Special Chapter The Path of the Oni
When I close my eyes, that word rises to the surface, as if someone is speaking directly in my head.
Even when I open my eyes, the word is still there.
I can sleep and wake, and still it sticks to me without end.
This is the effect of Taboo level 10.
The knowledge that is afforded to those who commit taboos and raise the skill level to its highest, and the cost of that knowledge.
Those who max out the Taboo skill must live with this word for the rest of their lives.
A word directed toward all humans living in this world.
Taboo exists to make humans aware of their own sins, the actions that drove this world to the brink of destruction.
But if that’s true, then what do we reincarnations who were living in a different world entirely have to atone for, and how?
The answer is…
I didn’t know cleanup after a battle would be this hard.
Once I finish most of my work, I flop down exhaustedly.
Thanks to my stats and skills, my physical exhaustion isn’t actually that bad.
But the mental and emotional toll is much deeper.
After all, my work right now consists of identifying those who were killed in battle, preparing condolence money to send to their relatives, and so on.
The sacrifices in the formation I led, the Eighth Army, were very extensive.
At least half of those were because I forced them to charge the enemy in what amounted to a suicide attack.
Each time I look at the list of names, I can almost hear their cries of resentment toward me.
And then there’s the sight of their families clinging to their recovered bodies and sobbing.
I have to offer them my sympathies without any real emotions behind my words.
I can’t let any feelings show.
I don’t have the right to be emotional about it.
Because I have to be the heartless superior who cruelly sent them to their deaths.
Really, I shouldn’t even be allowed to dwell on these sentiments now.
I force myself to clear my mind and focus on dealing with the aftermath.
Since I destroyed the fortress where we fought with my own hands, it’s no longer strategically worth occupying.
There’s no point in claiming ownership over a pile of rubble.
But we have to recover the bodies of the dead from both armies that were left on the battlefield and the supplies that were left inside the fortress.
Otherwise, battlefield looters will make off with everything.
Most of the supplies in the fortress were ruined beyond use when I blew everything up, but fortunately, there were some resources remaining that weren’t destroyed in the battle, which I managed to recover.
It was collecting the corpses that was far more difficult.
Of course, it was largely the survivors and new members of the Eighth Army who were put in charge of collecting the bodies.
Most of them were friends and acquaintances of the dead.
There have been several occasions where someone discovered the body of a friend and broke down crying, unable to continue working.
I’m responsible for all this tragedy.
It’s enough to put me at a loss for words.
But still, I’m not allowed to fall silent.
I have to tell the sobbing soldiers to “quit crying and work” without a shred of mercy.
If they look up at me with hatred, I glare back even more intensely.
The pressure of my glare forces them to lower their heads and surrender.
The members of the Eighth Army are a mishmash of people who never had anything to do with me.
From the very beginning, they had no reason to be loyal to me.
And now that I’ve forced them to march into certain death and gotten many of their comrades killed, that lack of loyalty is turning into anger and fear.
Into hatred for the meaningless deaths.
But they can’t oppose me.
The resulting despair is painfully clear.
I’ve become an evil general who controls his soldiers with fear.
There’s no justice anywhere in that picture.
But this is the path I chose.
It’s way too late to turn back now.
Heaving a sigh, I stand up from the chair in my private quarters.
We’re having a meeting with all the commanders today.
I leave my quarters and head for the conference room.
Along the way, I run into Mr. Merazophis.
We exchange equally brief greetings.
Mr. Merazophis is Miss Sophia’s servant.
Since I became a commander, he’s also been looking out for me as my senior.
He’s always been a quiet man who doesn’t go in for small talk, but today, he seems especially somber.
I’m sure he’s feeling down for similar reasons to my own.
That normally pale face of his looks even more pallid than usual.
Together, we walk silently toward the meeting room.
When we open the door and enter, Commander Darad is already seated, with just as heavy a mood as both of us.
But unlike our mental exhaustion, Darad looks more physically drained than anything.
Unlike Merazophis and me, Commander Darad is a normal demon.
His stats are naturally lower than ours.
Between the battle and the cleanup work afterward, he must be completely worn out.
“Ah. Sir Merazophis and Sir Wrath.”
Even his voice lacks its usual vigor.
This man is clearly exhausted.
“You must be working hard,” I blurt out without thinking.
“Hrm. So I really do look that exhausted, eh?”
“Yes, more or less.”
There’d be no point trying to deny it, so I answer honestly.
“How pathetic I am. Losing spectacularly in my biggest battle yet, then disgracing myself once again in the process of cleaning up after my mess. It’s enough to make a man lose faith in himself.”
Commander Darad chuckles mirthlessly.
Fortunately, Commander Kogou enters at that moment.
The giant commander senses the mood in the room and turns awkward and apologetic as he shuffles to his seat.
Commander Kogou looks pale, too.
Seems like all the commanders are being overworked to some extent.
I take my seat as well and wait for the meeting to start.
After a short while, Miss White enters the room.
Maybe it’s my imagination, but it almost seemed like she glanced at Commander Kogou when she entered.
Although since her eyes are always closed, it’s a bit hard to tell where she’s looking.
“Heya. Looks like the gang’s all here.”
While I’m distracted by Miss White, Miss Ariel enters as well.
There are still some commanders missing, but I guess the rest of them aren’t coming today.
More importantly, Mr. Balto looks extremely distressed next to Miss Ariel.
He’s so pale, it seems like he could drop dead at any moment. Is he all right?
“The Second Army Commander isn’t back yet. She won’t be here today.”
Miss Ariel indicates that the Second Army Commander, Sanatoria, won’t be joining us.
Miss Sanatoria came to one of these meetings alone just once to report on her army’s current situation, but then she went right back to the front to keep an eye on the fortress that had been overrun with monkey monsters.
Right now, she’s on her way back from that fortress with the Second Army.
In the previous meeting, Miss Ariel stated that our next target is the elf village.
Some of the commanders are in contact with the elves; the former Ninth Army Commander Warkis was colluding with them.
Miss Ariel and Miss White haven’t told me which ones, but I’m guessing from context that Miss Sanatoria is one of them.
It’s just a guess, but I’m almost certain I’m right.
And if I can figure that much out, there’s no way Miss Ariel and Miss White don’t already know.
Which means that for the moment, they’re knowingly letting her go free.
I can’t understand why they would do that if we’re on the brink of marching on the elf village to wipe out their entire race.
But knowing Miss Ariel and Miss White, I’m sure there’s a very good reason that isn’t immediately apparent.
“Now then, I’ve gathered you all here for a very important reason. We’re going to discuss our plan of attack on the elf village.”
Hmm? I keep my surprise to myself.
Usually, Miss Ariel leaves Mr. Balto in charge of running these meetings.
But this time, Miss Ariel herself is handling it herself.
Something strange is going on.
I can’t help but get a bad feeling about it.
And more often than not, my bad feelings are right.
“There’s actually been a slight change of plans. We’re gonna have to move the schedule forward way sooner.”
The commanders all go deathly silent, as if they’ve forgotten to breathe.
I can’t blame them for that reaction. We’ve only just gotten close to being done with the postwar cleanup, and now we’re going to have to march again right away.
The original plan was already pretty busy and short on time. If we’re moving it up even more, then this could turn into a literal death march.
“Yeah, sorry ’bout that!”
Miss Ariel scratches her head and apologizes in a light tone.
This is no comfort at all, but she probably does genuinely feel bad on the inside.
When it comes down to it, Miss Ariel is actually a very good person.
But her apology won’t make the mountain of work ahead of us any smaller.
The term worker exploitation flashes across my mind.
People can do amazing things if they push themselves. We managed to finish reorganizing the troops and get ready to march just in time.
It’s probably because all the commanders worked together and ran around like crazy to make preparations happen.
Mr. Balto and Commander Darad were particularly cooperative; it seems to me like they became a lot more open during this period of preparation.
Even more surprisingly, Miss Sanatoria was fairly helpful, too, in spite of the fact that she’s most likely working with the elves in secret.
When she got back to the Demon Lord’s castle, she actually coordinated with the likes of Mr. Balto, who stayed behind to keep things running in the demon territory during the battle, and Commander Darad. She proactively participated in restoration efforts, upgrading the defenses of the troops who were getting ready to head to the elf village and so on.
Although unlike Mr. Balto and Commander Darad, she didn’t offer to lend her forces to the expedition to the elf village.
Even so, she was a big help.
I guess Miss Sanatoria must have decided to cut off contact with the elves and stick with Miss Ariel.
That seems like a bit of an opportunistic move to me, but it’s not really any of my business.
On the other hand, the Third Army Commander Kogou was decidedly uncooperative.
He’s always been on the rebel side, and he’s against this next attack, too.
That being said, although he’s not actively helping, he isn’t trying to stop us, either.
If someone like Mr. Balto gives him an order, he’ll still do it, albeit halfheartedly.
Weak-willed. Indecisive. That’s my impression of Commander Kogou.
I know it sounds a bit harsh, but I can’t help it.
While the rest of us are burning the candle at both ends, he’s the only commander who consistently refuses to help out.
Technically, I suppose the Ninth Army Commander Black hasn’t helped, either, but he has a special position apart from the rest of us commanders.
As for the other commander with a special position, Miss White, she seems quite busy herself.
Although I’ve never actually seen her looking busy.
Officially, it’s a mystery what kind of work Miss White’s Tenth Army actually does, but I happen to know that Miss White teleports them all over the place to do various odd jobs.
The fact that I haven’t seen any of the Tenth Army members during the staging period is proof in itself they’ve been busy.
They’re here for the departure today, though.
…Although I don’t see a few members, like Miss Sophia.
I’m guessing the ones who aren’t here are traveling with the imperial army instead.
Before we left, Natsume—or rather Hugo—led the imperial army toward the elf village.
We’ll be marching shortly after them, as the second formation in the order of battle.
I glance around the demon army as we prepare to head out.
The first thing that jumps out at me is the empire’s war flags.
There are so many of them that even a cursory look leaves a strong impression.
I’d be willing to bet it was Miss White who prepared these.
We’re going to pretend to be part of the imperial army while we march.
On the surface, demons and humans look exactly the same.
So as long as we display our affiliation this brazenly and spread the word in advance that the imperial army is coming, no one will be the wiser.
There are a few exceptions who visually stand out, like me, but all we have to do is cover up with full-body armor and such.
Right now, in human lands, they’re probably all ready for the imperial army to come marching through.
With no idea that we’re really the demon army.
I’m sure the pontiff has made sure of that.
My first impression of the pontiff was that he was an ordinary old man, or so I thought.
He didn’t have any trace of the aura of the truly strong. If I wrapped my hands around his neck and squeezed just a little, I could strangle him to death easily.
Of that much I was sure.
And I wasn’t wrong about that.
The pontiff is extremely weak, and I could effortlessly destroy him with a single attack.
But that’s just in terms of physical strength.
Miss Ariel, of all people, calls him a monster.
I got a brief but vivid glimpse of that side of him.
“That is precisely why I will not allow the mountains of sacrifices to have died in vain.”
I’m sure the pontiff had no idea how much those words shook me to my core.
I first met the pontiff when Miss White and Miss Ariel took me along to visit the Holy Kingdom of Alleius.
Right before the war, it was a meeting between sworn enemies: the head of the demons and the leader of the Word of God religion, who could essentially be called the leader of the humans.
For some reason, I was also allowed to sit in on this fateful meeting.
Miss Ariel and the pontiff previously came to the consensus that they would work together after the war to take down the elves as a united front, and they evidently forged a secret pact.
So the goal of this meeting was to pool their ideas and frankly discuss a plan of action for after the war and after defeating the elves.
Miss Ariel is a true living witness, a being who’s been around since before the system was created.
And from what she’s told me, the pontiff has a highly unusual skill that allows him to be reborn over and over with memories of all his previous lives intact.
That means he’s a living witness to history like Ariel, even if he’s been reborn many times instead of surviving all the while.
And if he knows the real history of this world, that means he knows all about the system, too.
Taboo taught me the truth of the system.
Namely, that the foolish actions of humans brought this world to the brink of destruction, and a lone goddess sacrificed herself in order to keep that destruction at bay.
But that’s only a temporary solution, and this world is still in danger of falling apart.
The system is essentially an enormous spell that takes the experience points that every living being builds up throughout their life, the power reflected in their stats and skills, and recovers it after that being’s death, using it to restore the world and keep it from falling into ruin.
Miss Ariel and the pontiff know the truth about this system.
That’s why Miss Ariel is pitting demons against humans as the Demon Lord and providing the system with more energy by causing mass deaths.
And the reason the Word of God religion teaches followers to train their skills and hear “God’s voice” more often is to increase the amount of energy they provide the system over the course of their lives.
As the residents of this world grow up, they hear announcements each time they gain new skills, level up, and so on within the system.
Very few people find it strange to consider that the voice of God.
They’ve been hearing it all their lives, after all.
But when the other reincarnations learn about the rules of the Word of God, they might just think that this world has some very strange beliefs.
If I found out about that creed without knowing anything else, I’m sure I would’ve thought the same thing.
With other reincarnations, we might have even made jokes about it.
The Word of God religion is so silly, we’d say.
But knowing the truth, it’s nothing to laugh about.
The Word of God actually uses the framework of religion to extort all of humanity.
It tells them to become part of the foundation for the world.
Since they were raised with this creed from birth, indoctrinated by it, they fully believe they’re following the doctrines of the Word of God of their own free will.
It’s extremely effective. Terrifyingly so, in fact.
I’m sure it unsettles me because it treats lives as consumable goods.
It almost feels like a farm: raising livestock in the form of humans and shipping them out to be eaten.
And it’s all the more unsettling since the humans don’t know they’re being raised as livestock at all…
But the person who created this farm is none other than the pontiff of the Word of God.
The more I learn about that religion, the more I realize how terrifying the pontiff is.
It’s his organizational capability that makes him so scary.
The Word of God religion has influence over almost every human nation.
One of the only exceptions is Sariella, a nation that worships the Goddess instead, but there are churches in every other human state.
Even the smallest villages have chapels, spreading the roots of the Word of God religion.
Young children receive the blessing of the Church and grow up hearing its teachings.
By the time they reach adulthood, they’re faithful believers in the Word of God.
That’s how the Church grasps people’s hearts and gains a soft grip of control over humanity.
Not only that, but the churches scattered throughout the world are either used as information-gathering centers or stopping points through which information is relayed.
Apparently, most people who work under the Church acquire the skill Fartalk, an advanced version of Telepathy. This skill allows its users to communicate with one another over a long distance.
They use this skill to relay information, telephone game–style, all the way to the Word of God headquarters in the Holy Kingdom of Alleius.
It may not quite be real-time updates, but it’s still a very fast way of gathering information from distant lands.
The pontiff knows very well just how incredibly valuable new information can be.
In this world without cars or airplanes, travel takes a long time.
Aside from exceptions like teleport gates and Fartalk, the fastest way to convey information is by courier on horseback, but even that is often too slow.
But by putting Fartalk users in every nation, the pontiff can cut down the delay in transmitting information to the absolute minimum.
Then he analyzes that information and makes his moves accordingly.
On top of that, he also has other mechanisms in place that solidify the Church.
Most importantly of all, while these structures require a lot of people, what they don’t require is any particular talent.
Fartalk is an advanced skill, but as long as one learns Telepathy, all that’s required is practice.
Similarly, all the skills required to work for this religious organization are perfectly ordinary.
Anyone could learn them if they put their mind to it.
In other words, it’s a job anyone can do.
And that’s really important.
Because it means he can train any number of replacements.
Instead of putting management of the organization in the hands of one amazing person, he uses the masses to support it.
And since anyone can do it, vacancies are easily covered, with plenty of replacements ready to fill the void.
If one person is lost, someone else can step into their shoes.
Even the pontiff himself is no exception to that rule; when the man who inherited the name Dustin is absent, a different pontiff takes over the role.
And even at those times when Dustin wasn’t at the head, the Word of God church never wavered.
The foundation of this religion is that frighteningly solid and unshakable.
The Word of God religion has been a fixture for hundreds of years, cementing its place as a permanent part of human society.
Yes, the pontiff is undoubtedly a remarkable man.
But instead of his own power, he uses other people to control humanity.
He truly is a king among men.
His nature makes him stand out even among all the incredible people I’ve met.
Miss Ariel, Miss White, Miss Sophia, Mr. Merazophis…all of them are incredibly powerful in their own right, so they never depend on those below them.
Since they’re perfect on their own, as complete individuals, they never bothered to become kings who command others with their strength.
The person I’ve met who was most suited to the role of king was probably the late Mr. Agner, the First Army Commander.
Mr. Agner didn’t just lead the First Army—he led the demon race as a whole with great care.
But even then, I have to admit that Mr. Agner’s organization was still utterly dependent on his strength and the authority that came with it.
Without him, his followers couldn’t stand on their own.
But the pontiff’s control isn’t so fragile that things would fall apart after the loss of a single person.
He probably figured out his own strengths and limits from the start and focused on building up an organization right away.
He has incredible insight that allows him to predict future developments.
And since he really did manage to make the Word of God religion so massive, there’s no doubt that he has unbelievable shrewdness and strategy.
Now, most of this is just what I learned from Miss Ariel.
Once I had her teach me about the Word of God religion, I thought I understood how amazing the pontiff was.
…But when I met him in person, I realized I still had a lot to learn.
“We’re going to kill the hero. That’s already set in stone.”
“But if you do that, humanity will no longer be able to stand against you, the Demon Lord. Is this not perhaps a tad bit too one-sided?”
“And how much energy do you think the hero would waste in order to confront me? We’d both be better off without that happening, don’t you think?”
“…I see. So you will not only kill the hero, but eliminate the very framework of heroes entirely?”
“That’s the plan.”
“What are the merits and demerits of doing so?”
The pontiff and Miss Ariel were candidly discussing how to handle the hero.
From what I’d heard, that hero was the older brother of my best friend from my previous life, Shun.
And the pontiff was using the elimination of a human-trafficking organization secretly run by the elves as a way to have that hero build up battle experience and popularity alike.
Since the conflict with the demons was limited to a cold war for the time being, there was nowhere for the hero to make a name for himself.
So the pontiff decided to kill three birds with one stone: get the hero more experience in battle, spread the word of his accomplishments, and crush the plot of the elves all at once.
As a result, Julius the hero became very popular, and by gaining experience by fighting the human-trafficking organization, he raised his level to be on par with previous heroes.
And then, having overseen the hero’s growth in this way, the pontiff cast him aside without a second thought when confronted with the benefits of doing so.
“You wish me to declare Hugo Baint Renxandt the new hero?”
“That’s right. The real one is Schlain Zagan Analeit.”
“And why would we hide that?”
“Because Hugo is a pawn to our dear White. Although I don’t think he knows it. Calling a human we can completely control the official hero will make things much easier for us.”
“I see. Does this have anything to do with the suspicious activity Potimas has been getting up to in the Analeit Kingdom?”
“It sure does. If we wanna kick Potimas out of the Analeit Kingdom, we’re gonna have to cause some serious trouble there first. And we’ll need the whole of society to believe that Hugo is in the right.”
“So you’ve concluded that the fastest and most effective way to build that trust is by declaring Prince Hugo the hero, hmm?”
“I’m glad you’re so quick on the uptake.”
“But if that lie is exposed, the Word of God religion will lose a great deal of credibility. How do you intend to compensate for that?”
“Stamping out the elves is a pretty good payoff, don’t you think? We’re planning on using Hugo for that, too, so your church can take half the credit since you helped out. If anything goes wrong, just claim that Hugo brainwashed you.”
He wouldn’t hesitate to falsify the real hero if it benefited his purposes.
Or plunge an entire kingdom into chaos if it meant defeating Potimas.
On the one hand, you could say he has a good grasp of the big picture.
On the other hand, it’s horribly machinelike, viewing people’s lives as nothing more than numbers.
If discarding one person would save two or more people, then he’d discard that person without hesitation, even if it’s the hero.
Of course, if the hero’s usefulness outweighed the people who would be saved, I imagine he would just as soon not cast him aside.
But that wouldn’t be because he’s considering the individual—no, all that matters would be the abilities of the chess piece called the hero.
A political monster, putting aside any personal feelings or human kindness.
To the human race, he is a king, an absolute guardian, an ally.
And yet, he himself lacks humanity in his principles.
What kind of sick joke is it that the man who leads the human race has no humanity himself?
I couldn’t wrap my head around it.
So I ended up blurting out a comment.
“You say you want to protect humanity, but you’re willing to offer them up so easily.”
“If the only way to save the many is to kill the few, then I will kill the few without hesitation.”
Then Miss Sophia snorted.
“What a piece of work, slaughtering the people he’s supposed to save.”
From what I’ve been told, Miss Sophia’s hometown was destroyed by a sect of the Word of God religion, and Potimas took advantage of the confusion to murder her parents.
It’s understandable that she’d hold resentment against the Church.
But the pontiff responded calmly to Sophia’s accusation, too.
“That is precisely why I will not allow the mountains of sacrifices to have died in vain.”
That idea stunned me into silence.
Not only was he not proud of what he’d done, but it seemed almost as if he was apologizing to the mountains of dead he’d created.
But he still refused to stop.
If he did, he would be letting all those deaths, those sacrifices, go to waste.
Maybe this was the pontiff’s form of atonement.
An endless atonement, the course of which leads him to accumulating even more sins that need to be answered for.
Yet, he continues, knowing there will be no end, no forgiveness.
How harsh must that experience be?
It made me shudder.
That might have been the first time I realized just how unknowable the pontiff really is.
I hadn’t decided how to live my life.
I was born as a goblin, then the goblin village where I was raised was destroyed, and I was forced to work for Buirimus, the very man who massacred my village.
Then I gained the Wrath skill, escaped from Buirimus’s enslavement, and managed to avenge my fallen brethren.
But after that, I half lost my mind because of Wrath and went around killing everything in sight.
The fact that I met Miss White and the others and had Wrath sealed away to regain my senses was nothing short of a miracle.
If I had continued wandering around half-mad, I probably would have soon run out of strength and died in a ditch.
I am lucky to be alive.
Unlike the people I killed.
Since I had the good fortune to be saved, I thought it was my duty to keep on living.
And if I was going to keep living, I wanted to accomplish something.
But I hadn’t figured out what exactly I should do.
I just followed Miss Ariel, Miss White, and the others.
They were trying to do something incredible and save the world, and I’d just been going along for the ride in some small way.
Without ever facing the sins I committed.
All I did was look on in admiration at people who knew what they wanted and pursued it without hesitation.
But part of me questioned it.
Did someone as aimless as me really have any right to fight at their side?
I couldn’t help worrying about it.
Could taking people’s lives for the greater good really be called justice?
I’m sure Miss Ariel and Miss White already had that all figured out.
But I couldn’t reach a conclusion so easily.
In my old life, I hated anything I thought was wrong.
I was borderline obsessed with ensuring that everything I did was right.
But when I was controlled by Wrath and murdered innocent people, that was obviously wrong.
Ever since then, I’d lost sight of how I wanted to live.
I’d already strayed from the path of righteousness.
I couldn’t find a new path to follow and just trailed after the backs of Miss Ariel and Miss White, which I could see in the distance.
In that moment, the pontiff’s words were like a beacon of light.
Knowing that what you’re doing isn’t right, knowing that it’s a sin, you keep pushing forward for the greater good.
The pontiff showed me that this, too, is one way to live.
I’m sure it will be a painful, challenging path.
But in that moment, I realized that was the path I should choose to move forward.
That word that echoes from Taboo.
All right, then.
I’ll steel myself to commit even more sins and atone for those, too.
To make up for the deaths of the innocent people I killed.
To make sure they didn’t die in vain.
No, even that is self-serving.
Calling it atonement is far too grandiose.
I will take countless lives for my own selfish reasons.
I won’t apologize.
And I won’t look back anymore.
I’ll continue adding to those mountains of bodies.
And I’ll serve the greater good.
That’s the only way I can move forward.
Thus, I led the Eighth Army in the war and ensured countless sacrifices on both sides.
And now, I’m leading the march to the elf village.
Our goal is to exterminate the elves.
To commit genocide against an entire race.
I’m sure many lives will be lost.
On Miss Ariel’s cue, I begin walking.
Forward, always forward.
I won’t stop ever again.