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    [Ha ha ha.]

    As Nate lifted his sword and suddenly stopped, beginning to laugh quietly, the octopus-like creature stared at him in confusion. Its swollen, crumpled eyes swaying in apparent unease.

    Nate shattered his Nutcracker and slowly approached the deformed octopus. His laid-back demeanor was as though he was taking a stroll, yet it appeared more oppressive than when he was swinging [Calamity], making the octopus shiver unconsciously.

    [Speak.]

    He extended his hand, gently touching the creature’s eyeball. The octopus couldn’t dare to lower its eyelids, and only retched a sob in response.

    [Why did your king use you as a scapegoat?]

    Why couldn’t he, himself, have choked the life out of this creature?

    Why should he let this creature go?

    Nate speculated it was likely related to the schemes of [Famine], who sent the octopus here.

    Upon hearing this, the deformed octopus, forgetting its position, retorted loudly:

    [Scapegoat?! This body, this body received the [blessing] bestowed personally by the Lord of [Famine]. How dare you distort his profound intentions!]

    From its overly sensitive reaction, it seemed this creature had begun to subtly question its king’s intent as well.

    Regardless, Nate thought of a possibility from the creature’s words.

    [Blessing.]

    Yes, blessing.

    Nate’s gaze slowly swept across its soul. Upon meeting his gaze, the deformed octopus was taken aback, noticeably shrinking in fear.

    Nate’s spiritual insight discovered a blessing engraved on a corner of the octopus’s soul. A small phrase that was so subtly marked, it would be hard to recognize under normal circumstances.

    —”I cherish you greatly, your enemy is my enemy, and whoever harms you will never escape my revenge.”

    Nate clicked his tongue.

    “Such superficial…”

    It looked like a simple blessing, but it was a decree from a dimensional king. In the boundary of the dimension, its effects would be preserved in full.

    Right now, it might not harm Nate, but the karma of unescapable revenge remained and would eventually allow [Famine] to exert some power in Delcross’s dimension. It could have caused a lot of trouble.

    Meanwhile, the octopus, caught in Nate’s gaze, could only sweat cold beads in silence.

    Why had it regard him as just a human soul of slightly higher rank? This man, who effortlessly subdued him, the closest servant of the great ruler [Famine] and a monarch of a hell dimension, truly embodied the power befitting of a king.

    Seeing his golden crown up close was too dazzling to stare directly at. On top of that, those frightening eyes seemed to pierce through the monarch himself. He must have been out of his mind. He regretted heedlessly running out at the playful words of the king, suggesting he would establish a stronghold.

    However, the octopus’s tribulations did not end there. It could feel the horrifying flow of karma slowly wrapping around it.

    “What… what is this!”

    Panicking, the octopus rolled its eyes around, but froze the moment it met Nate’s cold gaze. A command that cannot be refused, a powerful blessing that could even manipulate the fate of a Demon King, was binding its body.

    “Even though you’re only at the boundary, you’ve entered my territory, so I shall also bestow a [Blessing] upon you.”

    Is this thing can be even be called a human?

    As the octopus was slowly consumed by an unprecedented extreme fear, it thought blankly.

    And then, a solemn declaration fell upon its soul.

    —If you step into my domain again, you will forever suffer in the hellfire that incinerates even souls. Your king will end up being devoured by the one he intended to devour, without leaving a trace, not even a name.

    With the pain of seemingly burning away, the letters of light were engraved on one side of the octopus’s soul. Nate, touching the shaking creature’s eyeball, spoke in a seemingly affectionate tone.

    “Do you understand?”

    Forced to face Nate’s gaze with no way to avoid it, the creature’s eyeball trembled in extreme terror. It was so white it seemed as if the creature’s dark skin had turned pale.

    “I will let you live. But if you ever return here, you will certainly die.”

    Once he gave his permission, the octopus was immediately freed from its terrible confinement. With a whooshing sound, its huge body started to be sucked away as if through a tiny hole.

    The fragments of hell’s wall, the frozen souls, and even the remaining parts of the creature’s body disappeared without a trace.

    Tsk. Nate, clicked his tongue, averting his gaze.

    There were still eyes observing his soul from afar, but now, none seemed to rashly approach anymore. After a momentary stare towards them, Nate began preparations to transfer his soul back to Delcross.

    It was time to return to the homonculus’s body..

    ***

    Bang bang bang!

    Jerome was roused from his sleep by the frantic sound of his subordinates searching for him. Whether due to a hangover or not, his body felt devoid of energy, and his mind seemed foggy.

    ‘Have I been sleeping this long?’

    Rubbing his rough face, Jerome got up from his spot and went outside. The sun was already halfway across the sky, indicating it was already afternoon. He felt strange. He fully woke up when his waiting subordinates reported their search results.

    The prisoner, suspected of being a spy for Asein, had been found. However, they reported, he was already dead.

    “An internal strife?”

    Jerome asked, striding briskly towards the village square.

    “We don’t know. At least there were no visible external injuries.”

    “Wasn’t he a heretic who received judgement? His health must have been abnormal since he got here. Died while trying to escape, didn’t he? And was discarded?”

    Reaching the square, Jerome found his men huddled around a small cart, murmuring amongst themselves. On the cart lay the body of the prisoner. 

    The prisoner appeared to be asleep. Touching the body to confirm, there was indeed no pulse as his men had reported. It indeed seemed like he was dead.

    “Since when has he been like this?”

    “Well… when we found him near the road intersection, he was already like this.”

    Jerome narrowed his eyes, glaring at his subordinate.

    The distance from there to slash-and-burn village was not short. It would have taken at least a few hours to get here, so was that possible?

    The body of the prisoner did not look pale at all. Even touching it, there was no coldness typical of a corpse. He was just lying quietly with his eyes closed, not even showing signs of rigor mortis.

    While examining the stiff joints and body of the prisoner, Jerome suddenly seemed to notice something, quickly brushing the hair from his face and feeling the contours.

    “Did he… always look like this?” he tilted his head.

    He didn’t notice when he first saw him, but why does his face seem familiar with his eyes closed?

    Jerome grabbed the prisoner’s chin and examined his face thoroughly. Feeling like he was missing something important, he couldn’t easily pull his hands away from the man’s face. As the murmurs of his subordinates grew louder behind him, Jerome, unable to find any distinctive features, finally gave up and stepped back from the cart.

    “It might not be death. Put him in the barn for now and keep an eye on him.”

    Upon the order, his subordinates immediately swarmed the cart.

    Jerome, still in a daze, left the square, rubbing his face with one hand.

    “Uh?”

    One of the bandits, who was pulling out the corpse of the prisoner, paused momentarily.

    “Why? What’s wrong?”

    “It’s strange. He… why is he so light?”

    His comrade, who was pushing the cart to the side of the square, responded nonchalantly.

    “What’s so strange about that? Those priests or apothecaries are often skinny, aren’t they?”

    “No, it’s not that…”

    He couldn’t explain this strange sensation. No matter how light a person is, there should be a weight corresponding to the volume of bones and flesh in the body. But this prisoner felt different somehow. The material of the body felt subtly different, it felt like he was touching something empty, not human, which sent chills down his spine.

    “Is it just my imagination…”

    Ignoring the eerie feeling, he carried the corpse towards the barn.

    Meanwhile, one of his men stopped Jerome, who was stumbling towards the shabby hut.

    “Boss.”

    He was a burly man with a carelessly grown stiff beard, an old subordinate who had been with him since Rohan.

    “I… Martha’s case really didn’t work out. I’ve ordered the funeral preparations to be done properly, so don’t worry too much.”

    He hadn’t dared to speak up yesterday due to the unusual atmosphere, but seeing his dispirited leader, he felt he should say something comforting. However, Jerome’s reaction was somewhat strange.

    “Martha?”

    Jerome blinked his eyes in confusion.

    Who was that again? Martha…

    Furrowing his brows in thought for a moment, Jerome successfully recalled his wife, who had only died yesterday.

    “Ah, Martha! Yes, that’s right… You handle it as you see fit. You’re doing great.”

    “…Boss?”

    One of his subordinates, who knew about his deep affection for his wife, called out with a puzzled expression. Jerome, however, merely waved his hand dismissively at him and resumed his staggered walk toward the dilapidated shack.

    If his subordinate could have seen Jerome’s soul, he would have been shocked. His soul was in a terrible state, as if his entire head had been ripped off, leaving only half a body to float aimlessly.

    Returning home, Jerome habitually shut the door and stared blankly around the shack.

    Was he still drunk? His behavior today was unusually strange, even to him.

    Why did everything feel so unfamiliar and numb? When he tried to think, his head felt heavy and foggy, and when he tried to recall past memories, they were faint.

    His gaze fell on Kaien, who was sitting in a corner of the shack, eyes closed, dozing off. As long as Kaien didn’t show his gruesome white-eyed eyes, he was just a tidy and pretty boy.

    Suddenly, Jerome’s body began to tremble as if he’d been struck by lightning.

    That face…!

    “Ahh…!”

    Jerome fell to the floor, letting out a groan that sounded like a scream. Perhaps due to his paralyzed soul, he wasn’t working properly. His realization did not materialize into thoughts or words, instead all he did was leaking out guttural sound while dragging his body backward.

    “Huh…!”

    Awoken by the noise, Kaien rubbed his eyes with a sleep-filled face. He soon spotted Jerome, shaking violently on the floor of the shack, and scowled.

    “Why is he behaving like this? He’s suddenly acting strange.”

    Even though all I did was rip off his head.

    Kaien yawned and rose from his spot.

    “You’ve been so noisy, crying ‘Martha, Martha’ and disrupted my sleep. Seems like I was a bit hasty. Who would have thought you’d turn out this way?”

    Well, it doesn’t matter anymore.

    It was about time to leave; this place was nearing its end too.

    Kaien approached the trembling Jerome, withdrawing the remaining fragments of his soul. At the same time, Jerome’s eyes rolled back and he fell over, dead as a doornail.

    It was merely days ago that Jerome, annoyed by the whining of prisoners whose tongues had been cut off, had beaten one to death with a single punch. But now, he’d ended up just like them. The irony was almost too much to bear.

    Chewing on the ripped-out soul fragments, Kaien started to casually pack up his disguise. Rodrigo had yet to return from his trip to the gate, but there was no more time to wait for him. After all, he had the new identity card Rodrigo had prepared, so he should be able to manage on his own.

    But the strong lingering thoughts of Jerome’s soul left a clear piece of information in Kaien’s head. It was a common occurrence when consuming souls, but the revelation was enough to stop him in his tracks.

    ‘That suspicious demon worshipper is in slash-and-burn village now?’

    * * *

    As soon as Nate regained consciousness, he was surrounded by a group of hideous bandits and became dejected.

    ‘Did I get left behind after all…?’

    He had told Enrique to abandon him when needed, but the man really did abandon him without hesitation.

    At Nate’s awakening, the bandits initially jumped in surprise, as if seeing a ghost. But soon, they approached him with grotesque grins.

    “The boss was right. You were alive after all.”

    He tried to move, but his wrists were tied behind him with ropes, making it impossible to free himself. 

    These guys are quite cautious; they tied me up even when I appeared dead.

    Furthermore, there were clear signs of injury on each of the bandits surrounding him. A cut on the forehead, a bandage soaked in blood on the head, a swollen, twisted nose. So, they all harbored deep resentment towards him, Nate.

    “Trying to run away, you bastard? Hurry up and spill it! Who’s backing you! You scum, are you really an Asein spy?”

    One of the brigands grabbed his collar and his body was helplessly yanked up.

    “There’s an inside man here, right? If you don’t talk soon, you’ll never see a good end, you piece of shit!”

    The group member tapped a sharp dagger against his cheek, making threats. Nate quietly sighed with a gloomy face.

    If only he had asked Enrique to cut off his arm earlier.

    [Previously…]

    Nate: Leave me behind, Enrique. When things get bad.

    [After being left behind]

    Nate:

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