“They’re both part of a dark guild…? How would you even know something like that?!”
Maho was practically snarling at Longmann, unwilling to believe that the two belonged to the same organization the kingdom looked upon with such hostility. When Longmann replied to her, he had the tone of someone attempting to educate a failing student.
“You know how His Highness called us to an audience with him once we beat that lieutenant? Well, that’s when we first found out about this dark guild.”
“I already know that!”
“Hey now, wait and listen. We partied up right after that, true, but that was also when I got called on personally to meet some big-shot, alone. They were nice enough to give me more info about the dark guild.”
“But… Why did they just call for you…?”
“Well, I can’t say I know for sure. Maybe I’m just the most reliable member of the whole party?”
Maho couldn’t agree less with his sentiment. For her, it was much more likely that Longmann had just been the easiest to talk to at the time.
There was no one else in the party who enjoyed their stay in this world quite as much as Longmann did. Mentally, he was more at peace than the rest of them. Contrary to his take on the matter, Maho had always regarded the kingdom with a fair share of apprehension. She would have been much more difficult to talk to, no doubt.
“Anyway, that’s how I got my hands on the name of the guild. Info on its members, too. Well, not that they had much on them, but still.”
That was when Maho finally realized why neither she nor Yuuto had heard anything about this. Had Yuuto been told that the dark guild member he would be dealing with was, in fact, a little girl, he wouldn’t have had it in him to fight. He was too kind of a person to do that. Similarly, Mary was a veritable well of benevolence. She would have been given the same treatment.
“Well, there wasn’t much information all around, but there was one member they knew way more about than the rest. And guess what? She matches little Laladi to a tee.”
‘Did someone sell Lala out?! This is the kingdom, so it has to be… Ritter! Damn that depraved whore of a knight! She blabbed about Lala to get revenge! Because Lala got so much private time with the Master…!’
Longmann’s confession was all Laladi needed to surmise that one of her comrades (pfah!) had ratted her out. After all, if any other guild member had managed to spend this much time with the Master, she would’ve done the same. She would’ve found a way to disturb their fun.
“I wasn’t really sure, not until now. But that fight with the ogre matches with the rest of the info! If there’s some little girl out there who can control plants like that, it has to be Laladi!”
Maho didn’t know what to say to that. The more she thought about it, the less she could relieve the two of their alleged association with some inhumanly cruel dark guild. Laladi had even killed the ogre in a gratuitously appalling manner and let his body melt away while it was still drawing breath. She hadn’t even let her brow twitch; that’s how coldly she had observed the process. Who else would be capable of such a thing but a member of some particularly villainous guild?
“Is… Is that true? Master? Laladi?”
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Yuuto moved their way, leaning on Mary’s shoulder for support. Not moments ago, he had been knocked out by the ogre, and though Mary was already letting her rejuvenation magic wash over him, he had yet to recover fully.
He swayed where he stood, but hadn’t let that stop him from directing his question at the two. A quick breath was drawn and a gaze cast the Master’s way. A hint of melancholy had seeped into his smile.
“Why…? Please, just say it isn’t…”
Even Maho’s imploring words were met with a fixedly desolate smile.
“…Phew, this is getting a little gloomy.”
The smothering silence made Laladi’s quip all the more audible. Now, with everyone’s attention on her, she only looked on with a half-lidded gaze that gave away her exasperation.
“Master? We can say it now, can’t we?”
Laladi looked up at the Master, waiting for his judgment. The Master nodded, seemingly aware that there were few alternatives available.
The sight of his answer let Laladi’s lips stretch out in a wide grin as she set her eyes on the party of heroes. She made some distance between herself and them, as if already willing to display her antagonism.
“Well, that guy’s useless, but he’s right. Might have some brains after all. Although you probably wouldn’t have caught on if Ritter didn’t want to get in Lala’s way.”
“Whoa there, Missy. Don’t go tooting your horn just yet.”
“Hah! It wouldn’t matter, either way. Not when it comes to dealing with rabble like you.”
“Hahah! Always got a harsh word for me lil’ Laladi, don’t ya? But I never said I was on my own, did I?”
Longmann laughed and snapped his fingers. Only then did Maho become aware of the new arrivals that surrounded them. Their numbers were absurd, really. Close to thirty, by her guess. They came in droves, every last one of them wearing a smile that bordered on the obscene.
“What?! Are these people…?!”
To Maho’s shock, several of the faces she spotted in the growing throng seemed familiar to her. On the other hand, Laladi didn’t have a clue as to who they were. There was little room for anyone but the Master in her heart, after all.
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“What, you know those people?”
“Don’t you remember, Laladi?! They’re the villagers! The ones who asked us to defeat the ogre! Can’t you see that?!”
She was right. These were indeed the same people who had ushered the hero party into the village along with the dark guild in their company.
“Oh, these aren’t villagers. They’re all knights – some from grey guilds, some straight from the kingdom.”
“Oh, Master. You’re so dreamy…”
Maho’s reaction to Longmann’s boastful declarations was one of shock. Laladi couldn’t care less. Once she’d looked around and seen all the surrounding faces, she had immediately grown bored and chosen to look at the Master’s face instead. Her intoxication with his face was in its first stages.
Maho felt a burst of anger at Laladi’s uncaring demeanor. She was, after all, the one who should have been the most concerned by all of this. Realizing that the girl didn’t have the slightest interest in Longmann and his crew, Maho decided she had no choice but to ask the questions herself.
“What happened to the real villagers?”
Longmann wasn’t the one who answered. No, the answer came from the self-proclaimed village chief.
“Oh, them. They’re long gone now; we killed ‘em dead. Clowns wouldn’t leave when we told ‘em we wanted ta borrow their village for a lil’ bit, see? There were some women there, too. Ain’t had that much fun in a good while.”
“Wha…?! Y-You can’t honestly believe that you’ll just get away with this…!”
“Well, sorry ta disappoint. Ya know who made this request? His Highness the prince ‘imself.”
Maho was at a loss for words. Kingdom knights and grey guild knights had worked together to destroy a whole village, all at the behest of doing away with a dark guild. And with such atrocious methods, no less.
“Aren’t some of you supposed to be actual knights?! What happened to protecting the people?!”
“Hold your horses, lil’ lady. If you’re really lookin’ for noble knights straight outta storybooks, then what’re ya lookin’ at the Prince Faction knights for? I’m sure the Princess Faction’ll have plenty o’ knights like that ta spare, though.”
The response Maho’s indignant cry had evoked was accompanied by chortling from its speaker, one of the men who surrounded them. The idea that the kingdom knights had never been the type to protect innocent civilians in the first place threw her for a loop. If the man was to be believed, then these knights of the ‘Prince’s Faction,’ or whatever it was called, had no scruples when it came to slaughtering the common folk.
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“W-What about you, Mary?! Can you really stand by and let that happen?!”
Judging that there was nothing she could say or could have said to change either Longmann’s mind or his party’s as they surrounded the Master, she instead turned to Mary, who still stood among them. There was a chance that she would be willing to stand by her and put a stop to this lynching.
“…I certainly can’t stand that so many innocent villagers were put to the blade.”
Mary averted her eyes as she spoke, her shoulder still supporting Yuuto’s weight. Just as Maho thought she had gained an ally during this dilemma, barely another moment could pass before Mary underwent a complete change.
“However! I’ve been told that there are none in the dark guild Yelquchira who practice the Angel Faith! Moreover, I’ve heard that some senseless new cult has risen from their midst!”
Mary’s eyes snapped wide open, and she stared with light blazing behind them. There was no trace of her former kindness in her glare, not a hint of the serenity she’d upheld until this very moment. There was nothing left but a rabid, aggressive form of fanaticism.
“There is only one faith that can exist in this world, and that is the Angel Faith! Compared to it, that other religion that has rivaled our kind for so long is nothing! Neither is that ridiculous new cult, whatever it might be! Let all their adherents be felled, every one of them!”
To say that Maho was taken aback by Mary’s complete transformation would be an understatement. This was the same woman who had taken to their wounds with geniality and a warm, healing light. She could no longer find it within herself to say which Mary was the true Mary; the kind one she had known thus far, or the raving woman whose pupils had dilated to their utmost degree.
“Oh, boy. We have someone back home who’s just like that, all smiles and maturity. Aren’t fanatics just the worst?”
The sight of the maddened woman was making Laladi weary. She reminded her far too much of Anat, who would randomly flip a switch and go on endlessly long, nonsensical rants.
Anat was usually kind (rather, she pretended to be kind), but always locked herself up in her prayer room whenever something tugged at her spirit. Once inside, she would shower the Master with excessive thanks and exaltations, as well as prolonged proclamations of her love for him. She also had the occasional penchant for dragging one of her fellow members along with her, something that had sparked a good deal of ire in them.
At least Laladi could agree that the Master was a far more deserving object of worship when pitted against those weakling angels.
“I’ll be frank; I don’t care much whether our dear Laladi and the Master are part of a dark guild or not. What I do find unforgivable, however, is that they attach themselves to a different faith…! The Great Angel will never forgive them for this!”
“Well, Lala just likes it better when she can move at the Master’s beck and call, so she doesn’t really need the Angel Faith…”
“Then may the heavens strike you down! I will act in the Great Angel’s stead and judge you for your sins!”
“Yikes… Lala called it; these fanatics are as creepy as they come…”
Laladi looked on, her face on of pure distaste.