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    Chapter 138: Labyrinth (7)

    “Sigurd Sigurdson. The maliciousness of that man lies exactly there. Even though the avatars he manipulates retain their consciousness, in many cases, they are unaware that they are merely puppets moving at his will.”

    At Romaine’s explanation, Leonard asked with curiosity.

    “They retain consciousness but fail to perceive it?”

    “Yes. It’s because of the cunning methods he employs.”

    Romaine continued after a brief pause.

    “He usually manipulates the puppets in two ways. One is by drastically boosting the human ego, and stimulating the desire to become a more remarkable being, making the puppet accept itself as it is.”

    “Hmm?”

    “The problem arises after acceptance. Once the connection is made, the extensive experience and knowledge he has accumulated, along with the mad desire to become part of a greater flow, all converge, elevating the puppet’s spirit immensely. At this moment, the puppet believes it has become his accomplice, mistaking his strong desires as their own, and readily lends their body without hesitation.”

    Romaine and Leonard.

    The two were currently walking down a long corridor made of stone.

    The old stone walls, covered in moss, bore the clear marks of time, but the sporadic blue torches, seemingly just lit, illuminated the path brightly.

    “The other method is even more malicious. It involves completely tearing down a person’s self-esteem or driving them into a severe corner, making the puppet give up its sense of self entirely. The puppet then moves entirely according to his will. In extreme cases, the puppet might even come to believe that it is Sigurd Sigurdson himself.”

    Leading the way, Romaine glanced around at the fork in the road before deciding on a direction and proceeding.

    “In this case, the puppet literally lives as Sigurd Sigurdson. Of course, the process of making them give up their self-consciousness is not exactly humane, so it’s inevitable that there will be some gaps in the puppet’s memory.”

    “Gaps in memory? But how can they not realize they are being controlled?”

    “Because most of those gaps are filled the moment they fully connect with him. As I mentioned earlier, humans connected to Sigurd cannot escape the euphoria brought on by the intensely stimulated mental activity. The sensation is so strong and captivating that the disappearance of some human memories is hardly noticeable.”

    Romaine paused to let out a soft, hollow laugh.

    With each smile, his lips twisted into a dark smirk.

    “Such unaware puppets continue their delusions even after he leaves, pitifully believing themselves to be not merely human but, in fact, demons. They think they are demon lords who traverse dimensions, destined to become part of a grand tale someday.”

    “……”

    “Deeply despairing over their own insignificance, they easily become engrossed in the brief euphoria bestowed upon them by another for convenience. It’s truly a foolish thing, isn’t it?”

    Leonard, feeling a bit embarrassed by Romaine’s words that sounded like a profound self-mockery, distracted himself with a cough.

    Fortunately, before the atmosphere could become any heavier, they arrived at their destination.

    Romaine stood in front of a large door adorned with elegant relief work and said to Leonard,

    “This is my base of operations. For you to enter with me, Mr. Leo, you would need to become a member of my party. As I mentioned earlier, you simply need to agree.”

    As soon as he finished speaking, a broken text window appeared in front of Leonard.

    〚■■■ invites Mr. $ks□Rns to join the party. Do you accept?〛

    〚Accept / □ecline〛

    Startled, Leonard glanced at Romaine’s face and then nodded.

    “…I accept.”

    Then, another text window popped up.

    〚You have joined ■■■’s party.〛

    “Phew.”

    Leonard shook his head in disbelief and took a swig from his flask.

    “Well, I must say, even though you gave me a fair warning, it’s still surprising. It seems this place really is another dimension.”

    The two were currently inside the labyrinth.

    Due to Sigurd Sigurdson urgently accessing the labyrinth for some reason, Romaine was also able to successfully recover some lost connections.

    With a heavy creaking noise, the door opened to reveal another corridor lined with multiple rooms.

    Unlike the previous areas, the interior was brightly decorated, causing Leonard’s eyes to widen in surprise. Romaine strode inside and said,

    “Mr. Leo, I will grant you access to certain parts of this base. From now on, you will be free to come and go in the authorized areas.”

    “Wow, Romaine! I never imagined. This is really…!”

    Leonard looked around excitedly, his face flushed with enthusiasm.

    “Isn’t this the perfect hideaway! Can I bring others here?”

    Romaine looked back at him as if he had said something absurd.

    “We deliberately came here to escape the eyes of guardian of Delcrossand the high-ranking demon kings. If we blatantly bring women here, do you think our concealment will hold?”

    “Wouldn’t it?”

    “Of course not. Besides, with all the hideaways you have scattered across the continent, do you really need another secret place?”

    “There’s always a shortage. I don’t like to return to a hideaway I’ve used before. It smells of corpses.”

    “……”

    Romaine fell silent.

    On the outside, he appeared to be a perfectly normal young man, but in fact, this Leonard was a person with quite a brutal aspect.

    As a child, the prince used to bring small animals into the palace to torment for fun. As he grew older, he created secret hideaways and lured people to them. Most of those he brought ended up as cold corpses, buried right there in the hideaways.

    If it weren’t for his status as a prince, he would have been branded a devil worshipper or a notorious murderer and executed long ago.

    Indeed, such an extraordinary temperament must be why he is fated to become a conqueror of the continent someday.

    Had Delcross fallen into [Famine]’s hands as planned, instead of wasting time drinking, he would have been fervently engaged in wars of conquest.

    “By the way, if the labyrinth is so good at evading others’ gazes, why doesn’t the Storyteller of Dimensions flee here?”

    Leonard, who was busily opening various doors and exploring the interiors, asked as he gulped down his drink.

    “Sigurd Sigurdson cannot leave the dimension of Delcross.”

    “Why is that? Because his physical body died in Delcross?”

    “Not exactly. The problem is that the moment his soul leaves the Delcross dimension, he would face the full brunt of the Holy Emperor’s fury with all restraints removed. Didn’t we just lose one of the puppets as an excuse for briefly opening the labyrinth?”

    Sigurd Sigurdson has been a target of the Holy Emperor for years.

    The reason he has been able to preserve even his soul thus far is by clinging to the bodies of puppets and not significantly deviating from human laws. He is exploiting the constraints of the Holy Emperor.

    Now, there’s only one way for him to be free.

    He must bide his time within the few remaining puppets, waiting for the day the Holy Emperor, as a human, reaches the end of their life and dies.

    “Even that would only be possible if the lifespan of the puppets is exceedingly long. Now, only two puppets remain, and creating new ones would clearly be an act beyond human laws.”

    In that brief connection, Romaine, who had fully grasped Sigurd Sigurdson’s predicament, smiled confidently.

    It was then.

    “…Huh?”

    Leonard paused in front of a door at the end of the corridor and said,

    “Romaine, something feels off? I’m sure I’ve seen this place before.”

    “Really? That shouldn’t be possible.”

    Romaine asked, puzzled, but Leonard silently opened the door, feeling an odd sense of déjà vu as if he frequently opened and closed this door in the same manner.

    Creeeak…

    The room revealed was modest.

    Simple furniture including a small bed, and the walls were adorned with clean, pastel-toned wallpaper that conveyed a modern sensibility.

    “That wallpaper…”

    A strange memory flashed through his mind.

    The faint warmth in his hands, and those eyes looking up at him.

    Leonard stared down at his hands with a dazed expression.

    Was it a misconception? He felt certain he had strangled someone here…

    Noticing his unusual demeanor, Romaine opened his mouth with concern.

    “In the labyrinth, numerous thoughts and sentiments linger, and sometimes they can affect people. But those sentiments surely aren’t yours, Mr. Leo. This is your first time here, isn’t it?”

    “…Right. It must be.”

    It seems he confused it with one of the hideaways in Rohan.

    Leonard tilted his head, puzzled, and closed the door.

    ***

    Upon returning to the imperial palace, Seongjin immediately sought out the Holy Emperor’s office.

    Despite his siblings and Masain insisting he should rest, Seongjin persuaded them with the following argument:

    “I’ll just go to father and ask him to fix it! Won’t that solve all the problems? I won’t have to delay urgent reports, and I can continue training tomorrow without needing to rest!”

    Of course, Seongjin thought he was relatively fine, so this was just an excuse to not miss out on his training.

    Fortunately, this persuasion was quite successful.

    “Is that so?”

    “Indeed, that makes sense.”

    “Well, if it’s His Majesty the Holy Emperor.”

    Yes, the Holy Emperor’s cheat key is always an invincible logic.

    Thus, when Seongjin arrived at the imperial palace, despite the late hour, the Holy Emperor’s office was brightly lit as usual.

    Perhaps due to working late, the Holy Emperor appeared slightly tired as he greeted Seongjin. He looked at Seongjin with an inscrutable gaze for a moment before slowly calling out to him.

    “Morres.”

    “Yes.”

    “Morres.”

    “…Yes?”

    “……”

    As Seongjin responded again, puzzled, the Holy Emperor remained silent for a while.

    Just when Seongjin was starting to worry if something was amiss, the Holy Emperor suddenly gestured for him to come closer.

    As expected, a strong light poured down from above, and Seongjin could feel his condition improving instantly.

    Had the Holy Emperor seen something lacking even after Logan’s treatment?

    Moreover, the difference in condition before and after the treatment was distinctly noticeable.

    Indeed, the Holy Emperor’s power is said to be different from ordinary divine energy.

    “Sit down.”

    “Yes.”

    Seongjin sat down opposite, slightly amazed.

    Then, as if waiting for the right moment, Louis served tea at the perfect temperature.

    It seems this person had anticipated my arrival.

    ‘Well, if he roughly knows, it’ll be easier to report…’

    As he thought this and was about to take a sip of tea,

    “So, did you have a good trip to the labyrinth?”

    Seongjin almost spit out his tea in surprise.

    “…You knew?”

    As Seongjin asked with a wary face, the Holy Emperor tilted his head slightly.

    “I thought that’s what you came to report. Was it supposed to be a secret?”

    “No, it’s not that…”

    Sweating, Seongjin replied.

    Of course, it was difficult to keep anything hidden from this person, but he had hoped to avoid mentioning the dangerous part of his trip to the labyrinth.

    He had intended to report about the suspicions surrounding the Scarcepino family and the true identity of that Riccardo fellow.

    And, while he was at it, to inquire about the Oracle.

    “I apologize. It seems I’ve caused unnecessary worry again.”

    As Seongjin bowed his head in apology, the Holy Emperor responded with a serene face.

    “No, it’s alright. I wasn’t overly worried. You once told me you had swiftly dealt with the monsters in the labyrinth.”

    “…Excuse me?”

    Confused, Seongjin asked again, and the Holy Emperor’s eyes deepened as if recalling something.

    “Yes. I wonder how I could have forgotten that until now. You had clearly told me so.”

    “……?”

    And the corners of the Holy Emperor’s mouth lifted faintly.

    “You said that you have become quite strong now, so I shouldn’t worry about anything and just trust you.”

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