness rather than weakness.
Talger had been with Kenneth since some time during the war.
His origins weren’t known, but as a servant in charge of ch.o.r.es with no rank or job t.i.tle, n.o.body really paid much attention to him.
Kenneth also did not appear to a.s.sign him many tasks or talk about him.
However in reality, Kenneth’s actions changed ever since Talger accompanied him like a shadow.
Kenneth was always skilled at subterfuge, but his craftiness and meticulousness increased, and he even began to meddle in the affairs of the new n.o.bles, even forcing a few to obey him against their will.
「I apologize for my rudeness at the war council, where only the n.o.blemen of the court are allowed to speak.」
His sarcastic remark breaks Kenneth’s expression with a smile.
And Kenneth wholeheartedly agrees with the statement in his mind.
While the meeting is supposed to be about war, the soldiers are naturally all on the frontlines.
Those who a.n.a.lyze the battle from the rear are new n.o.bles close to the Military Commissioner and also can’t be summoned.
Thus, all that could be done now was complain about how the war is too long, how authority was taken away, and how arrogant and detestable the Military Commissioner is.
「Then, we will ask the Military Commissioner jointly――」
Seeing the others starting to agree with him, Talger opens his mouth again.
「Because His Majesty entrusted authority to Marquess Radhalde, it doesn’t matter what we send to him. In my humble opinion, the one whose mind you should change is His Majesty.」
Kenneth does not stop his servant this time, instead he faces the a.s.sembly with a smile and responds in a calm tone.
「As if there is anybody who is brave enough to offer their opinion to His Majesty. Send the meaningless letter to Radhalde. It will obviously be ignored and we can laugh about it again. It’s just like this meeting.」
Being someone who has a shallow understanding of the military, Kenneth knew how pointless it was to hold a war conference with only civil officials.
He hosted the meeting anyways in order to bring together those dissatisfied with Erich and to present himself as the solution.
「However, I heard the state of war has been improving greatly since last month. For example, I heard they have been defeating the enemy in a series of large scale battles and they have even recaptured Altair.」
「That’s great. If we a.s.sume Goldonia’s victory is a forgone conclusion and the war ends quickly, so will Radhalde’s usefulness.」
「No, no, your thinking is naive. Radhalde will not be the only with merits of war, his followers……those vulgar new n.o.bles will also be able to throw their weight around.」
「Apparently the number of casualties have been going up the last few days. Although the enemy is on the verge of being annihilated, the losses may be in the thousands or possibly tens of thousands. It is truly truly sad for soldiers of the kingdom to die……but it could be the bit of dirt we have on the Military Commissioner.」
n.o.bles are terrible. They speak of a tragedy with the corners of their mouths curled up.
Talger whispers to Kenneth.
「A few days ago, they called for the movement of a large amount of forces and ma.s.sive reinforcements. It was reported that a new species of monster appeared in droves, but further details are not yet available……」
Kenneth smiles outwardly to conform with the others while his mind rapidly processes calculations.
With the state of war at a decisive stage, a few casualties here and there are not an issue at all.
In fact, unnecessary losses after the war has been settled will be a stain on Erich’s record, which to Kenneth, would be pleasing.
（But is it a simple blunder? Radhalde’s resourcefulness is the real deal. Would he make such a stupid mistake here?）
Kenneth’s mind spins faster.
(If I prematurely cause a fuss, there is a possibility it backfires later. I guess the best plan is to refrain from open criticism.)
Having reached a conclusion, Kenneth begins to rise and calm everyone, but Talger whispers in his ear before that.
「Instead of sitting back and observing, let’s incite the rash individuals to complain.」
Kenneth instantly senses Talger’s intention.
「If after causing a stir, and it is indeed a blunder by Radhalde, I can latch on and hammer it home……」
「Conversely, if it was actually an unavoidable disaster, let’s cut them loose and dismiss their remarks as foolish condemnation.」
Kenneth nods and runs his eyes across the room to decide his target.
The meaningless meeting ends and Kenneth leaves the conference room.
Kenneth begins his monologue out loud and completes the rest of the sentence internally.
He did not want to burden himself with the unnecessary risk that comes with leaking information.
（I have provided various accommodations to Hardlett……and no reply. He quite resembles Radhalde.）
He snorts at the thought.
（The same type……yet he will not be promoted any higher if he continues to obey his superior, Radhalde. I even told him that he should follow me, a person without connection to the military, if he wanted to aim for the top of the army. For him not to understand that, in the end, he’s just a brainless boar, huh? Perhaps I overestimated him.）
Kenneth nods so subtly that n.o.body from behind would notice.
（Victory will definitely boost Radhalde’s reputation. But I have time to plot and scheme during his absence.）
He lets out a chuckle that is indistinguishable from a cough to clear his throat.
That is when an unrestrained voice calls out to him.
「Marquess Baldwin. Do you have some time to spare?」
Being addressed so unexpectedly made Kenneth’s heart almost leap out of his chest, however he suppressed his reflex to show only a slight tremble in his shoulders and turned around with a smile.
「My, my……if it isn’t Rosario-dono. It’s not very kind to suddenly sneak up behind someone.」
Kenneth greeted the individual with a polite bow and smile but clicked his tongue in his mind.
Rosario――the woman beloved by the king. The king’s love toward her is so strong it can be considered an insanity.
Thus she had to be treated as carefully as one would handle fragile gla.s.s.
Brutish behavior would naturally incur the wrath of the king.
However an overly ingratiating att.i.tude will create suspicions of an ulterior motive and also incur the king’s wrath.
It may also be dangerous to simply talk to her in an unpopular area like this.
「You’ll catch a cold in such a dimly lit place. If we return to the meeting room, you can have a cup of tea. Why don’t we move there?」
Kenneth tries to skillfully use his words to lead her somewhere people frequent to remove doubts of a secret meeting between the two of them, but Rosario shakes her head.
「I do not want to trouble you to that extent. Talking while standing is enough. Marquess Baldwin, I heard that you held a meeting regarding the war……and I heard from the person beside you that we are near victory, and we have also suffered great losses again today. Explaining to a woman like me may not be the most entertaining, but I don’t mind if you keep it simple. I’d appreciate it, if you please.」
Kenneth groans internally.
（I want to tell her to ask a soldier in the palace, but for the conference held in the meeting room, the representative is me…… It would be an easy task to deceive her, but if that displeases the king……argh, what a bothersome woman.）
As asked by Rosario, Kenneth starts describing the situation on the frontlines with not much detail.
But probably because it was information she already knew, her expression began to grow bored.
And then it happened.
「If I may.」
Talger drops his knee to the floor.
「We have just received word that Lord Hardlett was killed in action during the most recent encounter――」
The source of the yelp was Rosario.
Her eyes widen in shock and terror, and her breathing becomes faster.
「――however it has been confirmed to be a hoax. I am here to warn the individuals in the palace to be wary of other such disturbance strategies by the enemy.」
「I-is that so? A-ahem.」
Rosario clears her throat to regain her composure.
「I’ll be careful then. I apologize for taking time when you’re busy.」
By the time the woman walked away, Talger and Kenneth were already looking at something else.
South Yuguria. On the way to Poron.
My body shudders at the sudden chill in the air.
「Aegir-sama, did you just e.j.a.c.u.l.a.t.e?」
「’course not. I just felt a little cold.」
I caress Celia’s cheek and kick open the door of a house.
「No enemies. No insects either. There are three skins.」
I pick up the skins which have fallen in front of the fireplace.
To be precise, they are skins and bones.
They are the poor sacrifices who have had their insides sucked out by spiders.
The skins are taken away and dumped in a hole on the outskirts of the village.
It may not make sense to burn this place since it’s empty, but it also serves as a burial.
「This village as well?」
The voice belonged to Erich.
Dard mountain and the hole in it disappeared and the insects stopped appearing.
We stopped fighting and immediately withdrew, and after starving the insects to death for two nights, they were gone from the east.
The same method was used to halt the insect’s attack in the west, and after slowly reuniting, we started to make our way to the final base in South Yuguria, Poron.
「It seems they wiped out everything from people to livestock and even goblins nesting in a nearby forest.」
I shake the goblin, which still stinks as skin, a few times and throw it in the pit at my feet.
Erich’s nose also turns up in disgust.
「Nothing can be done if that kind of monster appears without warning.」
An enemy fort can be seen the moment we left the village.
Although there is a South Yuguria flag flying high, we don’t order the troops to prepare for battle.
It’s because of the giant hole in the center of the fort.
「It must be the work of an insect hydra. There are traces of teeth on the edges of the hole.」
「I don’t want to think about it.」
Erich waves his hand to discourage me from expanding on the topic and orders his soldiers to search the building.
Soldiers initially invaded cautiously with spears at the ready, but after ten minutes, one of them waved at us from the highest point of the fort.
「Even a st.u.r.dy military base was destroyed. This might actually be the end of South Yuguria, with not a single person left.」
Erich says with a mix of discomfort and fear on his face.
I smack Schwartz’s a.s.s and have him climb up the hill.
I survey the area from a better vantage point.
Houses, the feudal lord’s mansion, forts, castles, and various other buildings either have holes in them or are burnt from being set on fire.
On the other hand, golden fields of ripened wheat, wells, food storehouses and places which people could not hide in remain untouched.
「Unlike humans, bugs don’t plunder. They solely eat creatures.」
We quiet down and listen closely.
Not even a bird’s chirping could be heard. The only living beings here are us and the soldiers.
「This is the land of death. South Yuguria is gone.」
While it’s easier on us with no enemies around, it feels creepy when we’ve come this far and there is absolutely no activity.
「In any case, let us go to Poron. At this rate, we’re only going to find skins.」
I say dejectedly as I see more skins of humans on top of the hill.
「You’re right. By the way, on a separate note……can’t you do something about your horse?」
Erich points at Schwartz.
「I’m embarra.s.sed. I thought about cutting it off too.」
Schwartz was previously inflicted by the caterpillar’s poison, but recovered at the same time as Pipi with the help of Natia.
But even after the poison stopped threatening his life, some serious side effects persisted.
Schwartz neighs as his one-meter long p.e.n.i.s dangles between his groin. It will probably brush against the ground depending on how he walks.
「Look at that, it’s huge……」
Soldiers, especially the female ones, swallow their saliva audibly.
「It wouldn’t be a big deal if he was the only one affected.」
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Pipi wobbles over to me.
The women Erich waved to were a mother in her mid thirties and her 16 or 17 year old daughter.
There are countless kiss marks on the mother’s neck and the daughter’s gait is unnatural.
Eating both a mother and her daughter is truly intolerable as a n.o.ble. I envy you.
Neighing draws my attention to Schwartz who is walking away from a mare with his head held high as usual.
That horse was saved because she ran to the end of a cave.
「Isn’t it nice that everyone found suitable partners?」
Sekrit jokes as she tries to stifle her laughter.
A tongue nervously licks my arm.
「It’ll be fine. I will be back soon.」
My partner is……half snake.
In terms of species, she is in the same family as lamia, but her top half is that of a snake and her bottom half is human.
Honestly, I wasn’t sure about her, but since people around me were saying thanks for saving them, saying how they didn’t want to separate and doing it like crazy, I embraced her out of pride.
She was surprisingly pleasant, and her especially large mouth and technique with her long tongue was incomparable.
「Oh shut up!」
I yell at the soldiers to erase their gossiping and run off toward Poron.
「Say something if you’re alive! War is the least of your worries!!」
I stand in front of the gate and shout loudly.
I remain vigilant, somewhat expecting an arrow to come flying if the city happens to contain survivors, but I don’t get a response.
「Alright, do it.」
At Erich’s instructions, the siege team bang on the gate with hammers.
Despite the loud racket, n.o.body replied.
The demotion continued for 20 minutes and the gate collapsed.
「There are no signs that the insects invaded either.」
Erich and I exchange looks and then let the cavalry run throughout the city.
Even if they were planning an ambush, they’d have to react if we do this.
The cavalry let out battle cries as they charged into the city, threw rocks at a few houses to make noise, circled the perimeter and then returned.
「No enemy soldiers or civilians in sight!」
Erich puts a hand on his chin and thinks.
If the enemy were aiming for a surprise attack, they should have rushed out by now.
The cavalry ran all over the city. If pots of oil were thrown, they could have burned down the city.
The city isn’t damaged enough to be attacked by insects.
If people shut themselves in and fended off the insects, it doesn’t make sense that the turrets or city wall would be unscathed.
Moreover, it’s unbelievable that not a single human skin was found.
「This is a report from the scouts. The northern citadel as well as the palace are deserted!」
「That means……they ran?」
I look at Leopolt.
「South Yuguria does not have a stronghold other than Poron. Abandoning this place is equivalent to abandoning the nation. Of course, if their own lives are more important, escape is also a realistic option.」
I think back to the last time I saw Wilhelmina’s face.
She did not have the expression of someone who was going to run away.
「Let’s take a break and think.」
I drop the bucket in a nearby well.
I click my tongue after the bucket makes a hollow clunk sound from hitting the bottom.
I walk to a different well and throw the bucket down again.
That is when Leopolt and I look at each other.
It’s not unusual for a poor village to have an unattended well, but this is a full-fledged city with walls.
It’s unthinkable for two or three wells to be left dry.
「Celia, come look.」
Celia hangs onto the rope of the bucket and jumps down the well, kicking the walls as she smoothly descends to the bottom.
「I’ve reached the bottom! There is no moisture, let alone water……ah, a grate on the side! I feel wind coming from it!」
「An air vent……if all the wells in this area are like this, then the center is……」
Leopolt connects the wells with an imaginary line and follows it to the end to a certain building.
At first glance, it appears to be a large one-story building acting as a supply warehouse.
After rummaging through the inside, I found a crack in the floor.
I strike the floor hard with my Keravnos.
The floor splits open loudly, revealing a big metal door.
「I see, the entire city crawled underground?」
Erich knocks on the metal door.
「This size……there won’t be a measly ten or twenty people like before. Let’s wrench it open right away. It’ll probably take some time to――」
「Pochi, do it.」
Pochi, who broke through the roof and flew in, digs his claws into the door.
The metal door dents greatly and then falls inward from its own weight.
I step over the crooked door and proceed inside.
The top bra.s.s of South Yuguria, including Wilhelmina, is believed to be in this underground s.p.a.ce, but――
An intense smell of death wafted in my nose.
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